Friday, April 15, 2011

Lenten Music: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

This is another in a series of posts, published on Friday's during Lent, featuring the music of Lent.

"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is considered one of the finest hymns ever written.  Charles Wesley, viewed by many as the greatest of all Christian hymn-writers, reportedly said that he would give up all his other hymns (numbering around 6000) to have written this one by Isaac Watts. 

Watts wrote the hymn in 1707, and it is the first known hymn to be written in the first person (using the word “I”), introducing a personal religious experience rather than limiting itself to doctrine.  In Watts' day such hymns were termed "hymns of human composure" and they stirred up great controversy. At the time, congregational singing was predominately ponderous repetitions of the Psalms. But this hymn gave Christians of Watts' day a way to express a deeply personal gratitude to their Savior.

Even as a child, Watts had shown a passion for poetry, rhyming and such mundane things as everyday conversation. His serious-minded father, after several warnings, decided to spank the rhyming nonsense out of his son. But the tearful Isaac helplessly replied,

'Oh father do some pity take,
and I will no more verses make.'

When as a teenager Watts complained to his father about the monotonous way Christians in England sang the Old Testament Psalms, his father, a leading deacon, snapped back 'All right young man, you give us something better.'

To Isaac Watts, the singing of God's praise was the form of worship nearest to Heaven and he went on to argue: 'Its performance among us is the worst on earth.' Young Isaac accepted his father's challenge and eventually wrote a total of more than 600 hymns, earning him the title 'The Father of English Hymnody.'

"When I Survey" first appeared in a hymnal published in (what later became) the United States in 1758.  Since then, it has been found in the hymnals of American denominations as varied as traditional Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Unitarians and the Assemblies of God.

Here is a performance of this great hymn by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, followed below by the lyrics of the hymn.

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

About the Painting:  Christ on the Cross (1632) Velazquez

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez is a deeply moving work in which Christ is depicted with a body of classical proportions, representing the most perfect man, while blood drips from his wounds down his body and the wood of the cross. As a devotional painting, it invites silence and meditation.

The pathos of the Christ figure in the painting is given special poignancy by a most unusual feature, the hair that falls forward under the crown of thorns to hide half of Christ’s face. The disarray suggested by the detail disrupts the otherwise perfect composure of the dead Christ, recalling the cruelty and mockery suffered by the Saviour throughout his Passion.

After many years in the dark sacristy of a convent, it was briefly put on auction in Paris in the early 19th century by the wife of Manuel de Godoy, before returning to Spain and becoming part of the Museo de Prado in Madrid.   Goya used the work as a model for his application painting Crucifixion to the Royal Academy. This and other works inspired Picasso and Dali. The painting is the central theme of one of the great works of 20th century Spanish literature, The Velazquez Christ by Manuel de Unamuno.

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