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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. 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.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

O splendidissima gemma (Symphonia 10)

For the Fourth Sunday in Advent, an Antiphon for the Virgin
by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias I.4:
Conception of
Soul and Body.
Rupertsberg MS,
fol. 22r (detail)
O splendidissima gemma
et serenum decus solis
qui tibi infusus est,
fons saliens
de corde Patris,
quod est unicum Verbum suum,
     per quod creavit
mundi primam materiam,
quam Eva turbavit.

Hoc Verbum effabricavit
tibi Pater hominem,
et ob hoc es tu illa
     lucida materia
per quam hoc ipsum Verbum
omnes virtutes,
     ut eduxit
in prima materia omnes creaturas. 
O jewel resplendent
and bright and joyous beauty of the sun
that’s flooded into you—
the fountain leaping
from the Father’s heart.
This is his single Word
     by which he did create
the world’s primordial matter,
a motherhood into confusion cast by Eve.

This Word the Father made
for you into a man—
and this is why you are that bright
     and shining matter,
through which that Word
     has breathed
forth every virtue’s pow’r,
     as he brought forth
all creatures in a primal motherhood.

Update: For more resources and information about this antiphon, including a musical transcription, see the entry for O splendidissima gemma at the International Society for Hildegard von Bingen Studies’ website.

This antiphon is the first piece of the heavenly symphony that Hildegard heard in the final vision of Scivias (III.13), addressed to the Virgin Queen of the celestial choirs. Its opening image, of the sunlight refracting through and reflecting off a gemstone, becomes quite literally a lens through which Hildegard glimpses the entire sway of salvation history, stretching from the prima materia, the primordial material at the beginning of creation, through the disturbance of that matter in the Fall, and finally to the Virgin’s integral role in renewing that material as she bore the Son of God. Two central images emerge: the interaction of sunlight with gemstone, and the polyvalency of materia as both matter and motherhood.

The image of the gemstone situates the Virgin within the complex web of salvation history by calling upon the twelve precious stones that adorned first the breastplate of the high priest of Israel (Exodus 28) and then the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem in John’s vision thereof (Apoc. 21). We have already seen how much the architectural imagery of the latter influenced Hildegard’s thought patterns, in e.g. the responsory Ave Maria, auctrix vite (Symphonia 8). The manifestation of God’s presence among his people as his City is a classically patristic image (e.g. St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei), but Hildegard expands its symbolic limits by connecting the Heavenly Jerusalem to the Virgin’s own body as a tabernacle—the Temple of God with its closed and re-opened door that we saw in the antiphon Hodie aperuit (Symphonia 11), invoking Ezekiel 44.

Scivias I.3: The Cosmic Egg.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 14r.

The illustration above comes from the Rupertsberg manuscript’s rendition of Scivias I.4, in which Hildegard explored the relationship between soul and body struggling against the temptations of the material world. This vision is the microcosmic counterpart to Scivias I.3, which described the composition of the macrocosmic universe in the form of an egg—and the illustration that Hildegard designed reinforces the connection by placing the vision’s opening scene within a similarly egg-shaped frame. The vision itself, as well as the allegorical explication of it and the extensive narrative told by the representative “human form”, all identify this as the story of the life and ordeals of an “Everyperson.” Other portions of the illustration (not included here) illustrate the struggles of that life, as well as the coming of this Everyperson before final judgement.

Nativity of the Lord.
Stammheim / Hildesheim
Missal (ca. 1160-70), fol. 92r.
J. Paul Getty Museum

The vision begins, however, with the Everyperson’s conception, as their soul is quickened in the womb of their mother by the flow of divine energy from a golden quadrilateral allegorically identified as “the Knowledge of God.” The iconography of this image, however, also draws from common tropes for illustrating the Virgin Birth of Christ. Its image of the recumbent mother echoes precisely the pose of the Virgin Mary in childbirth, as seen for example below her newborn son in a manger in this illustration of the Nativity from the Stammheim/Hildesheim Missal, a manuscript nearly contemporaneous to the Rupertsberg Scivias. The illustrators of this page also worked from a similar set of typographical connections as did Hildegard, as we see Ezekiel standing to the left of the Virgin, holding a scroll that reads, Porta hec clausa erit (Ezekiel 44:2: “This gate shall be shut”)—and the door is illustrated below.[2]

The use of gold overlaid with red-lacquer further highlights the particular iconographical valences of the Rupertsberg image, for the manuscript intentionally used such red-gold to illustrate both the Father as one person of the Trinity and to mark the irruptions of his divine activity into creation in the form of one Hildegard’s favorite images, the dawn light.[3] Hildegard’s design of the image thus foretells the Virgin Birth of Christ and helps the viewer-reader to connect the Everyperson’s lament in Scivias I.4 with the antiphon above, which is the first lyric to the Virgin in Scivias III.13. For the human form born of the woman in this vision declared with a groan:

