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Lamb of God

posted Sep 3, 2011, 7:06 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Aug 25, 2015, 5:42 PM ]
According to the Liber pontificalis (which translated means Book of the Popes) Pope Sergius I supported including the Agnus Dei in the Mass at the Quinisext Council of 692, which was trying to settle differences between the Eastern and Western church practices.  Adding this chant was considered an act of defiance against the predominantly Greek inspired Byzantine Empire, since Constantinople had ruled that Christ could not be depicted as an animal, even though it comes from the scriptural reference of John the Baptist seeing Jesus coming toward him:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)

One of the last parts to be added to the Ordinary of the Mass, it was sung by both the clergy and the laity to accompany the breaking of the bread between the Eucharistic Prayer and communion.  The text was one simple petition, which was repeated numerous times until the fraction was completed:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

During the reign of Charlemagne and his heirs in the roughly 120 years between 780 and 900, (known as the Carolingian Renaissance) the custom grew of using small pieces of unleavened bread instead of one big loaf.  This greatly decreased the time necessary for the fraction, so the chant was reduced to only three repetitions of the supplication, though the second one was changed to reflect the language of the Gloria:

Lamb of God, who sits at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
 
By the year 1000, this practice was replaced with substituting grant us peace for the third have mercy on us.  This phrase was not originally part of the Agnus Dei, and although some speculate its addition because of its proximity to the “kiss of peace”, in the beginning of the 13th century, Pope Innocent III attributed its inclusion to disturbance and calamities affecting the church.
 
In its original Latin, this phrase Dona nobis pacem has been used in isolation for many musical works; a cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams; the third movement of Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique; a hidden uncredited track on Tanya Donnelley’s 2004 country-folk album Whiskey Tango Ghosts and on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s 2006 recording No Boundaries.  These last two references are based on the traditional canon found in our Breaking Bread, whose melody is sometimes attributed to Palestrina, though numerous sources claim it to be Mozart’s.