Sunday, August 9, 2009

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Almost a thousand years ago in France, a man of God - perhaps Bernard of Clairvaux - penned a poetic meditation in Latin on the suffering of Jesus. The hymn, Salve mundi salutare, had seven sections, each one on a different part of the Lord's body: his feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. From the last part of this come the words of the hymn "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded."

It was in the 17th century, some five hundred years after it was written, that Paul Gerhardt translated the last stanzas of the poem into German. For the tune, Gerhardt chose the melody of a love song by Hans Leo Hassler published about fifty years earlier, called "Mein Gmuth ist mir verwiret (loosely translated, "My Head is Spinning.") It had been published in a book of love songs entitles "Lustgarten."
My head is spinning.
A tender maiden has undone me.
I am completely lost.
I am heartsick.
Day and night I have no rest,
an eternity of lamenting.
I constantly sigh and weep,
Lost in deep despair.*
It is not hard to see how Gerhardt made the leap from the secular to the sacred.

The original song is all but forgotten now, and "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" has passed into a multitude of hymnals across many denominations. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the hymn and used it in his St. Matthew's Passion. J.W. Alexander's English translation of 1830 has become the most popular text; of the original eleven verses, only three are now commonly sung:

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
The last verse in Alexander's translation is worth another look:
Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.
The hymn is a beautiful companion to the Scriptures on Christ's suffering, particularly Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and the Passion accounts in the Gospels.

I've posted on the Prayer Garden website some related resources I enjoyed, including:
  • The full text of Gerhardt's translation
  • Three verses of the original "My Head is Spinning"*
  • A translation of "Al Pedes" (To His Feet) from Salve mundi salutare
  • A beautiful rendition of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," by the Concert Choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Monrovia, CA.
You can find them at

*translated by Lisa Albrecht and Kristina Boerger


  1. Thanks for the interesting comments on this great hymn. Hadn't seen Hassler's original song before--usually rendered as "My Heart Is Distracted by a Gentle Maid." (Today is the 445th anniversary of his birth.)

  2. Hi Kevin!! So glad I found your blog and facebook! I see the following have aged off your list? Can you post again or send on facebook? Looking forward to chatting more... John

    •The full text of Gerhardt's translation
    •Three verses of the original "My Head is Spinning"*
    •A translation of "Al Pedes" (To His Feet) from Salve mundi salutare
    •A beautiful rendition of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," by the Concert Choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Monrovia, CA.