For I should have had a tabernacle adorned with five square gems more brilliant than the sun and stars, for the sun and stars that set would not have shone in it, but the glory of the angels; the topaz would have been its foundation and all the gems its structure, its staircases made of crystal and its courtyards paved with gold. For I should have been a companion of the angels, for I am a living breath, which God placed in dry mud; thus I should have known and felt God. But alas! When my tabernacle saw that it could turn its eyes into all the ways, it turned its attention toward the North; ach, ach! And there I was captured and robbed of my sight and the joy of knowledge, and my garment was torn.
Oh, who will console me, since even my mother has abandoned me when I strayed from the path of salvation? Who will help me but God? But when I remember you, O mother Zion, in whom I should have dwelt, I see the bitter slavery to which I am subjected. And when I have called to memory the music of all sorts that dwells in you, I feel my wounds. And when I remember the joy and gladness of your glory, I am horrified by the poisons that pollute them.
     —Scivias I.4.1[4]

Mother Zion and her bejewled tabernacle full of light and joyous music is clearly a type or figure of the Virgin Mother Church, whose halls Hildegard herself filled with music. But as the collective Mother Zion transformed into the collective Mother Church, so the individual and archetypal—but fallen—Mother Eve transformed into the Virgin Mother Mary as temporal instantiations of the divine tabernacle. The first words addressed to Mary in Scivias III.14 praise her as precisely the “resplendent jewel” that was supposed to be the material of the human body, reflecting and refracting the divine light of which the sun and stars are but dim shadows. Her body—transparent and unpolluted—was the perfect chamber for God’s presence that all other human bodies, following the inheritance of Eve, had scorned and vitiated with the darkness and shadow of sin.

The zeal of the poetry highly exalts the Virgin Mary. Although the sun itself is the divine fountain, the source of all, Mary is the sun’s serenum decus, the “bright and joyous beauty” of the sunlight that her lucid body refracts and reflects. Furthermore, in the second half of the antiphon, it is for Mary herself (tibi) that the Father made his Word into a human being—she is the first and singular benefactor of this extraordinary gift, as only the purity of her body and soul were sufficient to receive it. This is the virtue of her gem-like lucidity, the lucida materia that sparkles with the divine presence and allows it to shine forth.

The music, however, mediates this exaltation by establishing different registers for Mary’s creaturliness and God’s divinity. This piece spends much more time in the octave of middle C than many of Hildegard’s other pieces, dipping at least as low as A in the opening line on splendidissima. Furthermore, the lower range is used through most of the piece for the earthly creatures of Mary and Eve, while reserving the range of c and higher for references to the divine—the Sun itself leaping from the Father’s heart, with saliens the first to leap to the highest note of the piece (e, more than an octave above middle C, giving the piece an entire range of nearly two octaves), repeated again always in reference to Father and Word—on quod, the latter two appearances of Verbum, and both Pater and hominem.

The last line of the piece, however, unites the two ranges as materia soars to that top note of e: at last the primordial material of creation returns to its divine source along the same path by which the divine virtutes—the virtues and powers of divine activity—came forth, creating and sustaining, into the world, refracted through the gem-like transparency of Mary’s pure material body. This brings us to the second crucial image with which Hildegard plays in this piece—the polyvalency of materia as not only material but also motherhood. The vitiation of the “primordial matter” came through the chaos provoked by Eve’s fall, punished by the pangs of childbirth and human mortality. The music reinforces this connection, for Eva is set to the same musical phrase but two tones lower as the first half of primam materiam, while turbavit then echoes directly the final phrase of materiam. But the motherhood that Eve’s falleness cast into confusion, shadow, and darkness was rescued and restored by the Virgin's miraculous bearing of the Son of God.

For Hildegard, the fecundity and fertility of motherhood is a fundamental property of material creation. At one level, this is a consequence of her neoplatonic metaphysics—because all being exists because of the overflow of fecund being from its divine source, all being thus shares in that fundamental property of wanting to overflow, to be creative and recreative and procreative. But in Hildegard’s poetic symbolisms, it is often the more concrete images drawn from the natural world around her that relate this material fecundity with startling and refreshing vitality. In the explicatory chapters of the aforementioned Scivias I.4, she often draws upon such verdant metaphors to explain the relationship between body and soul, thus literally rooting the human person in the creative vitality of the material world. The infant is quickened in the mother’s womb, for example, “just as the earth opens and brings forth the flowers of its use when the dew falls on it” (Scivias I.4.16)—the imagery, of course, parallels Hildegard’s descriptions of Mary’s fecund virginity in, e.g., Ave generosa (Symphonia 17).[5] Thereafter, the soul and its powers (vires) “give vitality and viridity to the marrow and veins and members of the whole body, as the tree from its root gives sap and viridity to all the branches” (Scivias I.4.16).[6]

