|Hildegard of Bingen's portrait.|
Rupertsberg Scivias (facs.), fol. 1r.
In commemoration of the Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, who died on this day (September 17) in 1179, and in consideration of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming declaration of her as the thirty-fifth Doctor of the Church, one thing we might wonder about is what her doctoral “nickname” will be. While not all Doctors of the Church have such monikers, many—especially the medieval and early modern thinkers—are lovingly referred to by these unofficial titles. For example, the thirteenth-century mendicant-scholastics St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure are known as the Doctor Angelicus (Angelic Doctor) and Doctor Seraphicus (Seraphic Doctor), respectively.
These endearing titles are often bestowed by tradition to describe that special part of the saints’ teachings for which their eminent learning has accrued an advantage to the universal church. Thus, St. Augustine is sometimes called the Doctor Gratiae (Doctor of Grace) because of his fundamental theological insights into grace (against the Donatists and Pelagians); St. Cyril of Alexandria’s title is Doctor Incarnationis (Doctor of the Incarnation), reflecting his central role in the Christological controversies of the fifth century; and though St. Thérèse of Lisieux is best-known as “the Little Flower”, theologians and church historians also reflect her extraordinary insights into the loving relationship between Jesus and the Christian soul with the title Doctor Amoris (Doctor of Love).
What aspect of Hildegard of Bingen’s profound theological insights and extraordinary achievements should be commemorated by her doctoral name? The list with which one feels obliged to describe her can be lengthy—theologian, visionary, prophet, reformer, feminist, composer, poet, artist, healer. The breadth and complexity of these achievements makes the choice of any one area to raise above the others problematic, especially since Hildegard’s competence in one area—music or natural medicine, for example—usually had profound impacts on others, such as her theology and teaching. With this in mind, I would propose the following as initial possibilities:
Doctor Visionis (Doctor of Seeing/Vision):
Et vidi… “And I saw…” With these words, echoing those of the great visionary prophets of old, Hildegard begins most of her profoundly creative and uniquely intuitive visions of the Living Light, the presence of God streaming with great images and sublime symbols into the life of the world. Everything about Hildegard’s theological charism is rooted in these visionary experiences, as Hildegard sees and hears and understands (almost synaesthetically, as it were), everything which God wants her to pass on to the world. Her visions are the very foundation of her prophetic authority, both as she constructs it for the public and as she experiences it throughout her life.
As Hildegard tells us at the opening of her first major visionary work, Scivias (as illustrated in the Rupertsberg manuscript shown above):
When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch. And immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of the Scriptures, namely the Psalter, the Gospel and the other catholic volumes of both the Old and the New Testaments (…). But I had sensed in myself wonderfully the power and mystery of secret and admirable visions from my childhood—that is from the age of five—up to that time, as I do now. This, however, I showed to no one except a few religious persons who were living in the same manner as I; but meanwhile, until the time when God by his grace wished it to be manifested, I concealed it in quiet silence. But the visions I saw I did not perceive in dreams, or sleep, or delirium [in phrenesi], or by the eyes of the body, or by the ears of the outer self, or in hidden places; but I received them awake and seeing with a pure mind and the eyes and ears of the inner self, in open places, as God willed it. How this might be is hard for mortal flesh to understand.
—Scivias, Protestificatio (Declaration)
These extraordinary experiences were integral to Hildegard’s thought—and her appreciation of the visual extended to the images that accompany her writings in at least one of the manuscripts produced under her supervision, the Rupertsberg manuscript of Scivias. Sadly, as with another great twelfth-century manuscript produced under the direction of a female theologian and detailing in stunning images the course of salvation history—the Hortus Deliciarum of Herrad of Hohenbourg—this manuscript has been lost to the ravages of human war, left unseen since its evacuation to Dresden during World War II. Fortunately, the nuns of the modern-day Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, Germany, meticulously produced a copy by hand in the 1920’s, from which the images that accompany this essay come.
Towards the end of her life, at the request of one of her greatest admirers, Guibert of Gembloux, Hildegard recorded in a letter a more detailed account of her visionary charism:
Since my infancy, however, when I was not yet strong in my bones and nerves and veins, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even till now, when I am more than seventy years old. And as God wills, in this vision my spirit mounts upwards, into the height of the firmament and into changing air, and dilates itself among different nations, even though they are in far-off regions and places remote from me. And because I see these things in such a manner, for this reason I also behold them in changing forms of clouds and other created things. But I hear them not with my physical ears, nor with my heart’s thoughts, nor do I perceive them by bringing any of my five senses to bear—but only in my soul, my physical eyes open, so that I never suffer their failing in loss of consciousness [exstasis]; no, I see these things wakefully, day and night. And I am constantly oppressed by illnesses, and so enmeshed in intense pains that they threaten to bring on my death; but so far God has stayed me.
