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Easter-Oratory: the Schweisstuch aria

An interpretation of the 'comforting veil' (Schweisstuch)
from the Easter-oratory of J.S. Bach (BWV 249)

[written around Easter 2002 for the bach-cantata mailinglist www.bach-cantatas.com, with many thanks to the contributing members].

If you are in a hurry, this is the summary conclusion: the comforting and healing power ascribed in ancient tradition to Veronica's veil is transferred to a biblical parallel: seeing the veil in Jesus' grave.
But you should not skip this addendum dating from Easter 2019: The 'discovery of the veil ' is part and parcel of the traditional 'Easter-plays', it's a sign that the Lord is risen. 'Easter-dialogues' were also often put to music for services in Church. Furthermore: Also a homiletical 'topos': John 11: the resurrection of Lazarus, who rises from the grave with the 'veil' around his head, with Jesus stating that 'death is nothing but a sleep'. Plus: The veil becomes a 'kerchief' to wipe of the tears = strong connection with Peter who wept after he denied Jesus, and with the Apoalyps in which God promises to wipe off every tear..

  • At the end I added a video (embedded from youtube)

  • Here a link to the text of the aria juxtaposed with the original text from the secular pastoral cantata (= a straightforward shepherd's lullaby for his sheep)

  • En hier vindt u een korte toelichting met vertaling van de tekst in het Nederlands

I have to start with a confession: I am not particularly fond of BWV 249 as a whole. But there is one exception (and that 's a full compensation) aria Mvt. 7 always touches me. I heard several versions of it but am still an advocate of the first version I ever heard: Herreweghe with his beautiful sound:  How well do the violins and recorders blend, what a un-earthly atmosphere he creates and then Mark Padmore (a little tense, you can see it on the video, you can hear it, but that's good, it gives the performance that little 'extra') begins to sing: What music can do! NB on the Herreweghe CD it is not Mark Padmore but James Taylor.
The first time I hadn't the faintest idea what he was singing about. I heard the words but could not make a whole sentence of it, let alone make sense of it. But the message was clear (in musical language) and reached me: deeply felt joy, comfort in and against death and suffering. While the music continues streaming, this comfort is poured out over the listene
r like the ointment over Jesus' feet. This is Bach at his best. The fact that the original text is about 'sheep' lulled into sleep by a shepherd, first shocked me, but later reminded me of psalm 23 and Jesus' parable about the Good Shepherd. So.

Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer, nur ein Schlummer, Jesu, durch dein Schweißtuch sein.
Gentle should be the sorrow of my death, only a slumber, Jesus, through your veil.
Ja, das wird mich dort erfrischen und die Zähren meiner Pein von den Wangen tröstlich wischen.
Yes, that will refresh me there and it will wipe the tears of my suffering from my cheeks, comfortingly.

Understanding the text litterally does not help much in making sense of it. Jesus 'Schweisstuch' is supposed to give comfort against death. The recitativo (nr. 6) introduced the 'Schweisstuch' and it is mentioned in the gospel-account of John (It is seen by the two men who enter the grave/cave. Seeing it signifies that Jesus is 'elsewhere', i.e. risen). Okay, that is why seeing the 'Schweisstuch' can spread much joy and comfort to the believer, but how on earth - or better in heaven - build an aria around the idea that the tears are wiped off with that 'Schweisstuch' (second part of the aria), almost 'revering' the Schweisstuch, transforming it into an object of cult. By the way: The image itself [wiping off the tears from your cheeks] is biblical: God Himself does it when he makes all things new (according to the Book of Revelation, ch. 20).

When questions multiply it is time for some research. How did the 'Schweisstuch' of death become a comforting veil?

