Easter Oratory


Bach in de Norbertus
Easter Oratory
Bach en de dood
Hooglied & allegorie
mystical Bach
Bach, hofcomponist
Brandenburgse concerten

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]>  it was a bold interpretation, which I now partly retract/revoke.].
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.
As such the veil is a sign of Christ's resurrection, the ultimate source of salvation.

- At the end I added a video (embedded from youtube)
- Here is a link to the text of the aria juxtaposed with the original text from the secular pastoral cantata (which is a straightforward shepherd's lullaby for his sheep)

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 Mark Padmore is replaced by James Taylor, don't know why. (TVrecording 1994/5 ? BRTN)
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 was about 'sheep', a pastoral first shocked me, but later reminded me of psalm 23. So]. Later on I started to listen more carefully at the text (the videotape was not subtitled, so I had to reconstruct it by myself) and I remember that even when I was pretty sure that I had every word, I still was not able to make much sense of it. The things I understood were: Jesus 'Schweisstuch' is crucial. It is mentioned in the account of St. John. The recitativo (nr. 6) ends with pointing to this 'Schweisstuch'.

But how the 'Schweisstuch' could spread so much joy and comfort to Peter [but at that time I didn't know it was Peter, I thought it was 'the Christian believer in general' (which of course also is true)]. And how on earth -or better in heaven - did he get the idea of wiping off his tears with that '

How did the 'Schweisstuch' of death become a comforting veil?

Some free associations (= the bulk of my 2002 contribution) link it with another very famous 'Schweisstuch', namely Veronica's. It seems important. In English Veronica's napkin is referred to as Veronica's veil. In German and Dutch there is no problem: Schweisstuch/zweetdoek 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 also is called 'sudarium'. I think that the linguistic chaos now is complete, because the French word 'suaire' is also used for the shroud of Turin... This linguistic chaos reflects the chaos around the pseudo-historical adventures of both Veronica's veil and Jesus' shroud. Art-historians, esp. the realm of painting, have a hard job here!

could this association be of importance?
Because by
linking the 'veil' of the grave with the 'veil' of Veronica together to one 'veil' 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 > the famous face of Jesus of the orthodox paintings. 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.

At the 6th Stage of the Way of the Cross Veronica's gentleness was remembered. But more important for our subject: Veronica (and her veil) 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 hypothesis - in 2002 - 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 out 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 transcription of the medieval devotion of the 'wounds of Jesus'. The 12th century Latin hymn "Salve, mundi salutare" (last part: Salve caput cruentatum) and Gerhard'ts poem can be easily compared. Exaggerating, but perhaps there is something in it: In the RC tradition the devotion for the crucified Lord materialised in the Lutheran tradition it verbalised. Both traditions join hands in hymns (where body and mind meet, emotion and contemplation).

2002: the comforting and healing power of Veronica's veil is transferred to a biblical parallel: the seeing of the veil in Jesus' grave.
2019 addition: A more direct meaning, derived from contemporary sermons and exegesis: The linen (incl. the veil, the head-kerchief) in the tomb are signs that Christ is 'not there', but is risen. His resurrection is our salvation. Proleptically our resurrection is told in the story of Lazarus, leaving his tomb... with the veil still around his head. And in the Apocalyps we hear about God who 'will wipe off' all our tears...

Enjoy life at Easter!


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



This site was last updated
 October, 2023