Among the other female Doctors of the Church—Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese of Lisieux—Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) blazes in colors all her own. Medievalist Peter Dronke describes her as “an overpowering, electrifying presence—and in many ways an enigmatic one.” The breadth and variety of Hildegard’s accomplishments are unique. Her voluminous writings encompass theology, prophecy, poetry, hagiography, medicine, and natural science as well as extensive correspondence with major figures of the twelfth century including Bernard of Clairvaux, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Hildegard is also the first known female composer in the Western world and wrote Europe’s first morality play—with accompanying music. She invented her own artificial language as well as an alphabet in which to write it. An ardent supporter of Church reform, she made four long preaching tours along the river valleys of southwestern Germany. There she addressed admiring audiences of clerics, monks and laity, an unprecedented privilege for a medieval woman. She achieved all this despite chronic ill-health and while serving as a Benedictine abbess for more than forty years
Hildegard was born near Mainz in 1098, tenth child of an ancient noble family. Her parents offered her as a living “tithe” to God by placing her in the care of a holy recluse named Jutta attached to the male Benedictine abbey of Disibodenberg. Hildegard learned to read from the Psalter and immersed herself in the Bible, her lifelong font of knowledge. At fifteen, she made her profession as a nun in the community that coalesced around Jutta. In 1136, after Jutta died, Hildegard was chosen superior.
By 1150, the convent had become overcrowded. Despite grumbling from the local monks—as well as her own nuns–Hildegard built a new home for her community beside the Rhine at Rupertsberg near Bingen. A second foundation across the river at Eibingen followed fifteen years later. The later cloister still functions as the Abbey of St. Hildegard and enshrines her relics.
Nothing would have seemed extraordinary about Hildegard for the first half of her long life. She did not wish to publicize the visionary experiences she had been having since the age of three when a blaze of dazzling brightness burst into her sight. A diffuse radiance which she called her visio filled her field of vision for the rest of her life without interfering with ordinary sight. Hildegard came to understand this phenomenon as “the reflection of the living Light” which conferred the gift of prophecy and gave her an intuitive knowledge of the Divine.
Hildegard’s visions were not apparitions or dreams. She scarcely ever fell into ecstasy but rather perceived sights and messages with the “inner” eyes and ears of her soul. She dictated what she “saw” and “heard” to secretaries while fully lucid. Because the astonishing images she described and directed artists to illustrate feature sparkling gems, shimmering orbs, pulsating stars, curious towers and crenellated walls, modern psychologists have suggested that Hildegard suffered from a form of migraine called “scintillating scotomata.” The debilitating illnesses that preceded or accompanied her visionary episodes might have been migraine attacks. Because supernatural communications are received according to the capacity of the receiver, neurology can offer insights on Hildegard’s particular repertory of forms. But it cannot explain away her experiences or the religious meanings she assigns to them. These were genuine occasions of contact between Hildegard and God.
In 1141—on a date she was careful to record exactly—heaven opened upon Hildegard as “a fiery light of exceeding brilliance” and a mighty voice commanding her to “tell and write” what she sees of God’s marvels. Like Jeremiah and several other prophets, Hildegard quailed at her call. Pleading her sickly female constitution and lack of formal education, she fell ill. But she confided in the convent’s provost, who shared the matter with his abbot at Disibodenberg who urged Hildegard to accept her call. She rose from her bed and set to work on her first book, Scivias.
Hildegard also asked advice from Bernard of Clairvaux who also encouraged her. Meanwhile, her local abbot notified the archbishop of Mainz who mentioned Hildegard to Pope Eugenius III, then visiting Germany. After a papal commission reviewed chapters of Scivias, the pope approved Hildegard’s writings and read portions to a regional synod at Trier in 1147.
Now certified by the highest authorities, Hildegard became a celebrity seer whose counsel was treasured by rulers, clerics, and laypeople from England to Byzantium. Visitors streamed to her convent seeking advice and cures from the “Sibyl of the Rhine.” (This fame was one reason why the Disibodenberg monks opposed Hildegard’s move to a new location.) Hildegard always distinguished between her own opinions and God’s. When she had no answer she would say so and claimed no heavenly authority for her medical and scientific writings.
Hildegard’s steady humility kept her on the straight way and protected her from censure. She clung to the Old Testament role of Prophet, presenting herself as a feeble instrument of the Almighty, pressed into service because sinful churchmen had failed to act. Similar “modesty” strategies have been used by other holy women and female leaders in male-dominated societies who invoke the Biblical theme of weakness overturning strength.
Despite the startling quality of Hildegard’s messages, her theology was orthodox. Unlike the Cathar heretics, whom she denounced, she was no threat to the existence, authority or organization of the Church. She accepted traditional teaching on male headship, the complementary character of masculine and feminine, and social hierarchies. She condemned offences against life—contraception, abortion, infanticide, suicide, and homosexuality. But any sin could be forgiven. Penance and the cultivation of opposite virtues remedied vices. These conventional views temper some feminists’ enthusiasm for Hildegard. They would prefer her as a bold rebel against patriarchy. In contrast, during an address in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called Hildegard’s humble deference to ecclesiastical authority “the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit.”