1. I associate this veil with another very famous veil, Veronica's veil. In German Schweisstuch is used both for the 'piece of cloth' lying apart of the other linen clothes in Jesus' grave AND for the 'piece of cloth' Veronica is said to have given to Jesus at the via dolorosa to wipe of his face. The Greek word used in John 20: 7 is ‘soudarion’, which is the Latin word: sudarium, which is the French word suaire. Veronica's veil in Latin is 'sudarium'. The linguistic chaos is complete, because the Turin shroud is alse a sudarium, suaire. This linguistic chaos reflects the chaos around the pseudo-historical adventures of both Veronica's veil and Jesus' shroud. Art-historians have a hard job here, esp. since pseudo-historians dominate the field of the historical research. By blending the 'veil' in the grave and the 'veil' of Veronica into one, a whole history of healing and comforting power of a 'veil' becomes apparent. In the legend of Veronica [6th stage of the 'Way of the Cross'] and her 'veil' already two legends are blended into one story.

  1. In the [apocryphal] Acta Pilati there is a anonymous woman who offers the suffering Jesus a cloth to wipe of his face... later she gets a name: Veronica.

  2. In another legend King Abgar of Edessa is cured from an illness because he looked at Jesus' portrait, which was send to him - on request - by Jesus himself (painted by Abgar’s court painter 'to life' (with Jesus as a model) yes legends dare to tread where angels...)

The last story had many local variants... In the end every self-respecting Christian city had its own portrait of Jesus because of the illness of a king. In one version even Tiberius plays the part of the ill king. It is this version that ended up in the Legenda Aurea of Jac. de Voragine, the medieval source book of legends. In the Middle Ages (full of specialists in blending stories!) both the woman and the veil are called Veronica... Perhaps because Veronica can be read as vera-eikoon, the true image. In the 6th century the 'eikonoi acheiropoieta' (the images of Christ, not made by man) appear. They are the basis of the 'face of Jesus' in orthodox paintings (icons). Jesus' face on a piece of cloth or a real portrait, sometimes with, sometimes without the marks of his suffering became a widespread object of veneration. As already mentioned: at the 6th Stage of the Way of the Cross Veronica's gentleness was remembered.

Important for our topic: Veronica became the comforter of suffering people. She was called upon in pain and agony: DIE ZÄHREN MEINER PEIN, TODESKUMMER. Her 'veil' (sudarium) became one of the 'arma Christi', with which Christ healed and saved his people. It is often depicted together with the crown of thorns, the nails, the wips etc... They were considered powerful in itself, because they could be linked immediately to Christ in his suffering.

My suggestion (hypothesis) is that in the Lutheran tradition at Bach's times (at least in the mind of the scenarist of the Oster-Oratorium) there still was a living tradition which had on the one side banned the 'superstitio' around the 'arma Christi' as objects, but at the same time had transferred the contents of that faith and devotion to the 'verbal' images of the same. [I hope my English is clear enough to make you understand my point]. The same procedure can be seen in the devotion of the cross. F.i. the famous song: O haupt voll Blut und Wunden is the Protestant, Re-formed 'version' or 'format' of the medieval devotion of the 'wounds of Jesus'. The 12th century Latin hymn "Salve, mundi salutare" (last part: Salve caput cruentatum) and Gerhardt's poem can be easily compared. It is a trans-lation in the litteral sense: 'transferring the contents into another area/domain' (truly a metabasis eis allo genos / μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος).

 In the RC tradition the devotion materialised, in the Lutheran tradition it verbalised...

Conclusion: the comforting and healing power of Veronica's veil is transferred to a biblical parallel: the seeing of the veil in Jesus' grave.


Later on Nick Kaufman added a usefull remark about Jewish burial customs:  The customs are observed much as they were in Christ's time up until this day with burial in Jerusalem taking place (by law) on the very same day as death (due to the sanctity of the Holy City). Ritual purification (anointment) and the wrapping of the deceased in a number of white shrouds occurs before burial. For an interesting explanation of the ritual - the following site might be useful: //jhom.com/topics/color/shrouds.htm. It would appear therefore that the "Schweisstuch" is more likely to be the separate white hood which is placed over the deceased's head prior to being buried.


