Ex Votos and Double Negatives

I was having a geeky discussion with a friend and colleague this morning about double negatives. In some languages, such as Italian and Spanish, they exist and are quite normal and correct for expressing something in the negative (for example, in Spanish, the correct way to say “I don’t have anything” is to say “I don’t have nothing”). In other languages, such as Latin and English, they are (generally) wrong and cancel each other out – that is, following traditional grammar rules: obviously in some English dialects they are commonly used (“I ain’t got nothin’!”)… but this is bad.

Anyway, during the course of this terribly consequential exchange, it dawned on me that my favorite Baroque Mass – which was written as an ex voto (!) – demonstrated very nicely Latin’s rules for double negation.

There is the line near the end of the Creed, “his kingdom will have no end”; in Latin this is “cuius regni non erit finis“. You can see the “non” in there, making it a negative phrase.


The great Czech composer, Jan Zelenka, found it convenient in his composition of the Creed to have the singers repeat that word “non” several times, so to put emphasis on it – a fine idea. But he also knew his Latin grammar rules, and so whenever the singers repeat the word “non” they do so an odd number of times – either three, or on the last occasion, seven. Thus Zelenka skillfully avoids the heresy of denying the eternity of God’s kingdom. You can listen to it from 2:22–2:52 in this video:

Zelenka, as I said, wrote this Mass – which he entitled the “Missa Votiva” – as an ex voto. He had been seriously ill for about ten years and had promised God that if he recovered he would write a Mass as a thank-offering. He was healed, so he wrote the Mass. If you listen to the whole thing and pay attention to the various phrases that he emphasizes in the composition, his gratitude and joy at being healed becomes all the more evident.

A monument of beauty from a bygone Catholic culture!

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