The Dominican Devotion to the Rosary
The Rosary was popularized by Alan de la Roche (1428-1475), a Breton Dominican with a great reputation for sanctity. He propagated devotion to the Virgin’s Psalter in northern France and in Flanders, organizing Rosary Confraternities everywhere for all people, who were avid for indulgences in a period of war, famine and schism, eager “to be preserved from sudden death and the assaults of the devil”.
Where was St. Dominic in all this? It seems that, in his ardor to propagate the Rosary, it was Blessed Alan de la Roche who attempted to attribute its invention to the Founder of his Order, taking his stand on a number of testimonies that we have to admit were not especially accurate. He seems to have relied heavily on a treatise written by a certain John of Monte (d. 1442), a Dominican bishop and friend of the Carthusians.
No one will deny that through the centuries a special bond was established between the Rosary and the Order of St. Dominic. It was to a Dominican, an Inquisitor moreover, Jacques Sprenger (I436 1496), the famous co author of Hammer of the Witches but also founder of a Rosary Confraternity in Cologne, that the division of the mysteries into joyful, sorrowful and glorious events, which has rhythmically supported the piety of whole generations, was attributed. There was wisdom in making of the Rosary not a particular devotion but an authentic prayer of the Church. Pius V, that austere and devout Dominican Pope, attributed to the Rosary the victory of Lepanto where, thanks to Don Juan of Austria, the advance of the Turks into Europe was checked in 1571. As the Venetian Senate recorded it, it was neither courage nor arms nor leaders who won the victory, but “Mary of the Rosary”, honored under the title of “Our Lady of Victory”.
While Dominicans wear the Rosary on their belts like the professed Carthusians, while generations of Preachers have devoted themselves to a popular apostolate, in the sense of the ecclesiology of the “People of God” long before this expression became so highly valued, we can realize what medieval men were trying to do by attributing the invention of the Rosary to St. Dominic. They wanted, in their poetic way, to express the power of prayer in which the Founder so confidently believed, and the role of the Virgin in salvation history.
Let us recall how Michelangelo expressed this conviction – he who, moreover, had contributed to the restoration of St. Dominic’s tomb in Bologna. In the center of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, an angel carrying a crown of rose-colored beads extends it to two figures, who cling to it so strongly that it draws them upward toward Christ in glory. At the Redeemer’s side, enfolded in her mantle, the Virgin, in an attitude of prayer, contemplates the Day of the Lord. Fra Angelico gives her the same position in his painting of the judgment at St. Mark’s in Florence.
This contemporary of Alan de la Roche places St. Dominic at the extreme end of the choir of prophets and apostles. The glorious mystery, total and definitive, gives to Mary her role in the communion of saints, in the Church. It was fitting that Dominic, in his Marian devotion, which was inseparable from his apostolic zeal, should be thus represented in the beatitude he had so ardently announced.