This article will go over the definition, meaning, origin, examples, and more of the phrase 'sic transit gloria mundi.'
Here are the most important points to know about this Latin phrase:
‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ is a Latin phrase that translates to “thus passes the glory of the world.”
When you scour the most authoritative online dictionaries for the definition of this phrase, you find that there is a bit of variation when it comes to translating it from Latin to English.
So now that we have the definition of this Latin phrase, there’s a good chance you’re still a bit confused about the true meaning of the idiom. After all, what is ‘thus passes away worldly renown’ supposed to mean, exactly?
In the next section, we’ll talk about how ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ was used in papal coronation ceremonies for several centuries.
First, though, let’s try to understand the meaning of the phrase in a way that makes a little more sense in the context of our modern language.
A more idiomatic rendering of ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ is ‘worldly glories are fleeting.’ One could also use the phrase to mean ‘fame is fleeting.’
Basically, this phrase points to the fact that the nature of existence is transitory and impermanent. It is a reminder that no matter how grand and glamorous one’s earthly experience is, it won’t last forever. It doesn’t matter how powerful a person is, how rich they are, or how lucky they’ve been in their life– no one is safe from death and the transitory nature of life.
In short, life is a journey with ups and downs, and dying is a natural part of existence. This beautiful Latin phrase is a reminder of this reality, no matter how much fame or glory we achieve in life.
The phrase ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ was first used in the ritual of papal coronation ceremonies in the year 1409 at the coronation of Alexander V. A papal coronation is when the Papal tiara is placed on a newly elected pope during a formal ceremony.
During the procession, the new pope would ceremoniously move from the preparation room (known as the ‘sacristy’) of St. Peter’s Basilica in his ‘sedia gestatoria’ (a richly adorned ceremonial throne.)
As they proceeded, the movement of the Pope would stop three times. Each time the procession stopped, a papal master of ceremonies would fall to the ground before the pope on his knees.
In his hands, he would hold a brass or silver read with a tow of burning flax. In this dramatic display, the papal master of ceremonies would say “Pater Sancte, sic transit gloria mundi’ in a mournful and loud voice while the cloth burned– three times in a row. ‘Pater Sancte’ means ‘Holy Father.’
These words were spoken to the pope and acted as a reminder that earthly honors and life itself are transitory, fleeting, and impermanent. Essentially, it served as a symbolic reminder to forgo vanity and materialism.
Many sources state that this practice continued until 1963 with the coronation of Paul VI. Others, however, say that the last time ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ was used during a papal ceremony was actually in 1958 with the installation of Pope St. John XXIII.
The practice of wearing the Papal tiara hasn’t been used by any pope since Paul VI, though any future pope could choose to restore this ritual if they were so inclined. Starting around 1963, papal ceremonies began to be simplified.
‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ and its ritualistic use in papal ceremonies draw strong parallels to the ritual that some accounts claim occurred during the ancient Roman triumph.
During this civil ceremony and religious rite, it is said that a public slave would stand near or behind the victorious general to remind him of his own mortality. This occurrence is typically referred to as ‘memento mori,’ a Latin phrase that translates to ‘remember that you [have to] die.’
To understand the etymology of this idiom, we’ll want to break it down and take a closer look at each word in the phrase. ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ was used between 1409 and 1963 in papal ceremonies, but it is believed that the phrase is older than that.
It can also be found in an altered form in a passage from Thomas à Kempis's 1471 Christian devotional book Imitatio Christi. The passage reads:
O quam cito transit gloria mundi (‘How quickly the glory of the world passes away’)
‘Sic’ literally translates from Latin to ‘thus, so, like this, in this way.’ It comes from the Proto-Indo-European ‘só’ and the demonstrative particle ‘ḱe-.’
In Latin, ‘transit’ means ‘it crosses’ or ‘it goes over.’ This is the third person singular of the word trānseō, which means ‘I go over’ or ‘I cross.’
This word can be further broken down into ‘trāns’ and ‘eō,’ with the former meaning ‘across’ and the latter meaning ‘go.’
‘Gloria’ is the Latin word for ‘glory,’ and the English word ‘glory’ can be etymologically traced back to the Latin term ‘gloria.’ While the origin of the Latin phrase is uncertain, but its definition of ‘fame, renown, great praise or honor’ has not been forgotten.
Some scholars believe that ‘gloria’ stems from the word ‘gnoria’ which means ‘knowledge, fame.’ Others, however, reject this notion.
‘Mundi’ means ‘of the world’ and is the genitive of the Latin word ‘mundus,’ which translates to ‘the world.’
Scholars believe that the etymology of the Latin word ‘mundus’ in the sense of ‘clean’ or ‘neat’ comes either from an Etruscan word or a Proto-Indo-European word.
In the sense that it is used in ‘sic transit gloria mundi,’ ‘mundi’ is what is known as a calque from the Ancient Greek word κόσμος or ‘kósmos’ (meaning ‘universe.’) A calque is a word-for-word translation from another language– basically, it’s when one language borrows a phrase from another in the form of a direct translation.
‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ can be used to express regretful recognition that something is about to end or has recently ended. The phrase reflects the fact that nothing is permanent in this world and that all things-- even things we respect, enjoy, rely upon, and expected to be enduring-- come to an end.
This might not be a phrase you commonly hear in everyday speech, but there are certainly plenty of instances when it would be appropriate.
Here are a few examples:
Are you looking to learn the meanings of more idioms and sayings? Be sure to check out the rest of our blog at WritingTips.org.
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