Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri - a walk through of the text

By Ruth Widdicombe

Buxtehude composed Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (Most Holy Limbs of our Suffering Jesus) as a cycle of seven cantatas for Holy Week. Each cantata addresses a different part of the body of the crucified Jesus in mystical adoration: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. The theme and most of the text is drawn from a medieval poem, Salve mundi salutare (Hail, saviour of the world) by Arnulf of Louvain (d. 1250). The poem was popular among both Catholics and Protestants. Paul Gerhardt’s well known hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded represents a paraphrase of the seventh part of the poem. In addition, each cantata in the cycle opens and closes with the full chorus singing a Biblical text, all of which except one, come from the Old Testament, each time interpreting allegorically the specific part of Christ’s body to be contemplated. Christ's physical agony on the cross was a source of Medieval devotion; Christians experienced his physical suffering as comfort and horror. There is an intense, bittersweet, almost erotic, aspect to the adoration of the crucified body of Jesus which Buxtehude conveys in this work.

The opening cantata Ad pedes (Upon the feet) begins with a sonata in the intensity of C minor, the central rising motif of which is taken up by the chorus in ecce super montes  “behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings ... of peace” Nahum 1:15. The Soprano and Bass arias solemnly portray the wounds of Christ's nailed feet. The feet are the first to be gazed upon, in order to place us at the foot of the cross, in a posture of humility and hope  ... "truly I would have thee fit me for thy cross".

A sonata for strings in tremulo introduces the second cantata Ad genua (Upon the knees), which anticipates the Isaiah 66:12 text "You will be brought to nurse and be dandled upon her knees", sung as a lilting chorus (Ad ubera portabimini) portraying the gentle playfulness of mother and child, before the tenor soloist depicts the horrifying scene of the son of Mary hanging (pendens) on the cross, swaying upon faltering knees (caducis nutans genibus). This is followed by an alto solo and an aria for double soprano and bass soloists, who introduce the theme of the salvific healing made possible in the crucifixion of Christ [it shall heal and cleanse me when I shall have embraced thee.]

The sonata which opens the third cantata Ad manus (Upon the hands) leads into a choral setting of the text from Zechariah 13:6: "What are those wounds in the midst of your hands?" where sharp dissonances evoke terrible pain. Soprano soloists, followed by a double trio of solo altos, tenors and basses continue the theme of redemptive healing to be found in the blood of the nail wounds in Christ's holy hands stretched out (expansis sanctis manibus) upon the cross.

The fourth cantata Ad latus (Upon the side) begins with a sonata in a dance-like rhythm, which anticipates the joy of the sinner’s ultimate redemption and even union with God, as the chorus sing verses from the Song of Solomon (Arise, my love, ... and come away, o my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock).  Soprano, and Alto, Tenor and Bass arias also tenderly approach the Saviour's wounded side, “in which lies hidden the honey of sweetness, in which lies open the power of love… wherewith filthy hearts are washed.”

The fifth cantata Ad pectus (Upon the breast), develops a text from I Peter on the sincere desire of the newborn for grace [desire the sincere milk of the word], as a prayer for mercy, redemption and a pure heart...if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is sweet.]

The sixth cantata Ad cor (Upon the heart), explores another verse from the Song of Solomon (You have wounded my heart...") pleading for the purification and communion of a sinner's heart with the sacred wounded heart [through the marrow of my heart, though a sinner and a felon, let that love of thine be borne whereby thine own heart is caught up, languishing with the wound of love.] The concluding concerto on the text, "Vulnerasti cor meum" (you have wounded my heart) provides the emotional climax of the entire cantata cycle.

The opening sonata of the final cantata Ad faciem, (Upon the face) returns to the deep intensity of the original C minor. The face of Christ crucified, “all besmeared with spit, his bloodied head, all crowned with thorns, shattered, wounded, beaten with a reed" has become the face of Christ glorified … make your face to shine upon your servant” (Illustra faciem tuam). The cantata cycle thus ends with the chorus pleading the vision of Christ upon the Cross as the only hope of deliverance: "When thou biddest me to go hence, show me then thy very self, upon the saving cross."

Matt Brough