December 22, 2012

O Sacred Head, Surrounded

Crown of Piercing Thorn 

O Sacred Head, Surrounded is a translation by Sir Henry W. Baker (1821-1877) of the final portion of the medieval Latin poem, Salve Mundi Salutare. This lengthy medieval poem is a meditation on the sufferings of Christ's body at the crucifixion. Historically it has been attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but recent research suggests it is more likely the work of the Cistercian Abbot, Arnulf of Leuven (c.1200-1250). An early translation into German was done by the Lutheran hymnist, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). That version was then translated into english by Presbyterian minister and theologian, James W. Alexander (1804-1859). His, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded is the source of the different versions of the hymn by that same name. It is believed that Baker's hymn is instead a translation from the original latin. The text included in the Liturgy of the Hours contains an additional verse written by Melvin Farrell, S.S., first published in 1961. It is set to the Passion Chorale by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) which was originally published as the tune for a secular love song in 1601, and then eventually adapted to Gerhardt's hymn in 1656. Other famous composers who have used the same melody include: Johann Sebastian Bach (St Matthew's Passion), Franz Liszt (Way of the Cross), and Paul Simon (American Tune). In the Liturgy of the Hours, O Sacred Head, Surrounded is used on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week.

O SACRED HEAD SURROUNDED - Translated by Henry Baker (Public Domain)

1. O Sacred Head surrounded
By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding Head so wounded,
Reviled and put to scorn!
Death's pallid hue comes o'er Thee,
The glow of life decays,
Yet angel hosts adore Thee,
And tremble as they gaze.

2.   I see Thy strength and vigor
All fading in the strife,
And death with cruel rigor,
Bereaving Thee of life:
O agony and dying!
O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying,
O turn Thy face on me.

3.  In this, Thy bitter passion,
Good shepherd, think of me,
With Thy most sweet compassion,
Unworthy though I be:
Beneath Thy cross abiding,
Forever would I rest;
In Thy dear love confiding,
And with Thy presence blest.

4.  But death too is my ending;
In that dread hour of need,
My friendless cause befriending,
Lord, to my rescue speed:
Thyself, O Jesus, trace me,
Right passage to the grave,
And from Thy cross embrace me,
With arms outstretched to save.


  1. I was pleased to find these specific lyrics. These are the words I learned as a youngster in Mass.

  2. These words speak straight to the heart. What love!!


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