Friday, April 19, 2019

O Sacred Head Surrounded

Fra Angelico, Head of Christ
Italian, c. 1430-1440
Livorno, Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso
On Deposit with Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori

"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.

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.

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."

Passion Hymn attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (12th Century)
English translation by Henry W. Baker (1861)

For many years I have been struck by a variant of the Man of Sorrows theme that focuses just on the head of Jesus, wounded and wearing the crown of thorns.  It reminded me forcefully of the hymn "O Sacred Head Surrounded" that has been a favorite since I learned it as a child during my pre-Vatican II parochial school's mandatory rehearsal every Wednesday morning for the Children's Mass which we were all expected to attend on the coming Sunday.  And we sang!  While many of the hymns we learned in those groggy morning sessions have faded from use, this one has not.  It remains a staple of just about every Christian church's Lenten experience.
Holy Face
Italian or Spanish, 15th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre

For months I have been collecting images and background information on the various images of the Sacred Head and a fascinating image it is.  However, on this week, which was supposed to be my week for writing the intended essay, we have witnessed the partial destruction of Notre-Dame de Paris and my good intentions have gone out the window.  
Petrus Christus, Head of Christ
Flemish, c. 1445
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is, however, appropriate that I share at least some of the images with you in this particular week.  For, one of the great treasures of Notre-Dame is the relic of the Crown of Thorns itself.  

Doubtless many readers will scoff and say "Crown of Thorns, really!  Is she really serious about that?"  And, once upon a time I shared in that skepticism.  It seemed wildly fanciful to suppose that such a thing could possibly have been real.  However, on more mature consideration I think that it is not completely improbable that certain items associated with the death of Jesus were reverently preserved at the time and specially valued after the Resurrection.  
Aelbert Bouts, Head of Christ
Flemish, c. 1500-1525
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Is it so difficult to believe that someone picked up the crown of thorns when it was removed from his head and kept it?  We know from the Gospels that there were people there at the cross who loved him, starting with his mother.  Might someone have kept it for her?  It seems a very human thing to do.  
Sebald Beham, Head of Christ
German, 1520
London, British Museum

There was once a belief that the description of his being nailed to the cross was an invention, until evidence was found in  the skeleton of another crucified individual of the nails used to fix his feet to the cross on which he died.  Consequently, might not the nails drawn from Jesus' hands and feet have been preserved by his family?  
Ankle bones of man crucified in 70AD
Jerusalem, Israel Museum
The Crown of Thorns and the Nail kept in Notre-Dame were obtained by Saint Louis/Louis IX in Constantinople, which became the repository of many of the most treasured relics from Palestine and Syria as those areas were overrun by Muslim invaders in the seventh century.  Once they arrived in Paris, we know where they were and we also know that thorns from the Crown were removed and given to this church or that abbey all through the medieval period, so that what remains today is the twined branches, denuded of the thorns and encased in a glass and gilt reliquary.  Nevertheless, there is really no reason to doubt that the Crown we see today is the same one brought to France by Saint Louis and little reason to doubt that it once was pressed on the head of Jesus.  Certainly, the firefighters who fought to retrieve it from the burning church on April 15, 2019 did not.  
The Crown of Thorns in its reliquary
Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
So, I present today a selection of the larger group of images of the Sacred Head Surrounded by Crown of Piercing Thorn.

Correggio (Antonio Allegri), Head of Christ
Italian, c. 1525-1530
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
Guido Reni, Head of Christ
Italian, Early 1630s
Detroit, Institute of Arts
Wenceslaus Hollar, Ecce Homo
Czech, 1647
London, British Museum
Head of Christ
Italian, Early 18th Century
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Ivory Head of Christ
French, 19th Century
Private Collection

The full essay I was planning will have to wait a bit.

© M. Duffy, 2019

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