Hildegard’s Complex Visions

Review by Phoebe Pettingell

Of all the remarkable figures in 12th-century Western Europe’s High Middle Ages, none is more so than Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine abbess (c. 1098-1179). We have more of her hymns and antiphons — both music and words — than of any other medieval composer. She was also a prolific theologian, poet, and playwright, author of medical treatises, and possibly an artist. Her important theological works remain a staple for understanding her times.

The founder of two monastic communities, she corresponded voluminously with notable people, including Pope Eugene III and Bernard of Clairvaux, and went on preaching tours. From the age of 3, she received visions, both visual and auditory, although aside from confiding these to her first mentor, Jutta von Sponheim, and her confessor, Volmer, she never mentioned these until, in her 43rd year, the Godhead, whom she called “the Voice of the Living Light,” told her to begin writing them down. Thus began her great work, the Scivias (from Sci via Domini or Know the Works of the Lord), illustrated with pictures she supervised, and may have designed, and containing some of her music. This book explains the way she saw the interrelation of Creation, the universe, and liturgy.

Margot Fassler — Keough Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame — analyses Hildegard’s theology, music, and art as related to the sevenfold offices nuns sang daily, and her understanding of medieval cosmology — the two are closely related in this period. This is not light reading.

However, once one dives into the complexities, a fascinating vista opens, revealing the 12th century’s syncretic understanding of the universe as merely the visible aspect of the heavenly liturgy of the Trinity and the angelic hosts. For Hildegard, music is the celestial harmony that inspired her own monophonic chants. The illustration portraying Hildegard in the Scivias is unlike any other from the period, depicting her

at a moment when she is flooded by the heat of the Living Light that is Christ, making a connection between the cosmic and the earthly. Volmer looks on calmly, peering at what is happening and ready to help her secretary, for Hildegard makes the point that she was not swooning in some sort of mystical trance, hidden away from others, while she was receiving her visions: “But the visions I saw I did not perceive in dreams, or sleep, or delirium, or by the eyes of the body, or by the ears of the outer self, or in hidden places; but I received them while awake and seeing with a pure mind and the eyes and ears of the inner self, in open places, as God willed it.”

Performances and recordings of Hildegard’s distinctive musical compositions have become popular in recent decades. Musicians will find Fassler’s careful analysis of them particularly interesting. In one of her hymns, the composer/poet has the Virgin Mary speak of the “music laid in my womb.” Liturgical chant is considered to imitate the angels in their heavenly duties, where music ultimately stems from the Godhead in the work of redemption. This is a common position in medieval theology. Readers of C.S. Lewis will recall that when Aslan is creating Narnia, his singing brings its world into being. For Hildegard, the universe is a cosmic battlefield of good against evil, although unquestionably God will triumph.

One of the fascinating illustrations in the Scivias shows the fall of the rebel angels as black stars, separating from their radiant fellows. God created humankind to replace them, but the sin committed by Adam and Eve caused a further fall. The Scivias explains that when the redeemed equal the “Golden Number” of the fallen angels, then Time will end, and Christ will establish his eternal reign, as outlined in Revelation. In the meantime, life is intimately connected to the calendar and the seasons in an agricultural community, and liturgies reflect this. Again, this view is common to the period, but Hildegard particularly stresses the role of consecrated women: “The Holy Spirit makes music in the tabernacle of virginity” (p. 258).

The growing cult of the Virgin Mary in the Western Church affected the status of women, allowing figures like Hildegard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil to flourish. Earlier in the Middle Ages , women were blamed for the Fall, but the growing emphasis of Mary as the new Eve brought about change. So did the understanding of the Church as feminine and of the Moon as female, deriving her light from the Sun that was Christ. Benedictine convents, usually adjacent to male monasteries, provided opportunities for learning. Fassler emphasizes how widely read her subject was, and how familiar with both contemporary theology as well as that of the Early Church.

At the same time, Hildegard was not, like many prodigies, mathematical. Her imagination was poetic, visual, and aural. As a synthesist, she combined all her senses in her writings. Scholars have argued whether she produced her own illuminated pictures, or whether artists did them under her direction. Unfortunately, the most finished version of Scivias, the Rupertsberg manuscript, was destroyed during the bombing of Dresden during World War II, but other copies of its pictures exist.

Fassler’s intriguing theory is that Hildegard’s nuns initially created the images as tapestries — a familiar art form in convents, and then they were copied by illuminators in a Scriptorium. Like all work deriving from Hildegard’s visions, they make a fascinating study, and Fassler’s book contains rich illustrations. For anyone interested in the High Middle Ages, this deep study of one of its most talented and profound thinkers and artists helps one understand its worldview.

Phoebe Pettingell is a writer and editor living in northern Wisconsin.


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