About Me

My photo
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.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

O victoriosissimi triumphatores (Symphonia 37)

For the Feast of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Bishop and Martyr,
An Antiphon for Martyrs by St. Hildegard of Bingen [1]

Scivias III.13: Symphonia in
Heaven: Choir of Martyrs.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 229r
O victoriosissimi triumphatores,
qui in effusione sanguinis vestri
salutantes edificationem
sanguinem Agni,
cum vitulo occiso:

O quam magnam mercedem habetis,  
quia corpora vestra
viventes despexistis,
imitantes Agnum Dei,
ornantes penam eius,
in qua vos introduxit
in restaurationem hereditatis.
O victors in your triumph!
Your blood poured out,
you hail the building of
the Church—
for you have entered in
the Lamb’s own blood,
and now enjoy the feast
with the slaughtered calf.

How great is your reward!
Your living bodies
you’ve despised
in imitation of God’s Lamb—
his pain you take as glory,
for in it he has brought you
to your inheritance restored!

Scivias III.13:
Heavenly Symphony.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 229r
This is one of two pieces addressed to the Choir of Martyrs in the final vision of Hildegard’s Scivias (III.13), of the heavenly court and its symphony of praise. In the illustration of this celestial symphony in the Rupertsberg manuscript, the roundel that contains the choir of martyrs (detail above) appears beneath that of the patriarchs and prophets—as they had foretold the coming of the Lamb of God (cf. John the Baptist’s cry in John 1:29), so the martyrs followed that Lamb to the slaughter. As Barbara Newman notes, the Tertullianic dictum, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” had become commonplace by the Middle Ages, and this antiphon joyously celebrates their role in building the Church with the shedding of their blood, whereafter they enter into the eternal feast of the Lamb as their reward.[2]

Both the “slaughtered calf” and the “restoration of the inheritance” recall the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)—the calf was prepared for the feast when the son returned home repentant, a sign of his restoration to his forgiving father. Indeed, Hildegard connects the two concepts by repeating a particular musical motif—a cascade of notes down the scale—on vitulo occiso and restaurationem hereditatis (the motif is first introduced on sanguinis in line 2). The connection becomes clearer in Hildegard’s exegesis of this parable in Scivias III.1.5, where she uses it to illustrate the journey of repentance:

As the Scripture says in the Gospel, the younger son said, “I will arise and go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants’” [Luke 15:18]. This is to say: A person who, admonished by the Holy Spirit, comes to himself after a fall into sin says, “I want to rise up from the unendurable sins whose heavy guilt I can no longer bear. I will retrace my steps in memory, lamenting and sorrowing over my sins, until I come to my Father, Who is my Father because he created me. And I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven, wronging the celestial work that is myself; You formed me by Your will, and touched me in creating me, so that I should be only celestial in my deeds. But I have belittled myself by shameful actions, and I have sinned before You, because I have forsaken the humanity of my nature. (…)

“ ‘But now, let me be as Your servant, redeemed at the price of Your Son’s blood. You gave Him at a price so great that not even death can ever repay it; but that price allows penitence to arise from Your Son’s Passion, and so sets sinners free. I have lost my rightful inheritance as a child of Adam, for he, who was created a son in justice, was stripped of that joyful glory; but now the blood of Your Son and penitence have redeemed the sins of humanity.’ ”[3]

What is the connection between this desperate confession of repentance and the glories of the martyrs celebrated in today’s antiphon? In the vision whose explication contains this exegetical confession of the Everyperson, Hildegard saw the latter clutched at God’s breast, “something like black and filthy muck [limum nigrum et lutulentum], as big as a human heart, surrounded with precious stones and pearls” (Scivias III.1). These “precious stones” represent the saints, whose beauty aids the Everyperson on their journey:

They are surrounded by ornaments [ornamentis], those great ones who rise up among them: martyrs and holy virgins like precious stones, and innocent and penitent children of redemption like pearls; so that by them the mire [of their sins] is surpassingly adorned, and the virtues, which so gloriously shine in God, shine also in the human body.
     —Scivias III.1.4[4]

