Mortis portis fractis fortis

Harrowing of hell
The Harrowing of Hell, from a fourteenth century manuscript – wikimedia commons

I was looking for Easter Carols and came across this gem from an old Latin hymn by Peter the Venerable from the 12th century.

Lo, the gates of death are broken,
And the strong man armed is spoiled;
Of his armor which he trusted,
By the Stronger Arm despoiled.
Vanquished is the prince of hell,
Smitten by the Cross he fell.

Then the purest light resplendent
Shone those seats of darkness through,
When, to save whom He created,
God willed to create anew.

That the sinner might not perish,
For him the Creator dies;
By whose death our dark lot changing,
Life again for us doth rise.

Satan groan’d, defeated then,
When the Victor ransom’d men;
Fatal was to him the strife,
Unto man the source of life;
Captured as he seized his prey,
He is slain as he would slay.

Thus the King all hell hath vanquish’d
Gloriously and mightily;
On the first day leaving Hades,
Victor He returns on high;

With Himself mankind upraising,
When He rose from out the grave,
Thus restoring what creating
In its origin He gave.

By the sufferings of his Maker,
To his perfect Paradise
The first dweller thus returneth;
Wherefore these glad songs arise.

Peter the Venerable
translated by Elizabeth R. Charles

from Great Hymns of the Middle Ages

To The Googles!

The Latin title is fantastic, Mortis portis fractis fortis.  Magdalene’s Egg has the latin text in an article titled A Diamond in the Rough. There Fr Anonymous gives two English translations, the one above and another from S.W. Duffield. Looking at Duffield’s book we find a reference to yet another hymn, this time by Bishop Reginald Heber. Duffield finds an echo in some lines of Heber’s hymn God has gone up with a merry noise.

How about I type up Heber’s Easter hymn here, as it seems worth perpetuating:

God is gone up with a merry noise
Of saints that sing on high,
With His own right hand and His holy arm
He hath won the victory!

Now empty are the courts of death,
And crush’d thy sting, despair;
And roses bloom in the desert tomb,
For Jesus hath been there!

And He hath tamed the strength of Hell,
And dragg’d him through the sky,
And captive behind His chariot wheel,
He hath bound captivity.

God is gone up with a merry noise
Of saints that sing on high;
With His own right hand and His holy arm
He hath won the victory!

I like those hymns where the final “y” rhymes with “high”, “aye”, “bye”. He hath won the victor-eye!

Duffield quotes Heber’s second verse as : “Now broken are the bars of Death,”

Duffield’s own translation is maybe the most literal:

The gates of death are broken through,
The strength of hell is tamed,
And by the holy cross anew
Its cruel king is shamed.
A clearer light has spread its ray
Across the land of gloom
When he who made the primal day
Restores it from the tomb.
For so the true Creator died
That sinners might not die.
And so he has been crucified
That we might rise on high.

For Satan then was beaten back
Where he, our Victor stood ;
And that to him was deathly black
Which was our vital good.
For Satan, capturing, is caught,
And as he strikes he dies.
Thus calmly and with mighty thought
The King defeats his lies,
Arising whence he had been brought.
At once, to seek the skies.

Thus God ascended, and returned
Again to visit man ;
For having made him first, he yearned
To carry out his plan.
To that lost realm our Saviour flew,
The earliest pioneer,
To people Paradise anew
And give our souls good cheer.

Hymnary has a translation by Alexander Ramsay Thompson Broken are the gates of death.  I’ll type it up here as no one else seems to have done so yet.

Broken are the gates of death!
To the Stronger yields the strong,
And his kingdom perisheth
At the cross, while all along
Death’s dark dungeon streams the light,
Driving out the abysmal night.

What at first He did create
Pure and holy, now to save,
And to make regenerate,–
Though it cost the cross and grave,–
Comes the Maker from on high,
Dying, that man may not die.

Wondrous death, which gives us life!
Hell against the Champion lone
Rushes madly to the strife,
Only to be overthrown,
What can ever equal this!
Life is ours, for death is His.

He who led a captive train,
Is himself a captive led;
And the slayer now is slain;
Death is left among the dead;
Strong and glorious comes the King
From the conflict, triumphing.

Risen with Him, in Him restored,
Is the falled, guilty race;
Sinful man and sinless Lord
Now are one; his rightful place,
By His Maker’s will, man takes,
And His joyful worship makes.


One thought on “Mortis portis fractis fortis

  1. Thanks for the Ramsay translation — I had not seen that one before, and think the first two lines are very strong. (I’m AKA Father Anonymous, and this hymn has been an obsession of mine for several years).

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