History of Hymns: “O Wondrous Sight! O Vision Fair”

by C. Michael Hawn

"O Wondrous Sight! O Vision Fair"
 
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 258

O wondrous sight! O vision fair
of glory that the church shall share,
which Christ upon the mountain shows,
where brighter than the sun he glows!

Raphael’s Transfiguration was painted shortly after the appearance of the Sarum Breviary.

During the late 15th century, the Old Sarum Rite from Salisbury, England, supplied the church with new hymns. “O wondrous sight!,” one of the great historical hymns for the Feast of Transfiguration in The United Methodist Hymnal, was one of them. John Mason Neale, the prolific 19th-century translator of Greek and Latin hymns, was attributed with the translation. 

UM Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young notes in his Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (1993) that “Our text is incorrectly cited on the hymn page as John Mason Neale’s though it is stanzas 1 through 5 of the translation by the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861, who used only two [of 20 total] of Neale’s lines.” 

The Feast of Transfiguration had been celebrated for four to five centuries in some places. “Caelestis formam gloriae,” the Latin title for our hymn, appears to be one of the more recent hymns dating to 1495 in the Sarum Breviary

The Feast of Transfiguration is rooted in accounts provided in the three synoptic gospels: Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36. 

Matthew sets the context as follows: “ Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain. And he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. Then Moses and Elijah also appeared before them, talking with him. While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!’” (Matt. 28:1-5; NET) 

This mountaintop experience is one of the miracles of Jesus that identify him as the Christ, the Son of God. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) considered this to be the greatest of the miracles, complementing Christ’s baptism. 

Fifth-century custom identifies the mountain as Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, upon which now rests the Church of the Transfiguration, a space shared by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. Other scholarship suggests that Mount Hermon, spreading over current Syria, Lebanon and Israel, is a likely location because it is closest to Caesarea Philippi, mentioned in the previous chapter of Matthew. 

This revelation that Christ is the Messiah was to be kept a secret by the disciples until “The Son of Man” had risen from the dead (Mark 9:9-10). The Book of Malachi had predicted that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4). 

“O wondrous sight!” (originally, “O wondrous type”) describes the wonder and majesty of this event as well as its implications in detail. In stanza two, “the Lord holds converse high and sweet” with the prophets Moses and Elijah. These prophets are described as “witnesses of grace” to “the Father’s voice from out the cloud.” Stanza four states that the glory of Christ manifested in this miraculous happening will someday be for all “who joy in God with perfect love.” 

The final stanza joins the mystery of the Transfiguration to us:

And faithful hearts are raised on high
by this great vision’s mystery;
for which in joyful strains we raise
the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.


Raphael’s Transfiguration (1520), the upper portion of which appears with this article, was painted within 25 years of the appearance of the Sarum Breviary in 1495.
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

Download Now Add to Downloads Folder