Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bernard of Clairvaux

Both the Episcopal and Roman Catholic calendars mark August 20th as the commemoration of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153), a French Benedictine monk who later joined the stricter Cistercian order and helped it to flourish. Bernard was a noted theologian unfortunately associated with the Second Crusade (his treatises were considered directly responsible for recruiting thousands of soldiers to invade the Holy Land), but other writings, such as a series of sermons on the Song of Songs are more admired today.

He is also known for a number of hymns, originally written in Latin, that have been translated into many languages. This one, part of a longer poem, begins:

Salve caput cruentatum,
Totum spinis coronatum,
Conquassatum, vulneratum,
Arundine verboratum
Facie sputis illita.

This was translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, sometimes called "the sweet singer of Lutheranism," in the seventeenth century, beginning thus:

O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,
Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn,
O Haupt, zum Spott gebunden
Mit einer Dornenkron’,
O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret
Mit höchster Ehr’ und Zier,
Jetzt aber höchst schimpfieret;
Gegrüßet sei’st du mir!

This work of Bernard and Gerhardt has been translated into English a number of times, producing one of the most universally used Lenten hymns. One of the most well known translations:

O sacred head, sore wounded,
Defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
With mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
The hosts of heaven adore!

Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
Hath vanished from our sight;
Thy power is all expirèd,
And quenched the light of light.
Ah me! for whom thou diest,
Hide not so far thy grace:
Show me, O Love most highest,
The brightness of thy face.

In thy most bitter passion
My heart to share doth cry,
With thee for my salvation
Upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
To stand thy cross beneath,
To mourn thee, well-beloved,
Yet thank thee for thy death.

My days are few, O fail not,
With thine immortal power,
To hold me that I quail not
In death's most fearful hour;
That I may fight befriended,
And see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended
Upon the cross of life.

Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153; tr. Robert Bridges, 1899
Hans Leo Hassler, 1601; harm. J.S. Bach, 1729

Earlier translations were done by Henry Williams Baker (first editor of the seminal English Hymns Ancient & Modern), James Waddell Alexander, and Samuel Macaulay Jackson. Alexander's version contains at least two verses that are sometimes combined with other translations.

O sacred head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, thine only crown;
How art thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn!
How dost that visage languish
That once was bright as morn!

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,
O let me never, never
Outlive my love to thee.

Jackson's translation is said to be closest to Gerhardt's German (though it doesn't fit the Hassler/Bach tune quite as well):

O Head, blood-stained and wounded,
Tortured by pain and scorn;
O Head, in jest surrounded
By a rude crown of thorn!
O Head, once rich-adornèd
With highest laud and lays,
But now so deeply scornèd,
To thee I lift my praise!

Thy face was once the fairest,
In beauty like the light;
Thou with the sun comparest;
Why art thou now so white?
Thy eye, whose rays outstreaming
The world enlightened had,
Why is it now scarce gleaming
Upon thy cross so sad?

PASSION CHORALE, originally by the German Hans Leo Hassler, was apparently a favorite of Bach, who used it in five times in his St. Matthew Passion, twice in the Christmas Oratorio, five more times in his cantatas, and also wrote an organ prelude based on it. He usually re-harmonized the tune each time he used it.

This eighteenth-century harmonization of a seventeenth century tune is now irrevocably associated with this hymn derived from the writings of a twelfth century French monk, and translated into English in the nineteenth century thanks to a seventeenth century German poet. Our heritage of hymns spans a very broad time (and space) frame.


Dorothy said...

Thanks for all the info on this most majestic hymn!

Leland Bryant Ross said...

But you managed to pass over Paul Simon in silence. ;-)

Leland aka Haruo

Kittredge Cherry said...

I just wrote a profile of Bernard of Clairvaux that explores in depth the longer poem that is the basis for “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

The poem, “Salve Mundi Salutare,” is also the source for the Baroque oratorio “Membra Jesu Nostri” (usually translated as “The Limbs of Our Jesus”) composed by Dieterich Buxtehude in 1680. All seven of these beautiful cantatas (addressed to seven different parts of Christ’s body) can be heard in full at this link:

The original poem includes many frankly erotic verses that have been ignored and mistranslated. You’ll find them in my blog post, along with the story of Bernard’s love for Irish archbishop Malachy of Armagh:
Saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy: Honey-tongued abbot and the archbishop he loved