Definitions for Medieval Christian Liturgy

The Sanctus has been an integral part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (Eucharistic Prayer) in both the East and the West since before the year 400. It concludes the variable part of the prayer called the preface. Its text is composed of two sections, both inspired by scripture, each ending with the phrase, 'Hosanna in the highest.' The textual effect is a juxtaposition of two very different expressions of the Deity: the completely transcendent and awe inspiring God of Heaven, and the humble indwelling divinity of Jesus the Messiah.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus sabbaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini. Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts.
The heavens and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The first section evokes the images of God's heavenly throne and the unceasing worship that surrounds it found in the books of Isaiah and Revelation. In the story from Isaiah, the prophet is initiated into his charismatic calling by means of a heavenly, awful vision.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the lord of hosts!" (Isaiah 6: 1-5)

At the end of the scene one of the seraphs takes up a burning coal with tongs from before the altar and burns Isaiah's guilt away from his lips.

The seer of the book of Revelation underwent a similar experience and made conscious allusion to the Isaiah passage.

At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the once seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty- four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
"Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come."
(Revelation 4: 2-8)

The second section of the Sanctus comes from the story of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem. The story portrays a striking image of a lone man arriving in the Holy City on a donkey amid the acclamations of the people crying out for salvation.

Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
"Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, you king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. a very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!" (Matthew 21: 1-9)

The apparent contradictions in the portrayal of God in the two sections of the Sanctus is lessened by the prophetic nature of the first and the eschatological nature of the second. Jesus may appear to be a humble man arriving in a town that will reject him and have him executed. But he is also the spokesperson of the Deity who announces a new age, and who tears apart the cosmos by disrupting the distinction between pure and impure. He enters the temple precincts, ejects the money changers who make the sacrifice cult possible and then admits the blind and the lame whom he heals in the temple precincts. If the people had not shouted out their praise, the stones themselves would have done so. (Luke 19:40)

The Sanctus was often sung by the entire assembly both in Antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages. Charlemagne ordered the singing of it by both clergy and laity in his Admonitio generalis to his realm in 789. Some of the hundreds of melodies extant are little more than simple recitation tones. As such, they could easily have been sung by anybody. Scholars have been unable, however, to identify with certainty any ancient melodies. The melody found in the Te deum laudamus at the words sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, however, is both quite simple and appears in Sanctus melodies in both the East and the West. It is, therefore, a very good candidate for having been an ancient common melody to all the Christian Churches. Before the twelfth century repertoires remained fairly small. It seems that a conscious effort was made in that century to expand the Sanctus repertoire in order to provide more elaborate music for festal liturgies.


Further Reading

David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook, (Oxford, 1993): 161-165.

Peter Wagner, Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies: A Handbook of Plainsong, trans. Agnes Orme and E.G.P. Wyatt, 2nd edition, (New York, 1986): 99-101.

Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, trans. Francis A. Brunner, vol. 1, (New York, 1950): 128-138.

Richard L. Crocker, Sanctus, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 16, (1980): 464-465.