by St. Hildegard of Bingen
(Mercy of God)
|V. Ave Maria,
o auctrix vite,
que mortem conturbasti
et serpentem contrivisti,
ad quem se Eva erexit
cum sufflatu superbie.
dum de celo Filium Dei genuisti:
R. Quem inspiravit
|V. Hail Mary,
O authoress of life,
rebuilding up salvation’s health,
for death you have disturbed,
that serpent crushed
to whom Eve raised herself,
her neck outstretched
with puffed-up pride.
That serpent’s head you ground to dust
when heaven’s Son of God you bore:
R. on whom God’s Spirit
|V. O dulcissima atque amantissima mater, salve,
que natum tuum de celo missum
R. Quem inspiravit
Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui sancto.
R. Quem inspiravit
|V. O sweet, beloved mother, hail!
Your Son from heaven sent
you gave unto the world:
R. on whom God’s Spirit
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.
R. On him God’s Spirit
As we begin anew the Church’s annual journey through Christ’s life, first on earth and then thereafter through the Church, we first prepare ourselves for its great and new beginning, when God’s Son was sent from Heaven into the world he had created. Although St. Hildegard of Bingen did not often focus on the Christ Child himself, the entire act of the Incarnation—the entrance of the Word of God into the world—was at the very center of her worldview. The mediatrix of that Incarnation, Christ’s Virgin Mother Mary, thus holds a special place in Hildegard’s devotions, for the Symphonic Doctor devoted more musical compositions to Mary (sixteen) than to any other single subject, including the persons of the Trinity apart from her.
This responsory, which opens the section of Marian pieces in the early Dendermonde manuscript of Hildegard’s music, showcases one of Hildegard’s most characteristic Marian themes, of the Virgin Mother healing the brokenness brought into the world by the first mother, Eve. The image of Mary treading down and crushing the head of the serpent (contrivisti, conculcasti) is a classic fulfillment of God’s words of punishment to the serpent in Genesis 3:15—but Hildegard adds her own characteristically unique spin on the theme by imagining that crushing as the tearing down of the tower of death that Eve constructed as she stretched out her neck “with puffed-up pride”. She emphasizes this movement musically with the repetition of an extensive phrase on erecta and conculcasti. In place of this puffed-up pride, she then imagines Mary, the “authoress” but also “foundress” (the double meaning of auctrix), building up a new edifice, of life and of salvation (vite, salutem).
As Barbara Newman has noted, architectural imagery is frequent in Hildegard’s music in part because Hildegard herself was engaged in rebuilding a monastery that had fallen into ruin and neglect (the Rupertsberg, to which she moved her community of nuns in 1150), as well as later founding a daughter house across the river (Eibingen). But there is a deeper theological significance here, as well, for Hildegard’s symbolist theological mind connects the first mother (Eve), Christ’s virgin mother (Mary), the virgin mother Church, and the Church’s heavenly exemplar and future perfection, the Heavenly Jerusalem. Mary thus serves as the “architect” for the Church, the City of God’s People, whose hallmark is life.
For Hildegard, each of these female faces were (and are) manifestations of the divine and “eternal counsel” (Ps. 32:11), that is, God’s eternal and predestined will that his Son would be incarnate. We have seen this theme before, in several of Hildegard’s pieces to the Father and Son (e.g. O vis eternitatis and O quam mirabilis), for it was a key of her theological vision. As she explained in the opening vision of Scivias III.1, in the only place in the entire work in which she herself spoke in reply to “the One Who sat on the throne”:
Grant me to make known the divine counsel which was ordained in the ancient counsel, insofar as I can and should: how You willed Your Son to become incarnate and become a human being within Time; which you willed before all creation in Your rectitude and the fire of the Dove, the Holy Spirit, so that Your Son might rise from a Virgin in the splendid beauty of the sun and be clothed with true humanity, a human form assumed for the sake of humankind.
In Hildegard’s theology, that eternally predestined irruption of divinity into time was mediated from the very beginning by the archetypal mothers and their procreative potential—a motherhood shaken by the pain of sin through Eve, renewed into life through Mary, and perpetuated in history by Mother Church. In contrast to Hildegard’s extensive treatment of the Virgin Mary in the music of Symphonia, Christ’s mother makes only sporadic appearances in her large works of visionary theology, at least explicitly. Implicitly, however, Hildegard constantly reminds us of her role in mediating and manifesting the divine, through her foreshadowing especially of the Virgin Mother Church. Mary also appears foreshadowed in the guise of several of the virtutes—not just virtues, but sacramental agents of divine power—that adorn the Edifice of Salvation in Part III of Scivias. One prominent example, especially as we look forward to the Advent of Christ, is the figure of Misericordia (Mercy) in the vision of Scivias III.3, of the Tower of the Anticipation of God’s Will (praecursus voluntatis Dei), the image of which from the Rupertsberg manuscript appears above.
This vision relates five virtues adorning a tower that relates the foreshadowing of God’s will in the course of the salvation history leading up to the Incarnation (the time of the Law and circumcision). They are constitutive of that story of salvation, which starts with Heavenly Love (amor caelestis), is trained in Discipline (disciplina) and Modesty (verecundia), and then brought through Mercy to Victory (victoria). It is the figure of Mercy, however, who prefigures most closely the Virgin Mary, for in the vision she declares the words of the Canticle of Zacharias that foretell the coming of Christ, inscribed upon the scroll unfurled behind her: “Through the depths of the mercy of our God, in which the Dayspring from on high has visited us” (Luke 1:78: Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri, in quibus visitavit nos oriens ex alto). As the explication of the vision relates (Scivias III.3.8), this “is to say that salvation comes from the depth of the Father’s mercy; for it was hidden in His heart, as the viscera are hidden in a person, that His Son was to be incarnate and God visit humanity at the end of times.” As the voice of the One upon the throne continues:
She has her head veiled in womanly fashion with a white veil, which is the roof and foundation of salvation (…). And so Mercy, in the figure of a woman, is a fruitful mother of souls saved from perdition. (…) And the virtue of Mercy also appears in feminine form because, when one virginal body was enclosed by womanly chastity, sweetest Mercy arose in the womb of Mary; Mercy had always dwelt in the Father, but now the Father showed her as visible through the Holy Spirit in the Virgin’s womb.
She is hung about with a yellow cloak; for she is surrounded by the shining sun, the sign of My Son, Who shines on the world from Heaven as the sun’s splendor shines on the earth. For My Son is the true Sun, lighting up the world by the sanctification of the Church.
And on her breast she has a picture of My Only-Begotten, which means that I put My Son on the breast of Mercy when I sent Him into the womb of the Virgin Mary.
We see here Hildegard’s particular and adept ability to employ polyvalent symbols of God's power and presence, for Mercy seems to dance along a network of identifications—she is both Mary’s womb and the fruit of that virginal womb, the Word eternally dwelling with the Father and the temple of salvation. As we prepare again to celebrate that coming of divinity into the flesh through his Virgin Mother, let us think with Hildegard upon Mary’s special place in restoring the promise of divine mercy and life to our mortal world.Notes
 Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 110, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. ↩
 See Newman, Symphonia, p. 271. ↩
 Translation adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 309-310. ↩
 On this, see my discussion in “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen's Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,” Eikón / Imago 4 (July-December 2013, Vol. 2, No. 2), pp. 1-68, especially pp. 51-55. ↩
 Latin text from the edition of Führkötter and Carlevaris, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978); trans. Hart and Bishop, pp. 343-354. ↩