Hildegard’s one clash with Church rules hinged on a point of fact, not doctrine. In 1178, she and her nuns were placed under interdict for burying an excommunicated benefactor in their graveyard. Knowing that he had been reconciled before his death, they endured months without the sacraments or music until cleared by the archbishop of Cologne. Hildegard died peacefully the following year.
Hildegard’s three major theological books are: Scivias [Know the Ways], Liber vitae meritorum [The Book of the Rewards of Life], and Liber divinorum operum [The Book of Divine Works]. They range across time and timelessness, microcosm and macrocosm, the Trinity, Fall, Incarnation and Redemption, vices and virtues, sacraments, angels and Satin, Genesis and the Gospel of John, Antichrist, the End of the World and the joys of Heaven. Hildegard‘s keyword, viriditas, communicates the burgeoning, fertile, green freshness of unspoiled Paradise. Her matchless visions reveal the luminous presence of God permeating all creation, calling forth life so that matter and spirit will unite in a chorale of eternal glory.
Hildegard’s works record visions plus inspired commentary, followed by her interpretations. Her allegorical imagery is so novel, explication is essential. For instance, it is not immediately obvious that a four-winged glowing woman balancing a bearded grey head on her own, holding a lamb and trampling monsters represents Caritas as well as the Holy Spirit with emblems of the Father and the Son. Caritas proclaims: “I am the supreme and fiery force who kindled every living spark” Each of the Four Elements reveal the life that God has bestowed through her.
In Hildegard’s writings, titanic feminine forms personify Caritas, Sapientia, Ecclesia, Synagoga, and sundry Virtues. Their unique vividness and vitality invite readers to contemplate the universe with fresh eyes. For instance, Sapientia “of the whirling wings” is the “encompassing energy of God” who quickens the world in her clasp. Not every sight, however, is lovely. In one instance, Ecclesia is battered and besmirched by corrupt clergy. In another, the vile head of Antichrist is battened on her scabby crotch.
Hildegard’s allegorical ladies have more personality, as it were, than her sublime yet oddly abstract Mary, predestined since “the morn of the universe.” But that does not blemish the eighteen free-verse liturgical lyrics Hildegard wrote to praise the fruitful Virgin courted by God. Here is a sample from “Ave generosa” in Barbara Newman’s fine translation:
And your womb held joy when heaven’s
harmonies rang from you,
a maiden with child by God,
for in God your chastity blazed.
Yes your flesh held joy like the grass
when the dew falls, when heaven
freshens its green: O mother
of gladness, verdure of spring.
Hildegard’s Mary, like her overall spirituality is monastic. The holy abbess was untouched by the new affective style of piety that friars will popularize across Europe. Untutored in philosophy, she thought in Biblical, not scholastic, categories. As the dates of her lifespan (1098-1179) suggest, Hildegard belongs more to the Romanesque than the Gothic spirit.
These factors affected Hildegard’s rank in the pageant of sainthood. Despite remarkable originality and wide fame in her own day, Hildegard was quickly forgotten. Her curious writings were seldom copied. She was never formally canonized because her cause was poorly documented and records disappeared. In modern times, some scholars even doubted her authorship and ascribed her work to her male secretaries.
Nevertheless, Hildegard’s reputation for holiness survived in the Rhineland. In the twentieth century, learned nuns from the refounded monastery of Eibingen produced landmark scholarship that confirmed Hildegard’s authorship and made her most important writings available. In 1940, Rome acknowledged her sanctity on the basis of “persistent cult.” St. Hildegard was assigned a feast day in Benedictine and German calendars on 17 September, the anniversary of her death. (The Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America also count her as a saint.)
As academic interest in saints—especially female ones–grew in the later twentieth century, Hildegard was rediscovered. New Agers publicized her—inaccurately—but solid research also multiplied. Her unique music was performed again to great acclaim. Even her herbal remedies found users. The nine-hundredth anniversary of Hildegard’s birth was celebrated with a comprehensive exhibition, “Hildegard von Bingen 1098-1179,” at the Cathedral and Diocesan Museum of Mainz. German director Margarethe von Trotta’s well-received film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen was released in 2010.
Hildegard’s elevation to Doctor of the Church, perhaps preceded by a formal canonization ceremony, is the capstone on her revival for Catholics. Regardless of what honors are bestowed on Hildegard, Voice of the Living Light, an old pilgrim’s prayer captures the essence of her heavenly service: “Through thy great intercession, everyone obtains from God mercy and consolation in all sorrows, in Time and Eternity.”
(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally on January 25, 2012, in a slightly different form.)
• Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life. 2nd ed. Routledge: New York, 1998.
• Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of the Rewards of Life. Trans. Bruce W. Hozeski. Oxford University Press: New York. 1994.
• ___, Scivias. Trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1990.
• ___, Symphonia. Trans. Barbara Newman. Cornell University Press: Ithaca NY, 1988.
• Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. University of California Press: Berkley, 1987.
• Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Ed. Barbara Newman. University of California Press: Berkley, 1998.
Early music groups including Sequentia and Anonymous Four have recorded many of Hildegard’s songs.
Sandra Miesel, who holds a masters degree in medieval history from the University of Illinois, is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax and the author of hundreds of essays and articles on history, art, and hagiography.
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