Mystic Bach: another essay in English about the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as a background by Bachs music about God & Soul


Oratio rhytmica
ad unum quodlibet membrorum Christi
patientis et a cruce pendentis


  Ad pedes

Salve, mundi salutare:
salve, salve, Jesu chare,
cruci tuae me aptare
vellem vere, tu scis quare
da mihi tui copiam.
ac si praesens sis accedo,
imo te praesentem credo.
o quam mundum hic te cerno!
ecce tibi me prosterno:
sis facilis ad veniam.

Clavos pedum, plagas duras.
et tam graves impressuras
circumplector cum affectu,
tuo pavens in aspectu,
tuorum memor vulnerum.
grates tantae charitati,
nos agamus vulnerati.
o amator peccatorum,
reparator confractorum:
o dulcis pater pauperum!

Quidquid est in me confractum
dissipatum, aut distractum,
dulcis Jesu, totum sana,
tu restaura, tu complana,
tam pio medicamine.
te in tua cruce quaero,
prout queo, corde mero;
me sanabis hic, ut spero:
sana me, et salvus ero,
in tuo lavans sanguine,

Plagas tuas rubicundas,
et fixuras tam profundas,
cordi meo fac inscribi,
ut configar totus tibi,
te modis amans omnibus.
dulcis Jesu, pie Deus,
ad te clamo licet reus:
praebe mihi te benignum,
ne repellas me indignum
de tuis sanctis pedibus

Coram cruce procumbentem,
hosque pedes complectentem,
Jesu bone, non me spernas,
sed de cruce sancta cernas
compassionis gratia.
in hac cruce stans directe,
vide me, o mi dilecte,
ad te totum me converte:
esto sanus, dic aperte,
dimitto tibi omnia.

Ad genua

Salve, Jesu, rex sanctorum,
spes votiva peccatorum,
crucis ligno tanquam reus
pendens homo verus Deus,
caducis nutans genibus.
o quam pauper! o quam nudus!
qualis es in cruce ludus
derisorum totus factus,
sponte tamen, non coactus,
attritus membris omnibus!

Sanguis tuus abundanter
fusus, fluit incessanter,
totus lotus in cruore,
stas in maximo dolore,
praecinctus vili tegmine.
o majestas infinita!
o egestas inaudita!
quis pro tanta charitate,
quaerit te in veritate,
dans sanguinem pro sanguine?

Quid sum tibi responsurus,
actu vilis, corde durus?
quid rependam amatori,
qui elegit pro me mori,
ne dupla morte morerer?
amor tuus amor fortis,
quem non vincunt jura mortis:
o quam pia me sub cura,
tua foves in pressura,
ne morsu mortis vulnerer!

Ecce tuo prae amore,
te complector cum rubore:
me coapta diligenter,
tu scis causam evidenter,
sed suffer et dissimula.
hoc quod ago non te gravet,
sed me sanet et me lavet
inquinatum et aegrotum,
sanguis fluens hic per totum,
ut non supersit macula.

In hac cruce te cruentum,
te contemptum et distentum,
ut requiram, me impelle,
et hoc imple meum velle,
facturus quod desidero.
ut te quaeram mente pura,
sit haec mea prima cura.
non est labor, nec gravabor
sed sanabor et mundabor,
cum te complexus fuero.

Ad manus

Salve, Jesu, pastor bone,
fatigatus in agone,
qui per lignum es distractus,
et ad lignum es compactus,
expansis sanctis manibus.
manus sanctae, vos avete,
rosis novis adimplete,
hos ad ramos dure junctae,
et crudeli ferro punctae
tot guttis decurrentibus

Ecce fluit circumquaque
manu tua de utraque,
sanguis tuus copiose,
rubicundus instar rosae,
magnae salutis pretium.
manus clavis perforatas,
et cruore purpuratas.
corde primo prae amore,
sitibundo bibens ore,
cruoris stillicidium.