The brightness that I see is not spatial, yet it is far, far more lucent than a cloud that envelops the sun. I cannot contemplate height or length or breadth in it; and I call it “the shadow of the living brightness [lumen].” And as sun, moon and stars appear [mirrored] in water, so Scriptures, discourse, virtues, and some works of men take form for me and are reflected radiant in this brightness.
Whatever I have seen or learnt in this vision, I retain the memory of it for a long time, in such a way that, because I have at some time seen and heard it, I can remember it; and I see, hear and know simultaneously, and learn what I know as if in a moment. But what I do not see I do not know, for I am not learned. And the things I write are those I see and hear through the vision, nor do I set down words other than those that I hear; I utter them in unpolished Latin, just as I hear them through the vision, for in it I am not taught to write as philosophers write. And the words I see and hear through the vision are not like words that come from human lips, but like a sparkling flame and a cloud moved in pure air. Moreover, I cannot know the form of this brightness [lumen] in any way, just as I cannot gaze completely at the sphere of the sun.
And in that same brightness I sometimes, not often, see another light, which I call “the Living Light [lux]”; when and how I see it, I cannot express; and for the time I do see it, all sadness and all anguish is taken from me, so that then I have the air of an innocent young girl and not of a little old woman.—Hildegard’s Letter to Guibert of Gembloux
The Living Light overshadowed Hildegard, like the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary, and allowed her to conceive and give birth to one of the most original and striking theological programs of the Middle Ages.
Doctor Viriditatis (Doctor of Viridity/Greenness):
Viriditas: a key word in Hildegard’s vocabulary that is notoriously difficult for translators to wrap their heads around. Other than falling back on its English cognate, viridity—a move which may best preserve the dense symbolism with which Hildegard imbues the word—scholars have provided a variety of terms to relate its significant meaning, which passes far beyond just the color green: freshness, vitality, fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness, verdure, growth.
|Man as Microcosm. From Lucca MS,|
Liber Divinorum Operum, I.2
This range of meanings strives to reveal the way in which the natural vitality, fecundity, and freshness of Creation serve as an important marker of lively holiness in Hildegard’s spirituality. Because Hildegard conceives of human beings as microcosms of the entirety of creation, containing within ourselves every level of being from the lowest insect to the highest choirs of the angelic host—famously pictured in the Lucca manuscript of the Liber Divinorum Operum as a human figure astride the sphere of all reality, foretelling by centuries Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”—she understood there to be a direct link between the health of the natural world and the health of the human soul.
The vices and perversions of humanity she describes as reflected directly in the withering droughts of a natural environment destroyed. Our virtues, on the other hand, seem to reflect the bright green freshness of the first buds of spring, the deeper greens of summer trees, and the sweet, ripe fruit at the fullness of the season. When Hildegard foretells periods of renewed holiness in her grand visions of the future of the Church, the renewal of material Creation is integral to it:
But justice shall stand for a time in her uprightness, so that the humans of those days shall convert themselves with integrity to the ancient customs and hold and observe the disciplines of ancient [Christians] (…) In those days many also shall prophesy and many more shall be wise, so that the secrets of the prophets and the mysteries of the other scriptures shall lie open in their fullness to the wise. Their sons and daughters shall prophesy, just as was foretold many ages before. (…) The air also at that time shall again grow sweet and the fruit of the earth useful, and humanity shall be healthy and strong.
—Liber Divinorum Operum, III.5.26
Although St. Francis of Assisi—never destined to be a Doctor of the Church, for his teachings, as valuable as they are, were not in theological writing but in living a life of exemplary holiness—is oft thought the patron of the ecological movement, one could easily envision Hildegard joining him at the helm. Indeed, modern homeopathy shops and herbal medicinalists were rediscovering Hildegard decades before the theologians managed to.
|Scivias II.2: The Trinity.|
Fol. 47r, Rupertsberg MS (facs.)
But the link between viriditas and holiness goes deeper in Hildegard’s theology than simply an appreciation for the natural world. In her vision of the Trinity in Scivias II.2, the interplay of light, fire, and flame is, like that which bathes her mind and soul at the opening of the work, “not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.” The “bright light” of the Father, in which blazes “a man the color of sapphire”—the Son—all bathed with “the glowing fire” of the Holy Spirit, nurtures and gives rise, like the sun, to all of Creation. To describe the perfection of this fire, Hildegard explains that it lacks “any flaw of aridity, mortality or darkness”. Rather, she compares this Trinity to the three qualities of stone: “cool dampness [umida viriditas], solidity to the touch, and sparkling fire.”
