Good Friday Hymn: O sacred head now wounded

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.

O sacred head, surrounded

Author: Bernard of ClairvauxTranslator: Paul GerhardtTranslator: James W. Alexander 

1 O sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame bowed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown.
O sacred Head, what glory,
What bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.

2 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 Saviour:
‘T is I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

3 The joy can ne’er be spoken,
Above all joys beside,
When in thy body broken
I thus with safety hide.
Lord of my life, desiring
thy glory now to see,
Beside Thy Cross expiring,
I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

4 What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine for ever;
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for Thee.

5 Be near when I am dying,
O show Thy Cross to me;
And for my succour flying,
Come, Lord, to set me free.
These eyes, new faith receiving,
From Jesus, shall not move;
For he, who dies believing,
Dies safely, through Thy love.

6 thoughts on “Good Friday Hymn: O sacred head now wounded

  1. Deb, and all the regulars out there: Hope you have a Happy and Blessed Easter. Oh, and that we all get some divine intervention for our current mess real soon.

    Happy Easter!


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  3. Hey, I play the Tin whistle, too. Lately I’ve been playing the recorder, mainly because I had replaced my whistle. I generally play one or the other for months at a time – because they are slightly different – the whistle has 6 holes, the recorder has 9 counting the thumb hole. I get my wires crossed when I play them interchangeably. I play entirely by ear.
    Anyway, I played Sacred Head on the recorder, this year.


  4. The one I have is a Tony Dixon low D tunable plastic model. it’s ~22 inches long and has a very nice tone. I taught myself how to read and it helps me to learn tunes quicker. Although I can read the notes, timing eludes me so I have to play tunes where syncopation isn’t the main content.

    The last thing I played was But Who May Abide a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately I not torturing any classically trained musician with my utter disregard for time signatures.


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