O quam large te exponis
promptus malis atque bonis!
trahis pigros, pios vocas,
et in tuis ulnis locas,
paratus gratis omnibus.
ecce tibi me praesento,
vulnerato et cruento:
semper aegris misereris;
de me ergo ne graveris
qui praesto es amantibus,

In hac cruce sic intensus,
in te meos trahe sensus,
meum posse, velle, scire,
cruci tuae fac servire,
me tuis apta brachiis.
in tam lata charitate
trahe me in veritate,
propter crucem tuam almam,
trahe me ad crucis palmam,
dans finem meis vitiis.

Manus sanctae, vos amplector,
et gemendo condelector;
grates ago plagis tantis,
clavis duris, guttis sanctis,
dans lacrymas cum osculis
in cruore tuo lotum,
me commendo tibi totum:
tuae sanctae manus istae
me defendant, Jesu Christe,
extremis in periculis.

Ad latus

Salve, Jesu, summe bonus
ad parcendum nimis pronus:
membra tua macilenta
quam acerbe sunt distenta
in ramo crucis torrida!
salve, latus salvatoris,
in quo latet mel dulcoris,
in quo patet vis amoris
ex quo scatet fons cruoris,
qui corda lavat sordida.

Ecce tibi appropinquo,
parce, Jesu, si delinquo:
verecunda quidem fronte,
ad te tamen veni sponte,
scrutari tua vulnera.
salve, mitis apertura,
de qua manat vena pura,
porta patens et profunda
super rosam rubicunda
medela salutifera.

Odor tuus super vinum,
virus pellens serpentinum;
potus tuus, potus vitae:
qui sititis, huc venite,
tu dulce vulnus aperi.
plaga rubens, aperire.
fac cor meum te sentire,
sine me in te transire,
vellem totus introire;
pulsanti pande pauperi.

Ore meo te contingo,
et ardenter ad me stringo:
in te meum cor intingo,
et ferventi corde lingo;
me totum in te trajice.
o quam dulcis sapor iste!
qui te gustat, Jesu Christe,
tuo victus a dulcore,
mori posset prae amore,
te unum amans unice.

In hac fossa me reconde,
infer meum cor profunde,
ubi latens incalescat,
et in pace conquiescat,
nec prorsus quemquam timeat
hora mortis meus flatus
intret, Jesu, tuum latus,
hinc exspirans in te vadat;
ne hunc leo trux invadat,
sed apud te permaneat.

Ad pectus

Salve, salus mea Deus,
Jesu dulcis amor meus:
salve, pectus reverendum,
cum tremore contingendum
amoris domicilium.
ave, thronus trinitatis,
arca latae charitatis,
firmamentum infirmatis,
pax et pausa fatigatis,
humilium triclinium.

Salve, Jesu reverende,
digne semper inquirende;
me praesentem hic attende,
accedentem me succende,
praecordiali gratia.
pectus mihi confer mundum,
ardens, pium, gemebundum,
voluntatem abnegatam,
tibi semper conformatam,
juncta virtutum copia.

Jesu dulcis, pastor pie,
fili Dei et Mariae,
largo fonte tui cordis,
foeditatem meae sordis,
benigne pater, dilue.
ave, splendor et figura
summi Dei genitura,
de thesauris tuis plenis
desolatis et egenis
munus clementer perflue.

Dulcis Jesu Christi pectus,
tuo fiam dono rectus,
absolutus a peccatis,
ardens igne charitatis
ut semper te recogitem.
tu abyssus es sophiae,
angelorum harmoniae
te collaudant, ex te fluxit
quod Joannes cubans suxit:
in te fac ut inhabitem.

