by St. Hildegard of Bingen
|St. John, the beloved disciple,|
resting with Jesus.
Andachtsbild, carved and
painted wood, ca. 1320.
From the Dominican convent
Museum Mayer van den Bergh,
Antwerp / Web Gallery of Art.
|O speculum columbe
qui inspexisti misticam
in purissimo fonte:
O mira floriditas
que numquam arescens cecidisti,
quia altissimus plantator
O suavissima quies
tu es specialis filius Agni
in electa amicicia
|O mirror of the dove—|
the perfect form of chastity—
you gazed upon the mystic
within the clearest font:
O wondrous, flourished bloom
that never withered, never fell—
the Gardener on high
has sent you forth:
O sweet repose
of sunshine’s warm embrace:
the Lamb’s especial son you are
within that privileged friendship of
a new posterity.
(A recording of this antiphon can be viewed on YouTube here.)
St. John, the “beloved disciple” of Jesus in his eponymous Gospel (John 21:20-24), held a unique place not only among the Twelve but also in Hildegard’s understanding of their shared virginal and visionary charism. It was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages both that he was the same man as John of Patmos, the author of the Apocalypse; and that John’s particular gift was lifelong virginity, which marked him out for the special place “reclining nearest to Jesus” at the Last Supper (John 13:23) and as the Virgin Mary’s adoptive son beneath the beam of the Cross (John 19:26-7). In contrast to the bloody martyrdoms of the other eleven apostles, John’s martyrdom was the spiritual death of the desires of the flesh, marking him as the first representative of the monastic discipline of vowed virginity that came to receive the transferred crown of martyrdom in late antique and medieval Christianity.
The focus of this antiphon is Hildegard’s praise for her comrade in virginity, expressed in three particular symbolic images that articulate the special contemplative gift afforded “the new posterity” of the Order of Virgins within the Church. The first of these—the speculum columbe—expresses the idea that, in imitating the purity of the simple white Dove, the virgin contemplative receives from the Holy Spirit the gift of gazing upon divine mysteries at their font and source, unimpeded by the cloudiness and shadows that plague the person still wedded to the desires of the flesh. The music in this first part of the antiphon works to emphasize that the more chaste one is, the more pure the contemplation will be, by repeating the same motif on the superlatives castissime and purissimo—a motif that itself reaches to the highest note in the piece.
For St. John, who lived with Jesus in the flesh, this gift of clearest contemplation came when he lay nearest to the Lord at the Last Supper, as illustrated in the early fourteenth-century Andachtsbild, or carved devotional figurine, pictured above. As he rested his head upon Christ’s breast, John drank from his heart—the fons sapientiae, the source of wisdom (Ecclesiasticus / Sirach 1:5 [Vulgate])—in fulfillment of Christ’s words, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). It is in this regard that Hildegard called upon John’s visionary and contemplative gift when she later described “the extraordinary mystical vision” that provoked the writing of her last and greatest work, the Liber Divinorum Operum:
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 sense 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.
—Vita S. Hildegardis (“Life of St. Hildegard”), II.16
The “drops of sweet rain” lead us appropriately into the second symbolic image for John’s virginity, of the flower. This was a common image in Hildegard’s pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary and her Son (see e.g. Hodie aperuit [Symphonia 13] or Ave generosa [Symphonia 17]), but she gives it a unique treatment here by invoking, not just a flower, but the very concept or idea of flowering (floriditas)—a state of perpetual, virginal flourishing that takes its root from its eternal planting by the arresting image of God the Gardener. This planting, however, is also the mission of a new and holy race.
|Hildegard's Author Portrait.|
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 1r.
Thus, the final image of John’s virginity triangulates the contemplative’s mirrored vision and the flower’s fertile blooming with the sunlight that embraces both. The warmth of this embrace echoes one of Hildegard’s frequent images to describe her own visionary experience of the Living Light (lux vivens) and its shadow, e.g. at the opening of Scivias: “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.” This intimate embrace is that of the special friendship afforded to virgins as children of the Lamb, whose unblemished flesh they imitate so dearly.
|Scivias II.4: Ecclesia|
and her Orders.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 66r.
