Poland, National Museum of Warsaw. Source: Wikipedia

Arnulf of Leuven – Salve Mundi Salutare or Medieval Sensuality

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

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 Brabant, where he was elected abbot in 1240. In 1240 he stepped down. Ten years later, he died. Afterwards, he was remembered for his work to reclaim the Cistercian tradition during a period when the Friars were busy establishing new ways of connecting with laypeople.

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 patients; later known as Salve Mundi Salutare.

Initially, the cycle of poems was believed to have been penned by Bernard of Clairvaux. The first time they appeared in writing 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.

Later, these additions inspired Paul Gerhardt when he took the seven verses and reworked them 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 off the high medieval poem. The narrator effectively lets the reader (or singer) wash in the blood, drink up the blood, and lick the side “filled with honey”. Shimmering with a profusion of sightings, smells, tastes and touches, the corporeality of the poems reflects 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

Later, the poems inspired  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). Later, these psalms led Buxtehude to compose his “Membra Jesu Nostri” and Bach to adopt the melody of the original music composed by Hans Leo Hassler, together with the amendations of Johann Crüger based on 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 centuries, the music and poems continued to inspire composers like Franz Liszt, Rued Langgaard and Edmund Rubbra; and 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 sanitation also happened to 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

Of course, the question is whether 21st-century people are once again primed to dig into the physicality and sensual horror of the crucifixion.

Every day this Easter, we witness new photos of countless victims of the terror and the war in Ukraine lying in the gutters and streets. At the same time, the news is flooded with warnings expressed by press ethicists engaged in debating to what extent it is allowable to “show” the blood, the severed limbs, and the empty eyes.

While this takes place at primetime, countless violent yet fictive deaths of humans are streamed by Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime and the rest of the streming channels.

Given this, the poetry of the 19th-century reworkings of Arnold of Leuven’s old poem seem nearly pale and tasteless. Yet, at the same time, 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











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