It is that vitality even within what we think of as cold, lifeless stone, that marks the relationship between the Trinity and Creation. For in the previous vision (Scivias II.1), Hildegard describes how “this same flame that is in that fire and that burning extends itself to a little clod of mud, which lies at the bottom of the atmosphere, and warms it so that is made flesh and blood, and blows upon it until it rises up a living human.” She glosses this fiery movement of creation: “That is, [that flame] poured fresh warmth [in viriditate calorem] into it, for the earth is the fleshly material of humans, and nourished it with moisture, as a mother gives milk to her children.” (Scivias II.1.7)
Viridity is a central property of God that is shared with Creation—a hallmark of God’s fertility, the maternal goodness that gives birth to and nurtures the whole world.
Doctor Symphoniae (Doctor of Symphony):
Hildegard is potentially most famous today as a composer and musician. Her soaring melodies are the only complete corpus of a medieval composer’s works to survive, and they have found a happy place in the repertoires of both classical and New Age artists today. Her music is further valued for the ways in which it plays with the norms of twelfth-century chant and for the intensity and sublimity of the liturgical poetry that accompanies it.
|Scivias III.13, Symphonia.|
Fol. 229r, Rupertsberg MS (facs.)
Yet, Hildegard claimed—as in so many other areas of her talent—that, “without being taught by anyone, since I had never studied neumes or any chant at all,” she “composed and sang chant with melody, to the praise of God and his saints.” (Life of Hildegard, II.2) The chants that she composed for the liturgical use of the nuns under her care represented nothing less for Hildegard than a recurring theophany. Each day, as she and her sisters sang the hours of prayer and psalmody at the heart of their liturgical service to God, they participated in the “Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations” (Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum), the title she gave to the collection of her compositions.
This symphony had its roots in the final vision of Scivias, laying the capstone on the great edifice of Salvation and foretelling the Beatific Vision:
Then I saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music, marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before. I heard the praises of the joyous citizens of Heaven, steadfastly persevering in the ways of Truth; and laments calling people back to those praises and joys; and the exhortations of the virtues, spurring one another on to secure the salvation of the peoples ensnared by the Devil. And the virtues destroyed his snares, so that the faithful at last through repentance passed out of their sins and into Heaven. And their song, like the voice of a multitude, [was] making music in harmony, praising the ranks of Heaven.
Though this, like all her other visions, opens with, “I saw”, it is manifestly an experience not of vision but of sound, as the remainder of the text details the hymns sung by each company of the heavenly host, as well as an early version of Hildegard’s morality play—the first ever set to music—Ordo Virtutum, in which the virtues sing but the Devil cannot.
Hildegard would make the theological centrality of music clear in the last year of her life, when petty church politics brought her abbey under interdict, forbidden to recite the liturgies that formed the bedrock of her community’s life. In response, Hildegard wrote a scathing and beautiful defense of the power of sacred music both to recall the blessedness of heaven and to fight the tyranny of the Devil. Weaving the music of song into an account of salvation history, she tells us that Adam sang with the voice of angels in paradise, but lost the “sweetness of all musical harmony” in the Fall—“indeed, if he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and the resonance of his voice.”
Yet, God would not allow this celestial harmony to fade entirely from human tongue. He blessed David and the other prophets with the knowledge to compose their psalms and hymns in “that pristine blessedness…with the light of truth,” and to create musical instruments whose accompaniment would ring the voice higher to the angelic symphony. The “sweetness of the songs of heaven” are, moreover, a ruin to the Devil’s “clever machinations” to cast humankind away from paradise. Hildegard’s warning to the prelates who silenced her abbey is clear: to “confound the confession and the sweet beauty of both divine praise and spiritual hymns” is to play right into the Devil’s tone-deaf hands.
As Peter Dronke concludes, Hildegard “works out her own philosophy of music” in which it is “a way of understanding history … and a way in which human beings can still incarnate heavenly beauty in an earthly mode. The symbolism then turns into microcosmic allegory—music is the human body and soul, and the principles with which they are informed—an allegory that is dynamic and in no way forced, arising effortlessly out of Hildegard’s pattern of thoughts and images. Her sentences themselves here are like melismas—huge arclike rhythmic phrases, [subtly and perfectly] controlled.”
