‘The Brightness of Thy Face’: Music and Poetry Honoring the Holy Face

The English Hymn variously called, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” and “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded,” goes back to a German Hymn, O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden, which, in turn, goes back to a section of a much longer Latin poem of the Middle Ages, the Salve Mundi Salutare.

What’s known as a Protestant hymn, in both English and German, is actually very Catholic in its origins.

Commonly attributed to Saint Bernard, and less commonly to Saint Bonaventure and Saint Hermann Joseph, the original poem is now considered to be the work of Bernard’s fellow Cistercian, Arnulf of Leuven (d. 1250), Abbot of the Abbey of Villers in Brabrant, Belgium. This scholarly consensus appears by no means certain due to a lack of definitive proof, but the spirituality of the work fits in with the contemporary Cistercian mysticism, which is one reason it has been attributed to Saint Bernard.

Regardless of the lack of certitude concerning its origins, the poem is something of a masterpiece of sacred poetry, and is a lovely example of Cistercian piety, which could be astonishingly corporeal. The poem’s seven verses are as many meditations on the various members of our crucified Redeemer’s body: Ad Pedes (feet), Ad Genua (knees), Ad Manus (hands), Ad Latus (side), Ad Pectus (breast), Ad Cor (heart), and Ad Faciem (face).

An informative posting on the Medieval Histories blog is worth reading particularly for what it has to say of the poem’s arresting corporeality.

It is the verse Ad Faciam (to the face) that gives us the German and later English hymn translations. The German version was rendered by the Lutheran minister and hymnodist, Paul Gerhardt, who borrowed a melody (of a long song!) by the composer Hans Leo Hassler. This Gerhardt-Hassler hymn made its way into Bach’s masterpiece, the Saint Matthew’s Passion.

Aside from the German (and later, English) hymns derived from it, the original Latin text (excerpts, anyway) provided Dieterich Buxtehude with the libretto for his movingly melancholy Membra Jesu Nostri (“Members of Our Jesus”).

Below are three YouTube videos of different musical settings. There is no “original melody” for what Abbot Arnulf of Leuven wrote, since his original work was a poem and not a hymn.

These beautiful musical settings can move us to love the Holy Face of Jesus, and pray, in the words of Robert Seymour Bridges’ translation:

Ah me! for whom Thou diest,
Hide not so far Thy grace:
Show me, O Love most highest,
The brightness of Thy face.

Here is the English Hymn, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded,” performed by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

Here is Bach’s setting of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” from his magnificent “Saint Matthew’s Passion,” conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:

Lastly, here is Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, performed by The Sixteen: