Poland, National Museum of Warsaw. Source: Wikipedia

Arnulf of Leuven – Salve Mundi Salutare

In the Late Middle Ages, the immersion into the corporeal horrors of the crucifixion led to a new devotional practice, the contemplation of the wounds. Arnulf of Leuven led the way

Arnolf of Leuven (c. 1200 – 1250) was a Cistercian born sometime around 1200 in the city of Louvain. He lived his life in the Abbey of Villers (Villiers-La-Ville) in Brabrant, where he was elected  abbot in 1240. He stepped down in 1240 and died shortly after in 1250. Afterwards, he was remembered for his work to reclaim the Cistercian tradition at a time when the new Orders of the Friars were busy establishing new ways of connecting with lay people.

He is known as the instigator and perhaps even compiler of the Annals of the Villers Abbey – Chronica Villariensis monasterii – covering the years from 1146 – 1240. Primarily, though, he was a significant poet.

His “Exerptum Speculi Caritatis” was a verse adaptation of a treatise about penitence, written by Raimond de Pañafort. Best known, though, is the cycle of seven poems, each commemorating one of the seven wounds of Christ – de quolibet membri Christi patientis; later known as Salve Mundi Salutare. Initially, the cycle of poems was believed to have been penned by Bernard of Clairvaux. The first time, though, they appeared, was in a collection of his works, dated 200 years later. It is now believed that Arnulf was, in fact, responsible for the poetry, though other contenders have been named, for instance, St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1271) and St. Hermann Joseph (1140 – 1241)

Salve Mundi Salutare

Deposition of the body from the crucifix Cathedral in Leon
Deposition of the body from the crucifix Cathedral in Leon. Source: wikipedia

The poem is divided into seven verses, Ad Pedes, Ad Genua, Ad Manus, Ad Latus, Ad Pectus, Ad Cor, and Ad Faciam (feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face). Later, poems were added focusing on the mouth, the shoulders, the ears, the scourging and the crowning. It was some of these later additions, which inspired Paul Gerhardt when he took each of the seven verses and reworked as seven distinct hymns. These later additions can be dated to the 14th and 15th centuries when the devotion to the five wounds became even more fashionable.

In the original Latin version, one of the more prominent features is the visceral overflow of blood, sweat, tears, and wounds; this was not a text to be performed by the fainthearted. Also, the erotic overtones may critically turn the modern consumer of the high medieval poem off. The narrator effectively lets the reader (or singer) wash in the blood, drink up the blood, lick the side, “filled with honey”; all of which is shimmering with Eucharistic overtones dictated by the adoption of the doctrine of transubstantiation after 1215.

Sanitation of the Poem

The Crucifixion 1638. By Alonzo Cano
The Crucifixion 1638. By Alonzo Cano. Source: Wikipedia

In the original poem, we are thus engaged with a profusion of sight, smell, taste, and touch, which apparently seemed alien to lthe later re-workers, who creatively sanitised the poem.

Later, the poems became elaborated. As such, they inspired Paul Gerhardt in the 17th century to write some of his most evocative hymns connected with the liturgical celebration of Good Friday; best known is: Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded”  (O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden). These psalms later led Buxtehude to compose his “Membra Jesu Nostri” and Bach to adopt the melody of the original music composed by Hans Leo Hassler, and amended by Johann Crüger for the verses of Gerhardt. We know this theme primarily from movement 54 of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is now known simply as the “Passion Chorale”. Later in the 19th and 20th century, the music and poems continued to inspire composers like Franz Liszt, Rued Langgaard, and Edmund Rubbra as well as poets like Frederik Severin Grundtvig.

Beginning with Gerhardt and followed by the 19th-century poets like J. W. Alexander and F.S. Grundtvig, the fountains of blood, the scabbing over, the spit in the face, the floral and foul odours were all played down or even eradicated. This was also the case with the bridal motive, which we find at the end, when the poet asks to die in the embrace of his crucified Saviour, Christ.

Terror and Blood

Archaeological find witnessing to crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem. Source: Wikipedia
Archaeological find witnessing to crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem. Source: Wikipedia

The question is of course whether 21st-century people are once again primed to dig into the physicality and sensual horror of the crucifixion. Every day we see new photos of countless victims of terror and civil war lying in the gutters and streets, while press ethicists engage in a debate as to what extent it is allowable to “show” the blood, the severed limbs, and the empty eyes. While this takes place at prime- time, the violent yet fictive deaths of humans are streamed by Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime and ISIL posts its atrocities on youtube.

Given this, the poetry of the 19th century re-working of Arnold of leuvens old poem seems nearly pale and tasteless, while the medieval engagement with the suffocating pain once again reaches out across the centuries.

In this connection, it is perhaps not so odd that the choral work of Buxtehude from 1680, Membra Jesu Nostri, is experiencing a renaissance. Not only is this profoundly evocative music, but it is set to (parts of) the original Latin text.


Rhythmica oratio ad unum quodlibet mebrorum Christi Patientis et a Cruce Pendentis


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
By George Faithful
In: Church History (2013), Vol 82, issue 4, pp. 779 -811