by St. Hildegard of Bingen
|Agony in the Garden.|
Drawing from the Abbey of
St. Walburg, Eichstätt, ca. 1500.
(From J. Hamburger,
Nuns as Artists, plate 8)
|V. Vos flores rosarum,
qui in effusione sanguinis vestri
beati estis in maximis gaudiis,
redolentibus et sudantibus
que fluxit de interiori mente
consilii manentis ante evum
R. in illo,
in quo non erat constitutio
V. Sit honor in consortio vestro,
qui estis instrumentum ecclesie
et qui in vulneribus
vestri sanguinis undatis:
R. In illo,
in quo non erat constitutio
|V. You blooms of roses,|
within your blood outpoured
you’re blessed in joys supreme—
the fragrance and distilled perfume
of that redemption
that flowed from th’ inmost heart
of counsel kept before all time
R. in him
who was unfounded
at the start.
V. An honor in your fellowship!
The Church’s instrument you are
as in your wounds, your waves
of blood, you surge and gush:
R. in him
who was unfounded
at the start.
The sweet perfume of the red rose pours forth like blood, and so the martyrs’ wounds and waves of blood exude that same joyous fragrance as they flow across the world and “water” the Church’s mission—and in all of this, their suffering participates in Christ’s, whose blood was eternally predestined to redeem that world. The poetic images in this responsory twist and strain against the boundaries of language and even concept, their synaesthetic transformations tying color and aroma with powerful movements of flow and surge, yet all rooted in the timeless counsel of him who has no foundation, for he is himself the foundation.
Symphonia de Martyribus
Riesenkodex, fol. 133ra.
Barbara Newman has judged this piece, “Hildegard’s poetry at its simultaneous best and worst: it is brimming with intensity and strangeness, but the startling images are sabotaged by unwieldy syntax.” I have tried, at least, to untangle the syntax a bit by altering Newman’s delineation in light of the evidence presented by its two appearances in the Riesenkodex manuscript: first in Hildegard’s vision of the heavenly symphony at the end of Scivias (III.13.5, fol. 133ra), where it follows O victoriosissimi triumphatores (but without the second respond) to form the twin verses sung in praise of the choir of martyrs; and then in the final section of the manuscript set to neumes (fol. 470ra-b). The syntax of the piece is made most “unwieldy” by two features: first, the oblique case of the participles redolentibus and sudantibus in the fourth line of the first versicle; and second, Hildegard’s penchant for setting much of the piece’s content within a series of nested relative clauses. From the perspective of meaning, it would make most logical sense for the two participles to refer to the flowers that represent the martyrs; however, Hildegard has syntactically transferred them to the maximis gaudiis (“joys supreme”) in which the martyr-blooms are blessed. As we shall see, however, the transferred epithets assist in moving the focus of the piece from the martyrs themselves to their participation in Christ’s eternal exemplar of sweet and joyous suffering.
Similarly, although the elaborately nested relative clauses do make it more difficult sometimes to follow the train of thought, they also serve to unify the imagery’s synaesthetic transfigurations. Moreover, Hildegard uses the repetition of musical motifs to clarify what Newman has criticized as a “strained image [submerged] in a further metaphysical conceit.” The most important of these repeated motifs in the first versicle connects in maximis gaudiis (“in joys sumpreme”) with de interiori mente (“from th’ inmost heart”), thus providing the crucial link between the concrete image of the martyrs’ rose-scented blood and Hildegard’s invocation of the Incarnation as predestined “before all time” in the divine “eternal counsel.” The martyrs’ “joys supreme” are the beatific vision, their union with and reward for imitating the bloodied but Risen Christ, in whose central redemptive act God “chose us [and them] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4: elegit nos in ipso ante mundi constitutionem). It is by that participation in the eternal that their rose-like wounds can exude the aromatic fragrance of Christ’s presence both within and outside of time.
Hildegard’s attempt to describe that timeless and “eternal counsel” (Ps. 32:11) also fumbles through an awkward set of expressions in the respond, which literally reads, “in him in whom there was no foundation from the head.” This phrasing was likely triggered by that verse in Ephesians—yet Hildegard strives to go beyond it to express that fact that, though the world has an establishment and framework (constitutio) with a beginning or source (a capite), the one in whom the world has that establishment and beginning is himself without beginning or establishment. Christ is the foundation and the head not only of the Church but, by analogy, of all Creation—or rather, as Hildegard describes in her exegesis of the hexaemeron of Genesis 1 in Liber Divinorum Operum II.1.17-42, the Church is the final and fulfilled reflection of that primal constitution.
