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A More Brotherly Song, a Less Passionate Passion: Abstraction and Ecumenism in the Translation of the Hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” from Bloodier Antecedents


When nineteenth-century American Presbyterian pastor James Waddel Alexander wrote the lyrics of the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” he created what has become the most popular of numerous English translations of seventeenth-century German Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt's hymn “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” That text was, in turn, a translation of part of an anonymous thirteenth-century cycle of passion poems, one dedicated to each of Christ's wounds. From the medieval original through Gerhardt to Alexander, each subsequent translation has diminished its depictions of blood and rendered its narrator's interaction with the crucified body of Christ less passionate, dictated by the theological needs and aesthetic sensibilities of the translator's religious tradition. At the same time, both Gerhardt and Alexander included significant elements from the original that were anomalous in their own contexts. The inclusion of a medieval poem in the worship of seventeenth-century Lutherans and nineteenth-century Presbyterians may reveal an ecumenical bent on their part, albeit with clear limits. A comparison of the various versions of the hymn demonstrates the complex interrelationship between an original text and translations of it, some of which may properly be called versions of it and some of which may have become something altogether different.

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Philip Sheldrake , ed., The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2005)

Sven Gross , Gott und das Leid in den Liedern Paul Gerhardts (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001), 240243

Christian Bunners , “Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676),” in Carter Lindberg , ed., The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), 6883

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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