Vexilla Regis was written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) and is considered one of the greatest hymns of the liturgy. Fortunatus wrote it in honor of the arrival of a large relic of the True Cross which had been sent to Queen Radegunda by the Emperor Justin II and his Empress Sophia. Queen Radegunda had retired to a convent she had built near Poitiers and was seeking out relics for the church there. To help celebrate the arrival of the relic, the Queen asked Fortunatus to write a hymn for the procession of the relic to the church.
The hymn has, thus, a strong connection with the Cross and is fittingly sung at Vespers from Passion Sunday to Holy Thursday and on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The hymn was also formerly sung on Good Friday when the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the repository to the altar. The text given below is the full text of Fortunatus' hymn, but verses 2, 4, and 7 are omitted when the hymn is used liturgically. The last two verses which form the concluding doxology are not by Fortunatus, but is rather the work of some later poet.
| VEXILLA Regis prodeunt;
fulget Crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.1
| ABROAD the regal banners fly,
now shines the Cross's mystery:
upon it Life did death endure,
and yet by death did life procure.
| Confixa clavis viscera
tendens manus, vestigia,
hic immolata est hostia.
| Quo vulneratus insuper
mucrone diro lanceae,
ut nos lavaret crimine,2
manavit unda et sanguine.
| Who, wounded with a direful spear,
did purposely to wash us clear
from stain of sin, pour out a flood
of precious water mixed with blood.
| Impleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
regnavit a ligno Deus.
| That which the prophet-king of old
hath in mysterious verse foretold,
is now accomplished, whilst we see
God ruling the nations from a Tree.
| Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
| O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.
| Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari. 3
| Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
the wealth that did the world restore;
the beam that did that Body weigh
which raised up Hell's expected prey.
| Fundis aroma cortice,
vincis sapore nectare,
iucunda fructu fertili
plaudis triumpho nobili.
| Salve, ara, salve, victima,
de passionis gloria,
qua vita mortem pertulit
et morte vitam reddidit.
| O Crux ave, spes unica,
hoc Passionis tempore! *
piis adauge gratiam,
reisque dele crimina.
| Hail Cross, of hopes the most sublime!
Now, in the mournful Passion time; *
grant to the just increase of grace,
and every sinner's crimes efface.
| Te, fons salutis Trinitas,
collaudet omnis spiritus:
quos per Crucis mysterium
salvas, fove per saecula. Amen. 4
| Blest Trinity, salvation's spring
may every soul Thy praises sing;
to those Thou grantest conquest by
the Holy Cross, rewards supply. Amen.
| *In Festo Exaltationis Sanctae Crucis:
in hac triumphi gloria!
| *Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:
On this triumphant day.
Latin from Analecta Hymnica. Translation by Walter Kirkham Blount (d 1717). This translation, which is considered the best ever done of Vexilla Regis, appeared in his Office of Holy Week (Paris, 1670).
Changes made by Pope Urban VIII in 1632 to the Roman Breviary
1 qua vita mortem pertulit, / et morte vitam protulit
2 Quae vulnerata lanceae/ mucrone diro criminum,/ ut nos lavaret crimine,
3 tulitque praedam tartari.
4 quibus Crucis victoriam/ largiris, adde praemium.