O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden

This hymn is based on a medieval Latin Passion poem, Salve mundi salutare, now attributed to Arnulf von Löwen (1200-1250), in which each stanza addresses a part of Christ’s crucified body. In its opening stanzas, Gerhardt’s hymn concentrates on contemplation of Christ’s face, noting how death has changed the appearance of the dying man. The hymn proceeds as if the Crucifixion were taking place in front of the contemplative Christian, giving the enormity of the sacrifice made by Christ on the cross a sense of immediacy. This helps convey the idea of the ongoing effectiveness of that sacrifice, rather than a single historical act. The Christian humbly acknowledges this and begs to be allowed, at first, to remain in the presence of Christ in continuing contemplation (stanzas 4 and 5), then (stanza 6) to take on Mary’s role in a Pietà-like act of embracing the dead Christ after he has been taken down from the cross. Next (stanza 7), the Christian imagines what it would be like to be in Christ’s place, sacrificing himself for the sake of Christ. There is in these stanzas a near-mystical relationship between Christ and the Christian, in which the Christian takes on Christ-like qualities in order to find the true meaning of their faith and the sacrifice involved. This relationship, however, does not slip over into mystical union between Christ and the Christian, showing Gerhardt’s ability to distil the deeply personal aspects of the medieval faith of Catholicism and transpose them successfully into Lutheran Orthodoxy. The crucified Christ here represents both a beginning and an end for the Christian. The closing stanzas turn to the death of the Christian. Here, the emphasis is on the renewed importance of the Passion scene as a comforting and contemplative image to support the good death of the faithful through the apparent juxtaposition of fear, despair and distress with faith and comfort. In fact, the distress of Christ is what brings the promise of comfort, and he who can see this and have faith in it, according to this hymn, will die a ‘good death’.

'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden' was originally set to the tune of a secular love song from the early part of the 17th century, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” (My mind is distracted) by the German composer Hans Leo Haßler (1564-1612). Johann Sebastian Bach also made an arrangement of the melody and used some of the stanzas from this hymn for his 'Matthäus-Passion' (St. Matthew Passion), first performed in 1727.