The tune of this remarkable reflection of the death of Christ, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, comes from the Passion Chorale, by J. S. Bach. The poem in the original Latin is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but is now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Louvain (died 1250). It was translated into German by Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).
There are several English translations:
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 1940 Hymnal (Episcopal), the 1982 Hymnal (Episcopal; stanzas 1-3 and 5), and the Church of England‘s New English Hymnal (1986) and several other late 20th-century hymn books.
The DePaul Community Chorus sang “O Sacred Head” at its Fall 2008 Concert in Chicago. Stephen Blackwelder, conductor. Lisa Kristina, accompanist.