In Hildegard’s schema of the three orders of the Church (Scivias II.5), her own order of Virgins holds the highest and most honored place, above both laity and clergy. In both that vision itself and the illustration of it in the Rupertsberg manuscript, the figure standing at the very heart of the towering image of Ecclesia is the red-cloaked Virginitas (Virginity), her arms outstretched in the orans position, echoing the oblation of prayer offered by Mother Church herself:
This is Virginity, innocent of all foulness of human lust. Her mind is unbound by any shackle of corruption (…). She is also, as is shown you in this hidden and supernal light, the noble daughter of the celestial Jerusalem, the glory and honor of those who have shed their blood for love of virginity or in radiant humility preserved their virginity for the sake of Christ and died sweetly in peace. For she was betrothed to the Son of Almighty God, the King of all, and bore Him a noble brood [nobilissimam prolem], the elect choir of virgins, when she was strengthened in the peace of the Church.
The highest and particular office of this elect and noble virgin progeny was, for Hildegard, their service of song, as she envisioned the musical offering of prayer each day in the Benedictine opus Dei (“work of God”) as practically sacramental in its mediation of divine power (virtus) through human voices that echo in the golden halls of the Church. Moreover, it was St. John, in his role as revelator, who testified to this:
Hence, as you hear, all those who desire to keep their integrity for the sake of celestial love are called “daughters of Zion” in the celestial habitations; for in their love of virginity they imitated my Son, Who is the flower of virginity. Therefore the sounding echoes of the blessed spirits and the outpouring of voices and the winged decorations of happy minds and the golden vision of shining stones and jewels are all with them. How? Because the Son of God grants them this, that a sound goes forth from the Throne in which the whole choir of virgins joins in singing with great desire and harmonizing in the new song, as John, the beloved virgin, testifies, saying:
“And they sang, as it were, a new song before the throne, and before the four living creatures and the ancients,” (Apoc./Rev. 14:3). What does this mean? In those faithful ones who embrace chastity for a good purpose and preserve their virginity unstained for love of God, good will bursts forth wonderfully in praise of their Creator. How? In the dawn-light of virginity, which always surrounds the Son of God, steadfast praise is hidden; no worldly office and no tie of the law can resist it, and it sings in the voice of exultation (Ps. 41:5) a celestial song to the glory of God. How?
That song, which was not heard before the Only-Begotten of God, the true flower of virginity [verus flos virginitatis], returned in the body from earth to Heaven and sat again on the right hand of the Father, has a swift course and makes itself heard wonderfully in new liberty. (…) This new and unheard-of mystery resounded in Heaven in honor of virginity, before the majesty of God (for God could do this) and before the four wheels that rolled into the four corners of the earth bearing the truth of justice and the humanity of the Savior like the living creatures in the new Law, and before those ancients who were imbued with the Holy Spirit and showed the path of righteousness to the people under the old Law.
 Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 166; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. ↩
 On this figurine, see Jeffrey Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (Zone Books, 1998), pp. 130-1. ↩
 Trans. by Anna Silvas in Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources (Brepols, 1998; Pennsylvania State Pres, 1999), p. 179; Latin text ed. Monika Klaes, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis—Leben der heiligen Hildegard (Fontes Christiani, Bd. 29; Herder, 1998), p. 172: “Et de Dei inspiratione in scientiam anime mee quasi gutte suavis pluvie spargebantur, quia et Spiritus sanctus Iohannem evagnelistam imbuit, cum de pectore Iesu profundissimam revelationem suxit, ubi sensus ipsius sancta divinitate ita tactus est, quod absconsa mysteria et opera aperuit, ‘In principio,’ inquiens, ‘erat verbum’ etc.” ↩
 Protestificatio, trans. by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, in Scivias (Paulist Press, 1994), p. 59; Latin text in the edition of Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 3-4: “Maximae coruscationis igneum lumen aperto caelo veniens totum cerebrum meum transfudit et totum cor totumque pectus meum velut flamma non tamen ardens sed calens ita inflammavit, ut sol rem aliquam calefacit super quam radios suos ponit.” ↩
 Trans. Hart and Bishop, p. 205; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, pp. 180-1. ↩
 See Nathaniel M. Campbell, “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,” Eikón / Imago 4 (2013, Vol. 2, No. 2), pp. 1-68, esp. pp. 57-61; available online here. ↩
 Trans. Hart and Bishop, pp. 206-7; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, pp. 182-3. ↩