The Passíusálmar or Passion Hymns are a collection of 50 poetic texts written by the Icelandic minister and poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson. The texts explore the Passion narrative, as traditionally presented, from the point where Christ enters the Garden of Gethsemane to his death and burial. Hallgrímur began composing the work in 1656, while serving as pastor of Saurbær in Hvalfjörður. It took him three years to complete, the final poem being written in May 1659; the first edition was published seven years later, in 1666. By the end of the century they had become so popular in Iceland that five editions had been published. Since that time, they have been reprinted more than 75 times, a unique achievement in Icelandic literature. The poems were translated into many other languages, including Latin, English, Chinese and Danish.
The first English edition was published in 1913. In the 1950s a new translation was made by Arthur Charles Gook. This new translation received the imprimatur of the Bishop of Iceland, Sigurbjörn Einarsson, and is published by Hallgrímskirkja. In addition, a selection of texts were translated by Anglican Bishop Charles Venn Pilcher and published in a pamphlet entitled “Thirty-One Meditations on Christ’s Passion”; this translation, although incomplete, is regarded as more faithful to Hallgrímur’s Lutheran theology.
The Passíusálmar quickly became an important part of Icelandic religious expression, being sung or read during Lent in every Icelandic home; today, they are broadcast on the radio during that time of year. They have been set to music by many composers of Icelandic church music, including Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson and Jón Hlöðver Áskelsson, but use outside Iceland is rare.
Our offering is in the style of a Moravian “Song Service” where the structure of the service is determined by the choice of hymns to be sung and read aloud. The service uses just a selection of the Hymns of the Passion, the Prologue, and then the narrative from the cross to Christ’s burial, and sets them to tunes that are roughly contemporary with the texts, and are tunes that Icelanders would likely have known. Gook’s translation has sometimes been slightly altered to fit the chorale melodies, or to adapt any obviously outdated theology that sits uncomfortably with modern thought.