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 splendour
The hosts of heaven adore!
There are numerous translations and versions of the words of this hymn (with three or four more verses depending on which versions you find), with the text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) or Arnulf von Loewen (1200-50), updated by Paulus Gerhardt (1607-76), and translations by J W Alexander (1804-59), Robert Bridges (1844-1930) poet laureate 1913, among them.
The music to which it is sung is a chorale melody by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) harmonised by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in his Passion According to St Matthew.
For some today this all seems rather out of date with old-fashioned language and boring music, but for me it is one of the most beautiful poems and musical settings with an Easter theme. It is the juxtaposition of heavenly and earthly themes in the opening four lines set to the most poignant music which speaks to me, and which continue throughout the rest of the poem and music. Perhaps a modern version would be Meekness and Majesty, though Graham Kendrick’s music doesn’t have quite the same effect on me as Bach!
If you have time today, listen to it – it will only take three or four minutes – and even if you find the words hard to follow allow the music to speak to you.
If you want to hear it in context, try listening to the whole of the St Matthew Passion – it is often broadcast on Good Friday and can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P21qlB0K-Bs