O Sacred Head, Now Wounded / Christian Hymn with Lyrics / Choir – J. S. Bach
The hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ’s body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins “Salve caput cruentatum.” The poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but it first appears in the 14th century.
The last part of the poem was translated into German by the prolific Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The German hymn begins, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.
The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold (1711-1771), an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire. His translation begins, “O Head so full of bruises.” In 1830 a new translation of the hymn was made by an American Presbyterian minister, James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859). Alexander’s translation, beginning “O sacred head, now wounded,” became one of the most widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals.
Another English translation, based on the German, was made in 1861 by Sir Henry Baker. Published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, it begins, “O sacred head surrounded by crown of piercing thorn.”
In 1899 the English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930) made a fresh translation from the original Latin, beginning “O sacred Head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn.” This is the version used in the Church of England’s New English Hymnal (1986) and several other late 20th-century hymn books.
The music for the German and English versions of the hymn is by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein Gmuth ist mir verwiret.” The tune was appropriated for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used it five times in his St. Matthew’s Passion; this arrangement has come to be known as Passion Chorale 7676D. Bach also used this melody in the opening choral and triumphant final chorus of his Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248.