Probing the flores de mayo

Flores de mayo starts today. May in the Philippines is without doubt fiesta season, and with the ongoing community quarantine in all its varied enrichments and generalities, our compatriots are finding creative ways to celebrate feasts, and the ceremonies and rituals associated with them. We, however, choose to dedicate our time towards investigating the origins of this devotion, which witnesses Catholics throughout the archipelago trooping to churches and chapels every afternoon in May to offer fresh flowers and sing hymns of praise to the Blessed Virgin.

Las flores de mayo | Cayetano Vallcorba y Mexía | 1892

In the course of our investigation, we developed two theses that might not sit well with the conventional reading of the history of the flores de mayo, which we shall call here the theory of unified origin. To this theory, we juxtapose our first thesis: that different places developed their own flores de mayo ritual. If we are to credit a single manual for establishing a widespread devotion, we must contain it within a reasonable ethnolinguistic domain. We can think of a parallel in another paraliturgy: semana santa processions. The list of saints and tableaus that make their salida varies from place to place. What unites this is the pageantry that, disappointingly, though not strangely, projects repressed childhood fascination with Barbie dolls.

To explore this thesis, let us consider one example. The beginnings of the flores de mayo ritual observed in Iloilo goes back to as early as 1855, when the Augustinian friar, Fray Raymundo Lozano Mejía, parish priest of San Miguel, published his Diario de María, courtesy of the University of Santo Tomás. Ten years later, in 1865 (yes, the same year Padre Mariano Sevilla y Villena published his Mangá dálit cay María, courtesy of the Imprenta de los Amigos del País), Fray Lozano republished his Diario, together with a new booklet called Mes de María. The archbishop of Manila, Don Gregorio Melitón Martínez Santa Cruz, granted an indulgence of 80 days for each day of devotion from either the Diario de María or the Mes de María. The bishop of Cebú, Fray Romualdo Jimeno Ballesteros, O. P., and the bishop of Nueva Cáceres, Fray Francisco Gaínza Escobás, O. P., each granted 40 days of indulgence, recouping a total of 160 days of indulgence. These two booklets provided daily meditations on the titles of Mary invoked in the Litany of Loreto. While no longer read in the flores de mayo, their erstwhile prevalence is still palpable in the practice of carrying before the reina of the day a titulus bearing a Latin phrase lifted from the Litany (say Mater purissima for 5 May, and Turris eburnea for 20 May). Sometimes, to save on effort, organisers simply nail the titulus on the arco of the day’s queen.

In 1867, the same year that Padre Sevilla published Mangá mariquit na bulaclac, Fray Lozano reorganised his previous booklets, composed meditations for each day, and, most importantly, added a hymn. In the booklet’s front matter, Fray Lozano finally provided the seasonal backdrop of the flores de mayo, why Spaniards offered flowers and sang hymns to the Holy Mother of God in May. This booklet, which he called Flores ni María Santísima, carried the papal grant of indulgence, dated 21 March 1815, numbering 300 days for each day of devotion, plenary when completed for the whole month of May under the usual conditions. Besides this, the booklet also reminded devotees of the papal exhortation of 28 June 1822 to apply the indulgences for the souls in purgatory. To these papal indulgences were added the customary 80 days from the bishop of Manila, and 40 days apiece from the bishops of Cebú and of Nueva Cáceres. The hymn Fray Lozano wrote for Flores ni María Santísima became the ancestor of one of the hymns that is still being sung in scattered parishes throughout the Visayas.

San Miguel, 1867Otón, present
Dayawon ta si María,
Gugmaon ta ang aton Ilóy,
Halaran ta ang flores niya,
Agud hatagan kalooy.
Dayawon ta si María,
Bitoon labíng maanyag,
Maghalad kitá sa iya
Sing matahúm nga mgá bulak.
Kumarí, mgá binunyagan,
Sa atubangan ni María,
Inyo siya panhalaran
Ang igò sa flores niya.
Kon kamó binunyagan,
Karí kamó kay María
Karí, kay aton halaran
Sing rosal kag azucena.

And comparing a parish in the Western Visayas and a parish from the Eastern Visayas, a separation of around 500 kilometres via the Western Nautical Highway, or, to provide more geographical context, a distance crossing the islands of Negros, Cebu, and Bohol:

Otón, presentCabalían, present
Dayawon ta si María,
Bitoon labíng maanyag,
Maghalad kitá sa iya
Sing matahúm nga mgá bulak.
Daygon ta si María,
Bitoon nga labíng maanyag,
Nagahalad kitá kaniya
Sa matahúm nga bulak.
Kon kamó binunyagan,
Karí kamó kay María
Karí, kay aton halaran
Sing rosal kag azucena.
Umarí kamó binunyagan,
Umarí kamó kang María,
Ngarí, ngarí, atong halaran
Sa rosal ug azucena.

While Padre Sevilla was translating the hymns for the Tagalogs, and Fray Lozano was composing his own for the Ilonggos, Bicolandia could not be bothered by any vernacular hymn whatsoever. Why translate, when the Spanish works fine? So, if by chance you get lost in Sorsogón May next year, you’ll probably hear the following sung for the flores de mayo, taken verbatim ac litteratim from the 1832 Mes de María.