As today’s antiphon indicates, the shedding of the martyr’s blood joins with the punishment and pain (penam) endured by the Lamb as the glorious adornments of the City of God—the gems that form its foundation and walls, as described in Apocalypse 21 and elaborated in one of Hildegard's antiphons for the Virgin, O splendidissma gemma. Moreover, as we saw in our discussion of the antiphon, O vis eternitatis, the restoration of “the inheritance lost in Adam” was one especially of the restoration of music, the symphony that resounds in those jeweled walls, including today's song of celebration for the martyr’s victory:

He poured out His beautiful blood and knew in His body the darkenss of death. And thus conquering the Devil, he delivered from Hell his elect, who were held prostrate there, and by His redeeming touch brought them back to the inheritance they had lost in Adam [ad hereditatem…reduxit]. As they were returning to their inheritance, timbrels and haprs and all kinds of music burst forth, because humankind, who had lain in perdition but now stood upright in blessedness, had been freed by heavenly power and escaped from death.
     —Scivias II.1.13[5]

The idea that Christ’s blood was shed to restore humankind to what they had lost in Adam is commonplace. Moreover, the liturgical character of the martyr’s imitative action of that bloodshed is also a common symbolic image. Indeed, in the earliest non-scriptural record of a Christian martyrdom, we find that as St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was bound to the stake to be burned, “like a noble ram taken out of some great flock for sacrifice, a goodly burnt-offering all ready for God,” his final words likely echoed the Eucharistic prayer that he had offered every week for decades:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of thyself; Thou art the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all the generations of the righteous who live in thy sight. I bless thee for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered amongst the martyrs, to share the cup of thine Anointed and to rise again unto life everlasting, both in body and soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in thy presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as thou didst appoint and foreshow, and dost now bring it to pass, for thou art the God of truth and in thee is no falsehood. For this, and for all else besides, I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through our eternal High Priest in Heaven, thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom be glory to thee and the Holy Ghost, now and in all ages to come. Amen.[6]

Here we find the classic coincidence of the martyr’s sacrifice and Christ’s, their blood commingled in glory yet always carefully distinct in agency, for as Marcion, the author of this description of Polycarp’s martyrdom, is quick to point out, “It is to [Christ], as the Son of God, that we give our adoration; while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher.” Furthermore, that expression of love is communicated in the collection and veneration of the martyr’s relics, which are “more precious to us than jewels, and finer than pure gold.”[7]

In Hildegard’s antiphon, too, we find this sacramental commingling of blood, as the martyr’s act of imitation makes him into an agent of divine grace, a conduit for the redeeming power of the blood into which he has now entered. What makes Hildegard’s treatment of this sacramental and liturgical act unique is its musicality, for the “new song” of the heavenly Jerusalem that rang out when Adam’s inheritance had been restored to the children of earth echoed the resounding cry of Christ’s own blood upon the Cross, as Hildegard evocatively described in the antiphon, O cruor sanguinis. Finally, this is the “new song” that she and her nuns offer in divine praise, for as we saw in her antiphon for St. John, O speculum columbe, their virginal sacrifice of the desires of the flesh was the counterpart to the martyr’s sacrifice of his flesh. This fundamental connection between martyr and virgin allows Hildegard to assimilate the martyr’s participation in the heavenly court to her own order of virgins, as she articulated for them a preeminent place in the Church’s hierarchy.[8]

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 170; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] Ibid., p. 288. 
[3] Trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 312-3; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 333-4. 
[4] Trans. Hart and Bishop, p. 312; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, p. 332. 
[5] Trans. Hart and Bishop, pp. 154-5; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43, pp. 119-20. 
[6] “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” c. 14, in Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, with notes by Andrew Louth (Penguin Books, 1968 and 1987), pp. 129-130. 
[7] Ibid., cc. 17-18, p. 130. 
[8] For more on her vision of the Order of Virgins, see my discussion of the antiphon for virgins, O nobilissima viriditas

No comments: