For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception upon the Second Sunday
of Advent, an Antiphon for the Virgin by St. Hildegard of Bingen
Scivias III.8: The Pillar
of the Savior's Humanity.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 178r.
quod serpens in muliere
unde lucet in aurora
flos de Virgine Maria.
was opened unto us
a shut-up gate.
For the serpent drew it tight,
in woman choked—
yet from it gleams within the dawn
the Virgin Mary’s flow’r.
Although this is one of Hildegard’s shortest antiphons, its textual brevity merely serves to heighten the elegant coincidence of three striking images with which to describe that wondrous moment when the Incarnate Christ entered the world through his Mother Mary: a gate, a flower, and the dawn light. One could imagine Hildegard composing this piece in the early morning while tending to the gardens that would have been kept behind the walls of the two monasteries in which she lived, accessible only by a gate.
The metaphor of vowed virginity as an enclosed garden (the hortus inclusus) was a frequent one especially in twelfth-century monastic spirituality, and takes on a particularly striking meaning within the context of Hildegard’s renown as an herbalist, putting into practice the theological theory of viriditas—nature’s fresh green vitality—that was her special hallmark. Here, Hildegard causes the closed gate of her garden to be symbolically aligned with the shut-up gate of the Temple described near the end of Ezekiel’s visionary journey through it:
Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut: And he said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the LORD; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.” (Ezekiel 44:1-3)As Barbara Newman notes, this prophecy of the Temple’s gate that would open only for the Prince “was a sign of Mary’s perpetual virginity,” the gate representing her womb, which opened not for any man but for the Son of God alone. The gate thus symbolizes for Hildegard the power of virginal motherhood.
She then skillfully transitions the imagery from the gate of the garden sanctuary to the flower blooming within it by using the verb suffocavit to denote Eve—the “Everywoman” of mulier—losing that power of virginal motherhood to the trickery of the serpent, who simultaneously closes the gate to the life-giving garden, cuts Eve’s children off from Eden, and chokes out the seeds of the blooming flower within the garden. This transition then allows Hildegard to glimpse the flower that sprouted from the Virgin, freed from the serpent’s poisonous infertility, gleaming in the dawn light through the gate that has been reopened.
The musical setting enhances the thought movement between open and closed, choked and fertile. As Marianne Richert Pfau has shown, the musical phrases, while anchored on c, alternate tonalities between an initial octave range from G-g (introduced on Hodie) to a secondary range one fifth lower from F-f (introduced on aperuit nobis)—and extraordinarily for a piece not only of medieval music but even for modern theory, the setting in the early Dendermonde manuscript ends the piece on the secondary tonality, for “the F-context provides a tonal anchor for the fantastic upward surge toward the climax on flos.” Furthermore, the opening phrases concerning the gate and the closing phrases concerning the Virgin’s flower are both elaborately melismatic, while the middle phrase describing the serpent’s duplicitous destruction of maternal power is jarringly declamatory, with just a few notes on each syllable. The story would not make any sense without that fallenness, but in the light of the Incarnation, it makes no more sense to dwell upon it.
The image of Christ as the flower blooming from Mary is rooted in one of Isaiah’s famous prophecies of Christ: “And there shall come forth a branch out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root” (Isaiah 11:1). As Hildegard relates in her exposition of this verse:
And so from the root of that branch arose the sweet fragrance of the Virgin’s intact fecundity; and when it had so arisen, the Holy Spirit inundated it so that the tender flower was born from her. How? Like a flower born in a field though its seed was not sown there, the Bread of Heaven arose in her without originating in a mingling with a man and without any human burden; it was born in the sweetness of divinity, untouched by unworthy sin, without the knowledge and utterly without the influence of the devious serpent. Hence this Flower deceived the serpent. (…) When Humility was exalted by the ascent of the Flower, scorn and disaster overtook Pride; for the first woman had listened to it when she strove to know more than she should have, but the second woman submitted to God’s service and confessed Him, acknowledging herself to be small and humble.This passage comes in the explication of her vision of the Pillar of the Savior’s Humanity upon the south wall of the Edifice of Salvation in Scivias, Part III, Vision 8. As the virtues of God’s servants climb up and down the ladder, adorning it with their “zealous work”, seven in particular are seen marking the rungs from top to bottom. The first of these, Humility—whose image in the Rupertsberg manuscript appears above—becomes especially entwined with the Virgin Mary, for she “stands in the heart of the sacred temple in blessed and shining knowledge, gratefully and humbly but splendidly and permanently.” This is the very same temple from Ezekiel’s vision whose shut-up gate was opened and from which “shines forth the Only-Begotten of God” (Scivias III.8.18).
The Word was invisible when He was not yet incarnate, but when He was incarnate, He became visible; the Word, Who was in the heart of the Father before all creatures, by Whom all things were made and without Whom nothing was made that was made (John 1:3), shone forth within time as a Flower, visible as a human being (…).
So let us prepare ourselves to glimpse again that gleaming light of the Flower of the Son of God coming unto us, his Virgin Mother’s fertile garden blossoming sweetly and delicately as the dawn returns, “in russet mantle clad,” as Horatio described it after Marcellus reported:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
—Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1
 Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 116, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. The opening word Hodie appears only in the early Dendermonde manuscript; other manuscripts read Nunc aperuit (“Now was opened”). As Newman notes (p. 273), “The initial hodie in D strikes a note of liturgical immediacy which would be proper to a specific feast, such as Annunciation or Christmas.” The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to the idea that Mary herself was conceived as a child without stain of original sin, was not celebrated in the Middle Ages—indeed, several famous medieval theologians, including Hildegard’s fellow Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, cast doubt upon the theological adequacy of the doctrine. Hildegard herself never discussed the question. The doctrine should be carefully distinguished from Mary’s conception of Christ by the power of Holy Spirit (celebrated on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation) and from the Virgin Birth, which refers to the fact that Mary gave birth to the Christ child while remaining a Virgin. ↩
 Newman, Symphonia, p. 273. ↩
 Marianne Richert Pfau, “Music and Text in Hildegard’s Antiphons”, in Symphonia, ed. Newman, esp. pp. 91-93. The later collection of Hildegard’s music in the Riesenkodex transcribes the final phrases down to correspond to the original tonal character—whether this editorial intervention was to “standardize” the non-standard form of the earlier notation or simply to make the piece easier to sing is an unanswerable question. ↩
 Translation adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 436-8. ↩