It might seem odd, then, that in this antiphon, Hildegard represents this fecund materiality with the image, not of a living organism, but of a gemstone—a piece of rock that would seem to most of us the antithesis of life.[7] But for Hildegard, all materiality has a vitality to it, precisely because all materiality participates in its vital creator and source. Thus, she even goes so far as to use a stone as an analogy for the Trinity—in Scivias II.2.5, a stone’s damp viridity (umida viriditas), solidity to the touch (palpabilis comprehensio), and red-sparking fire (rutilans ignis) represent Father, Son, and Spirit, respectively. In that same vision, Hildegard had already seen the Son represented as “a human being the color of sapphire”, and the sapphire returns in the vision of the Eucharist in Scivias II.6 as Hildegard describes the union of Christ’s divinity with the sacramental wine as the physical action of dropping a sapphire into the cup (ch. 13)—thus invoking the use of gemstones as medicinal cures found in the fourth book of her work on natural medicine, Physica. As she notes in the Preface of that fourth book, all stones are born of fire and water, and all are despised by the Devil because they both remind him of his former glory (adorned as he was by their lucid splendor) and, “because it is the nature of certain precious stones to seek those things that are honorable and useful and to reject those that are depraved and evil for humankind, just as the virtues reject the vices and the vices cannot cooperate with the virtues.”[8] Precious stones have their own powers (vires) to choose between good and evil—and it is in their nature to choose the good, for the good is the source of their beauty and light.

The resplendent lucidity of Mary’s jewel-like body is a property of her glorious virginal motherhood, which allows the Word to be made flesh in her womb without ever being overtaken by the darkness. The streaming Light of the world leaps forth, now visible to human eyes because it has taken up our flesh, born in the darkest time of year to a Virgin Mother. Let us rejoice and be glad to receive this glorious light of the sun, and let us strive to make ourselves a bit more like her, our lives the lucent gems that allow God’s light to shine for all to see.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 114, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] The other images surrounding the central nativity also invoke Old Testament and other typographies. The images at the top center on Christ’s mission of salvation. At the top left, John the Baptist appears with a scroll reading, Qui de celo venit, super omnes est (John 3:31: “He who comes from heaven is over all”). In the top center, God appears in the burning bush that is not consumed and gives a mission to Moses (top left), Veni, mittam te (Exodus 3:10: “Come, I will send you”); the Law-giver responds, Obsecro, Domine, mitte quem missurus es (Exodus 4:13: “I beseech you, Lord, send whom you will send”). The images at the bottom, including the closed door, all invoke types for Mary’s virginity. In the bottom left appears the warrior Gideon, pointing to his fleece, which has miraculously stayed dry while (Judges 6:36-40), while at the bottom right a unicorn lays its head in the lap of the virgin—a common image of medieval animal lore. See Elizabeth C. Teviotdale, The Stammheim Missal (Los Angeles: Getty Museum Studies in Art, 2001), pp. 66-8. 
[3] 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. p. 55; available online here
[4] From Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 109-110; Latin text in the edition of Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 62-3. 
[5] Trans. Hart and Bishop, p. 119; ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, p. 78: “velut terra se aperit et flores fructus sui profert cum ros super eam ceciderit.” 
[6] Adapted from Hart and Bishop, p. 120; ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, p. 78: “quonium viriditatem medullarum ac venarum et omnium membrorurm toti corpori tribuit, velut arbor ex sua radice sucum et viriditatem omnibus ramis dat.” 
[7] Jeffrey Cohen is currently completing a book that explores the various vitalities and agencies and activities of stone: Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015, forthcoming). He has offered a plethora of previews and explorations at “In the Middle”; see, for example, his recent posting, “Do Stones Have Souls?” 
[8] Hildegard von Bingen, Physica: Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum, ed. Reiner Hildebrandt and Thomas Gloning (Walter de Gruyter, 2010), p. 229 (Liber IV, Prefatio): “Et sic pretiosi lapides ab igne et ab aqua gignuntur; unde etiam ignem et humiditatem in se habent, et etiam multas vires et multos effectus operum tenent, ita quod plurime operationes cum eis fieri possunt, ea tamen opera que bona et honesta ac utilia homini sunt (...), quoniam natura eorundem pretiosorum lapidum queque honesta et utilia querit, et prava et mala homini respuit, quemadmodum virtutes vitia abiciunt, et ut vitia cum virtutibus operari non possunt.” 

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