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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Text vs. Image in the Lucca Illustration of Liber Divinorum Operum I.2: Humanity and the Macrocosmos

Humanity and the Macrocosmos.
Liber Divinorum Operum I.2
(Lucca MS 1942)

With the advent of the summer months, I have set to work again on my new translation of Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum. Last week saw me (re)tackling the second vision of the work, in which Hildegard revises her vision of the cosmos in the shape of an egg in Scivias I.3 into an elaborate series of “circles” whirling one inside the other, with a grand human figure standing astride the spinning globe. The vision text is extremely complex and intricate in its details, especially as Hildegard begins to describe the interplay of the four principal winds and their eight collateral winds, each represented by an animal’s head. As one reads through it, one feels compelled to pull out paper and pencil and to sketch it out, simply in order to keep straight above and below, left and right, east and west, north and south. In the course of carefully piecing together each detail, it soon became clear to me that the famed illustration of this vision in the thirteenth-century Lucca manuscript—so often compared to da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”—has several significant flaws:

1. The Line from East to West
After describing each successive circular layer of the cosmos, Hildegard sees that, “there stretched a line, as it were, from the beginning of the eastern part of that wheel to the end of its western part, and it faced the northern part, separating as it were the northern region from the other regions.”[1] But, as Peter Dronke notes, the only line in the Lucca miniature that could correspond to this is the bright red line marked horizontally across image, stretching from the bear’s head, which Hildegard places in the north (left side of the image), to the lion’s head in the south (right side of the image). In all other respects, the image follows medieval convention in orienting the East at the top of the page, where the leopard’s head appears.[2] If the line from east to west can be identified with the line associated with the arc of the sun later in the vision, then the correct depiction would have a line beginning above the human image’s head (the east), arc to the viewer’s right past the image’s left side to the south, and then come back to the center to end below the image’s feet in the west.
2. The Collateral Winds of East and West: Crabs’ and Stags’ Heads
Amongst the most complex details of the vision is the network of winds, each represented by an animal head. The task of laying out their orientation is made more difficult by the fact that, in the vision text itself, Hildegard uses only the relational terms “right” and “left”, and the occasional reference to other parts of the image. Only later, in the commentary chapters, are directions assigned to each principal wind, making it easier to keep everything straight. Before critiquing the Lucca illustration here, it will first be useful to read the vision’s description of each of these winds:

Furthermore, facing these parts there appeared four heads—as it were the head of a leopard and a wolf, and the head of a lion and a bear. For above the crown of that image, in the space [in signo] of the pure ether, I saw as it were the leopard’s head blowing a breath from its mouth. This breath curved back a little way to the right of the mouth and was formed into the head of a crab with two pincers like two feet; and wheeling around a little way to the left of the mouth, it issued in the head of a stag. Moreover, going forth from the mouth of the crab’s head, as it were, another breath proceeded all the way to the middle space that was between the heads of the leopard and the lion; and coming from the mouth of the stag’s head, another breath stretched all the way to the middle space that was between the head of the leopard and the bear.  (…)

Moreover, beneath the feet of the human image, in the space of the watery air, there appeared as it were the head of a wolf producing a breath from its own mouth. This breath burst forth a little way from the right side of that mouth into the middle space that was between the heads of the wolf and bear and received the form of a stag’s head; and coming from its mouth, as it were, another breath came to an end in that same middle space. Likewise, from the left side of that wolf’s head a breath proceeded from its mouth and extended itself also into the middle space that was between the heads of the wolf and lion, where it rose into the head of a crab with two pincers like two feet; and going out from its mouth, as it were, another breath came to rest in that middle space. (…)

But to the right of this image, in the space of the bright fire, I looked upon, as it were, the head of a lion. Going out from its mouth, as it were, there was a breath that extended a little way from each part of that mouth; and so this was formed on the right side into the head of a serpent and on the left side into the head of a lamb. And the serpent’s head, facing the middle space that was between the heads of the lion and wolf, gave forth a breath, as it were, that stretched itself towards that same middle space, where it joined itself to the breath that was emitted from the crab’s head that was between the heads of the wolf and lion. Moreover, the lamb’s head, appearing in the middle space that was between the heads of the lion and leopard, produced as it were a breath, which extended into that middle space, where it met and joined the breath that came from the crab’s head between the head of the leopard and lion. (…)

