“O wondrous type! O vision fair” (hymn 137 in The Hymnal 1982) is our closing hymn this Sunday, when we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The text for “O wondrous type!” is an anonymous Latin hymn “Coelestis formam gloriae” (Form of heavenly glory), first appearing in the Latin worship book Sarum Breviary (1495), which contained services for daily worship in the church in Salisbury (Sarum in Latin), England. It was part of the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration at that time when the Transfiguration was becoming widely celebrated.
This hymn was translated into English by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) for The Hymnal Noted (1852). Neale’s original version began, “A type of those bright rays on high.” The translation that we have in The Hymnal 1982 is an altered version of Neale’s from Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). Some modern hymnals have changed the word in the first line of the hymn from O wondrous type to O wondrous sight.
William Knapp (1698-1768) is the composer of the tune which we sing with “O wondrous type!” It was printed first in his Sett of New Psalm Tunes and Anthems (London, 1738), set to Psalm 36:5-10, with the heading “For ye holy Sacrament.” A unique feature of this melody is that it always moves stepwise up and down, except between the fifth and sixth notes.
The tune WAREHAM is named for the composer’s birthplace (Wareham in Dorset, England, not Massachusetts), a historic market town. It has always been a popular tune and has been matched with over a hundred different hymn texts in printed hymnbooks. The first pairing of this tune with “O wondrous type!” was in The Hymnal 1940 (Episcopal). This tune is the only surviving composition of Knapp.
There isn’t much biographical information on William Knapp, since the records of the parish church where he was born were destroyed in a 1762 fire. He was known as an eccentric. A glover by trade, he was also an organist, composer, and itinerant choir director. From 1729 until his death in 1768, he was parish clerk of St. James’s Church in Poole. Knapp and the parish sexton George Savage apparently weren’t held in high regard by all who knew them. H. Price, a fellow townsperson in Poole, wrote the following humorous poem:
From pounce and paper, ink and pen, save me, O Lord, I pray;
From Pope and Swift and such-like men, and Cibber’s annual lay;
From doctors’ bills and lawyers’ fees, from ague, gout and trap;
And what is ten times worse than these, George Savage and Will Knapp.
The word type in the first line of our hymn refers to the glory of eternity when we will be face to face with Jesus, the Light of the world. Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark 9:2-9 tells us that Peter, James, and John followed Jesus up a high mountain. There they witnessed a transfigured and radiant Jesus, whose clothes became “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” If that weren’t enough, then the astonished disciples saw Moses and Elijah standing there talking with Jesus. Both Moses and Elijah were precursors or types of Christ. In their own time and in their own way, they represented the One yet to come.
The hymn “O wondrous type!” is our sung prayer that someday we too will join the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, apostles, and martyrs as we gather in God’s glorious presence in heaven.
O wondrous type! O vision fair of glory that the Church may share,
Which Christ upon the mountain shows, where brighter than the sun he glows!
With Moses and Elijah nigh the incarnate Lord holds converse high;
And from the cloud, the Holy One bears record to the only Son.
With shining face and bright array, Christ deigns to manifest today
What glory shall be theirs above who joy in God with perfect love.
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.
O Father, with the eternal Son, and Holy Spirit, ever One,
Vouchsafe to bring us by thy grace to see thy glory face to face.