Dulcísima Virgen,
Del cielo delicia,
La flor que te ofrezco
Recibe propicia.

Here we end our first point: the ritual of the flores de mayo developed independently in different geographical units, following ethnolinguistic domains, arising from a priest who championed the devotion.

Flores de mayo | Arturo Montero y Calvo | 1884

Before we proceed to our second thesis, allow us first to rectify an error that exemplifies how plotpoints mutate as a story changes mouth, an error that evaded even the stringent proofreaders of The Manila Times. Articles on the Internet often report that Padre Sevilla’s Mangá mariquit na bulaclac was based on the Italian Misa de maggio. Some of these online pieces correctly state that this Italian opus was authored by the Jesuit priest Padre Alfonso Muzzarelli. But the error persists, and we discover it in the title: misa is not an Italian word; the Italian for Mass is messa. The correct title of the book is Il mese di maggio, meaning the month of May, and it was first published in Ferrara in 1785, translated into Spanish in 1832, into English in 1848, into Arabic in 1853, and into other languages thereafter.

That said, our second thesis is this: It is more reasonable to posit that Padre Sevilla’s work was based on a Spanish translation of Muzzarelli’s booklet, than to trace pedigree directly from an Italian original. We are not casting doubts on Padre Sevilla’s linguistic abilities. What we are suggesting is that it would have been infinitely easier to find Spanish books in Intramuros during the Spanish era, than to hunt for Italian books in the same time and place.

In this vein, we will be subjecting Padre Sevilla’s hymn to textual comparison, and measure the concordance of the texts. Why the hymn only, and not the meditations as well? First, the meditations, elaborated by Padre Muzzarelli, and designed as examples (esempio in the Italian, ejemplo in the Spanish, halimbawà in the Tagalog), were all based on the Affetti scambievoli written by the Jesuit priest Padre Tommaso Auriemma, and so these were rendered as faithfully as the translators saw fit. While Fray Lozano composed his own meditations eschewing the established Jesuit text, he nevertheless referenced Padre Auriemma in his examples (termed pananglit in the Ilonggo booklet). Second, an 1809 edition of Padre Muzzarelli’s Il mese di maggio, published in Rome by the typographer Bernardino Olivieri, does not provide any hymn text. Other versions of Il mese di maggio, both earlier (such as the version published in 1732 by the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Mariano Mazzolari) and later (such as the version published in 1853 by a priest of the Diocese of Crema), do not contain hymns. Only some ninety-odd years later do we see such hymns, in the 1895 edition of Padre Muzzarelli’s version published in Fiorenzuola d’Arda by the typographer Giuseppe Pennaroli.

The first stanza of Padre Sevilla’s dalit is based on a Latin verse that Padre Muzzarelli quoted in his advice for daily meditation. Since he did not provide an Italian translation for this verse, we will have to match Padre Sevilla’s stanza against the original.

Sevilla, 1865Muzzarelli, 1785
Matamís na Birhéng pinaghahandugán
Kamí’y nangangakò namán pong mag-aalay
Ng isáng girnalda bawat isáng araw
Na ang magdudúlot yaríng mgá murang kamáy.
Nulla mihi, pia Virgo,
dies sine floribus ibit,
Serta quibus capiti
dem placitura tuo.

If we look at the Spanish edition, however, lo and behold, a Spanish translation is provided for the Latin verse! In particular, we’re looking at the 1832 edition published by the Imprenta de D. Eusebio Aguado in Madrid.

Sevilla, 1865Spanish edition, 1832
Matamís na Birhéng pinaghahandugán
Kamí’y nangangakò namán pong mag-aalay
Ng isáng girnalda bawat isáng araw
Na ang magdudúlot yaríng mgá murang kamáy.
O dulce Virgen,
de purpúreas flores
Cada día pondré

con blanda mano
Tuhog na bulaklák sadyáng salit-salit
Sa mahál mong noó’y aming ikakapit,
Guirnalda hermosa
en tus divinas sienes:

At this point, we are convinced Padre Sevilla was looking at a Spanish copy when he was writing the hymns. The Tagalog uses noó, which means forehead, and it squares with the Spanish sien, which refers to the side of the forehead, whereas the Latin uses caput, which means the entire head. (The Latin for forehead is frons.) The next verse, then, galvanises this conviction, as it is in whole adapted from the estribillo of the first hymn appointed in the 1832 Spanish edition.

Sevilla, 1865Spanish edition, 1832
Halina at tayo’y mag-unaháng lahát,
Magtaglay ng lalong masamyóng bulaklák,
At sa kay María’y magkusang humaráp,
Pagká’t Iná nating lubós ang paglingap.
Venid, y vamos todos
Con flores a porfía,
Con flores a María,
Que Madre nuestra es.

And here we end the second part, with a recapitulation of our thesis: On the strength of the textual concordance between Padre Sevilla’s hymn and the verses and hymns in the Spanish edition of Padre Muzzarelli’s work, we can conclude that Padre Sevilla accessed a Spanish edition rather than the Italian original when he produced his Dálit in 1865 and his Mariquit na bulaclac later in 1867.


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