Furthermore, to the left of this image, in the space of the black fire, there appeared, as it were, the head of a bear. It gave from its mouth a breath that, extending a little way to the left and to the right of that mouth, issued on the right in the head of a lamb and received on the left the form of the head of a serpent. And from the mouth of this lamb’s head, as it were, another breath extended itself to the middle space that was between the heads of the bear and leopard; while from the mouth of this serpent’s head, as it were, another breath proceeded by stretching itself forth to the middle space that was between the heads of the bear and wolf. (…) All of these heads also gave their breath into the abovementioned wheel and onto the aforesaid human image.[3]

With reference to those later commentary chapters, it soon becomes clear that the perspective determining left and right must be dynamic, rather than static—that is, the orientation changes in the course of the vision text. In placing the four principal heads, “to the right of this image” (ad dextram imaginis ipsius) and “to the left of this image” (ad sinistram uero eiusdem imaginis ) must mean, not the right and left sides from the perspective of the human image, but left and right of the entire visionary field, from the perspective of a viewer facing the image, parallel to the manuscript page on which the illustration appears. Yet, when describing the collateral winds subordinate to each principal head, Hildegard appears to shift perspective by placing herself in the middle of this vision’s great complex of circles, perpendicular to the plane of the manuscript page. She then turns to face each part of the image as she describes it, thus making the orientation of left and right shift with each new image.

Detail showing
leopard's head (above)
and wolf's head (below).
As a result, the Lucca miniaturest has erred in the placement of the crabs’ and stags’ heads flanking the leopard’s head (east) and wolf’s head (west), which appear above the human image’s head and below its feet, respectively. Above, the crab’s head should appear to the right (south) of the leopard and the stag’s head to the left (north); while below, after turning the page around to reorient ourselves facing the wolf’s head, the stag’s head will be on the right (north) and the crab’s on the left (south). Thus, a proper illustration, with the leopard (east) oriented to the top of the page, would have the stags’ heads appearing on the (viewer’s) left of both the leopard and the wolf, with the crabs’ heads on the (viewer’s) right—the opposite of the Lucca illustration’s arrangement. The miniature does, however, correctly orient the heads of the lambs above (east) and serpents below (west) the heads of the bear (north) and lion (south).

3. The Rays of the Sun
After describing the various winds, the vision text continues by placing seven planets in the various circles above the head of the human image. The first three (Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars) appear in the circle of bright fire; the last three (Mercury, Venus, and the Moon) in the circle of pure ether; and in between, a single “planet” holds sway in the circle of black fire: the Sun. Hildegard then specifies a variety of rays (radii) emanating from each, which the Lucca miniature has depicted with golden lines extending from each of the seven gold stars above the head of the human image to various parts of the rest of the picture. As the vision tells us, “The sign [signum] of the sun also sent out from itself certain rays: with one it touched the sign of the leopard’s head, with another the sign of the lion’s head, and with another the sign of the wolf’s head—but it did not touch the sign of the bear’s head.”[4] The miniaturest
of the Lucca manuscript appears to have erred here, however, as the illustration includes a ray going from the sun’s large star (in the darker “black” fire directly above the leopard’s head) to both the bear’s head (in the north, to the viewer’s left) and the lion’s head (in the south, to the viewer’s right).

For all of these errors, however, the miniature is remarkably accurate in most other details, especially the scale of each element in relation to the others. Based on the ratios given in the vision text, the diameter of the central globe is one-fifth the diameter of the total instrument, thus making the illustration accurate in its scale. With the globe in the center, the next fifth on either side corresponds to the thin air full of clouds, while the final fifth on either side can be subdivided into three sections of equal width: the combined circles of strong, bright white air and watery air; the circle of ether; and the combined circles of black and bright fire.

As I continue to grapple with this intricate and complex vision, I will continue to check the details of the Lucca image against it, to see if there are other discrepancies; and I hope that my readers will chime in if they find any that I have missed. I will also continue to think upon their import, for, as I have suggested elsewhere in regards to the images in the Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript, it is possible that differences between visual image and textual record are complementary, rather than discordant.

[1] Liber Divinorum Operum I.2, lines 31-34 (ed. Derolez and Dronke, CCCM 92 [Turnhout: Brepols, 1996): Et quasi a principio orientalis partis eiusdem rote uelut ad finem occidentalis partis ipsius linea uersus septentrionalem eius partem extendebatur, quasi septentrionalem plagam a ceteris plagis discernens. 
[2] Dronke, “Introduction” to LDO, CCCM 92, p. xliii. 
[3] LDO I.2, lines 46-117. 
[4] LDO I.2, lines 140-142: Solis quoque signum quasi quosdam radios de se emittens, alio signum capitis leopardi, alio signum capitis leonis, alio signum capitis lupi, non autem signum capitis ursi tangebat. 

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