Although other Doctors have contributed significantly to the musical heritage of the Church—think, for example, of Thomas Aquinas’ compositions for the offices of Corpus Christi—none perceived so central a recreative, perfective, and redemptive role for music as Hildegard. For her, music rises almost to the level of a sacrament, channeling the perfection of divine grace from the heavenly choirs down to us, where we reflect the symphony in the blessed joy of song.
Doctor Divini Operis (Doctor of the Divine Work):
|Liber Divinorum Operum III.5,|
from the Lucca MS.
Hildegard’s final and greatest visionary work was the Liber Divinorum Operum, the “Book of Divine Works”. Completed in 1174, the ten visions that make up its structure are the most complex of Hildegard’s corpus: grand female images personifying a variety of divine attributes dominate, each revealing different aspects of the Divine Work, i.e. salvation history. As we have seen, each of the other aspects of Hildegard’s charism—the visionary, the verdant, and the symphonic—participates in and reflects this Divine Work.
Central to the genesis of this work was one of the more extraordinary experiences of Hildegard’s visionary life, dating to the early 1160’s. At this point in time, Hildegard had successfully moved her nuns from the control of the monks at St. Disibodenberg to their own abbey at the Rupertsberg in Bingen, and established a daughter house across the river, at Eibingen, to take in the overflow of women attracted to her life. She had composed the extraordinary musical corpus to be used in the daily liturgical practices of that life; and had been on several preaching journeys throughout the Rhineland, calling the people of her country to repentance and holiness, to the renewal and viridity of “the first dawn of justice”.
In contrast to her usual visionary experiences, this one—probably to be identified with the rarity and delight of the Living Light described above—was of a profoundly deeper character:
Some time later I saw an extraordinary mystical vision, at which all my inward parts trembled, and my body lost all capacity of feeling—for my knowing was changed into another mode in which, as it were, I did not know myself. It was as if the inspiration of God were sprinkling drops of sweet rain into my soul’s knowing, the very same with which the Spirit instructed John the Evangelist when he drank in from the breast of Jesus the most profound of revelations. His senses at that time were so touched by the sacred Divinity that he revealed hidden mysteries and works, saying, “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1), etc.
For it was the Word, which before all created things had no beginning, and after them shall have no end, which summoned all created things into being. He brought his work into being like a smith causing his work to shower sparks. In this way, what was predestined by him before ever the world was, appeared in visible form. Therefore man is the work of God along with every creature. But man is also said to be the worker of the Divinity and a shadow of his mysteries, and should in all things reveal the Holy Trinity, for “God made him in his image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26). So, just as Lucifer for all his malice could not bring God to naught, so too, he shall not succeed in destroying the human race, however much he tried to with the first man.
And thus the vision mentioned above taught me and allowed me to expound the words of this Gospel and everything it speaks of, which from the beginning is the Work of God.—The Life of Hildegard, II.16
This grand vision of all of salvation history as the Work of God, a work in which humans are direct and essential participants, effecting the work to its consummation, is at the center of the Liber Divinorum Operum and at the center and culmination of Hildegard’s entire theological project. When the Word of God, by speaking which God created the world at the beginning of time, became a human being, fulfilling his eternal predestination, the world was set on its perfect course, the malicious plots of the Devil brought to naught. We see here also the impetus of that musical liturgy, for the daily hours of prayer and psalmody that set the rhythm of Hildegard’s holy monastic life were described by St. Benedict as the Opus Dei, the Work of God.
It is a work of community, a work of creation, a work of speech that sings and visions that illuminate. The Work of God is the irruption of the divine into creation, into history, so that human beings might participate and glorify in God’s Love. The scope of Hildegard’s visionary theology is both cosmic and close—reflections of God’s loving revelation of himself to humanity are both grand and utterly intimate, calling us day-by-day to join in the heavenly banquet. Hildegard presents us with a breathtaking and lifegiving image of God and ourselves, working together towards the perfection of Love. We are the Divine Work.Notes
 From Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990). ↩
 From Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages. A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (+203) to Marguerite Porete (+1310) (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), 168. ↩
 See Constant Mews, “Religious Thinker: ‘A Frail Human Being’ on Fiery Life”, pp. 52-69, esp. 57-58, in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998). ↩
 “The Life of Hildegard”, pp. 135-210, in Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources, trans. Anna Silvas (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1999). ↩
 Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia. A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum, ed. and trans. Barbara Newman (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998). ↩
 Letter 23, Hildegard to the prelates at Mainz. In The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Volume I, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 76-80. ↩
 Dronke, Women Writers, 197. ↩