Ave, fons benignitatis,
plenitudo deitatis
corporalis in te manet:
vanitatem in me sanet
quod tu confers consilium.
ave, verum templum Dei;
precor, miserere mei:
tu totius arca boni,
fac electis me apponi,
vas dives, Deus omnium.

Ad cor

Summi regis cor, aveto,
te saluto corde laeto,
te complecti me delectat,
et hoc meum cor affectat,
ut ad te loquar, animes.
quo amore vincebaris,
quo dolore torquebaris,
cum te totum exhaurires,
ut te nobis impartires,
et nos a morte tolleres?

O mors illa quam amara,
quam immitis, quam avara;
quae per cellam introivit,
in qua mundi vita vivit,
te mordens, cor dulcissimum!
propter mortem quam tulisti
quando pro me defecisti,
cordis mei cor dilectum,
in te meum fer affectum,
hoc est quod opto plurimum.

O cor dulce praedilectum,
munda cor meum illectum,
et in vanis induratum;
pium fac et timoratum,
repulso tetro frigore.
per medullam cordis mei,
peccatoris atque rei,
tuus amor transferatur,
quo cor totum rapiatur
languens amoris vulnere.

Dilatare, aperire,
tanquam rosa fragrans mire,
cordi meo te conjunge,
unge illud et compunge;
qui amat te, quid patitur?
quidnam agat nescit vere,
nec se valet cohibere,
nullum modum dat amori,
multa morte vellet mori,
amore quisquis vincitur.

Viva cordis voce clamo,
dulce cor; te namque amo:
ad cor meum inclinare,
ut se possit applicare,
devoto tibi pectore.
tuo vivat in amore
ne dormitet in torpore,
ad te oret, ad te ploret
te adoret, te honoret,
te fruens omni tempore.

Rosa cordis, aperire,
cujus odor fragrat mire,
te dignare dilatare,
fac cor meum anhelare
flamma desiderii.
da cor cordi sociari,
tecum, Jesu, vulnerari.
nam cor cordi similatur,
si cor meum perforatur
sagittis improperii.

Infer tuum intra sinum
cor ut tibi sit vicinum,
in dolore gaudioso
cum deformi specioso,
quod vix se ipsum capiat
hic repauset, hic moretur,
ecce jam post te movetur,
te ardenter vult sitire.
Jesu, noli contraire,
ut bene de te sentiat.

Ad faciem [for translation and comparison with Gerhardts hymn, the Bach-cantata webpage, dedicated to this hymn provides an excellent tool.

Salve, caput cruentatum,
totum spinis coronatum,
conquassatum, vulneratum,
arundine verberatum,
facie sputis illita.
salve, cujus dulcis vultus,
immutatus et incultus,
immutavit suum florem,
totus versus in pallorem
quem [...] coeli curia.

Omnis vigor atque viror
hinc recessit, non admiror,
mors apparet in aspectu
totus pendens in defectu,
attritus aegra macie.
sic affectus, sic despectus,
propter me sic interfectus,
peccatori tam indigno
cum amoris intersigno
appare clara facie.

In hac tua passione,
me agnosce, pastor bone,
cujus sumpsi mel ex ore,
haustum lactis cum dulcore,
prae omnibus deliciis.
non me reum asperneris,
nec indignum dedigneris,
morte tibi jam vicina,
tuum caput hic inclina,
in meis pausa brachiis.

Tuae sanctae passioni
me gauderem interponi,
in hac cruce tecum mori:
praesta crucis amatori,
sub cruce tua moriar.
morti tuae tam amarae
grates ago, Jesu chare;
qui es clemens, pie Deus,
fac quod petit tuus reus,
ut absque te non finiar.

Dum me mori est necesse,
noli mihi tunc deesse;
in tremenda mortis hora
veni, Jesu, absque mora,
tuere me et libera.
cum me jubes emigrare,
Jesu chare, tunc appare:
o amator amplectende,
temetipsum tunc ostende
in cruce salutifera.





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Dick Wursten (dick@wursten.be)