The seeming inelegance of the respond’s phrasing reflects something we’ve seen before in another of her pieces, Laus Trinitati: her attempts to express the practically inexpressable in her unpolished and roughshod Latin often leave Hildegard anxiously fumbling though several metaphors and half-formed images. The consequence, however, is that Hildegard’s poetic language offers a raw and unadorned power, its images deeply resonant precisely because they remain unaffected. Without the learned tools of vocabulary and style available to a school master, she must make her rudiments carry staggering depths of meaning. Moreover, we see in today’s responsory Hildegard’s particular ability to employ poetic images “that stretch from the universal, divine exemplar to the concretized image and back again.” Newman herself has described this poetical dance of theological images: “no sooner does one of these yield its weight in concepts than the concepts dissolve into new images, enhancing or correcting the first. The final product is less a doctrine than an iconography, albeit rich with doctrinal meaning.”
What allows the concrete images of rose, blood, perfume, and gushing wave to coexist in today’s responsory with the abstract notion of an unfounded and eternal source from which those concrete images flow is Hildegard’s symbolist way of thinking; as I have described this elsewhere:
The hallmark of this mode of thinking is the way that it can pass effortlessly from one symbolic allusion to the next, connecting word after word, image after image, symbol after symbol, in sometimes surprising ways, constructing a vast web or network along which the symbolist mind could dynamically dash and slide as it contemplated everything in the light of the divine plan for salvation history. For Hildegard, this mode of thinking was analogous to her “Platonizing cosmology”—the flow of emanation and return, the cycle at the center of which is the Incarnation. In this way, her visionary experiences could, in fact, connect the highest levels of contemplative knowledge (of divinity itself) with the lowest levels of concrete images and artifacts.
This dynamic relationship between the concrete and particular, on the one hand; and the universal, eternal, and divine, on the other, though a hallmark of Hildegard’s visionary poetics, is not unique to them. A similarly jarring juxtaposition of images can be found, for example, in the fourth and final dream recounted by St. Perpetua at the end of her account of the events leading up to her and St. Felicity’s martyrdom on March 7, 203 in Carthage (Passio S. Perpetuae, ch. 10):
The day before our fight, this is what I saw in vision: Pomponius the deacon was coming to the prison gate and knocking urgently. And I went out to him and opened for him. He was wearing a loose, gleaming white tunic, and damasked sandals, and he said: ‘Perpetua, we are waiting for you: come!’ He took my hand and we began to go over rough, winding ways. We had hardly reached the amphitheatre, breathless, when he took me into the middle of the arena, and said: ‘Don’t be afraid; here I am, beside you, sharing your toil.’ And he vanished. And I saw the immense, astonished crowd. And as I knew I had been condemned to the wild beasts, I was amazed they did not send them out at me. Out against me came an Egyptian, foul of aspect, with his seconds: he was to fight with me. And some handsome young men came up beside me: my own seconds and supporters. And I was stripped naked, and became a man. And my supporters began to rub me with oil, as they do for a wrestling match; and on the other side I saw the Egyptian rolling himself in the dust. And a man of amazing size came out—he towered even over the vault of the amphitheatre. He was wearing the purple, loosely, with two stripes crossing his chest, and patterned sandals made of gold and silver, carrying a baton like a fencing-master and a green bough laden with golden apples. He asked for silence, and said: ‘This Egyptian, if he defeats her, will kill her with his sword; she, if she defeats him, will receive this bough.’ And he drew back.
And we joined combat, and fists began to fly. He tried to grab my feet, but I struck him in the face with my heels. And I felt airborne, and began to strike him as if I were not touching ground. But when I saw there was a lull, I locked my hands, clenching my fingers together, and so caught hold of his head; and he fell on his face, and I trod upon his head. The populace began to shout, and my supporters to sing jubilantly. And I went to the fencing-master and received the bough. He kissed me and said: ‘Daughter, peace be with you!’ And triumphantly I began to walk towards the Gate of the Living. And I awoke. And I knew I should have to fight not against wild beasts but against the Fiend; but I knew the victory would be mine.
This is what I have done till the day before the contest; if anyone wants to write of its outcome, let them do so.
This vividly fantastic and truly dream-like setting of Perpetua’s vision of her impending martyrdom shares the difficult shifts in both image and perspective that often make Hildegard’s visions so densely cryptic. While Hildegard often goes on to expound elaborately theological allegories for each precise detail of her visions, however, Perpetua offers only a cursory interpretation: “I knew I should have to fight not against wild beasts but against the Fiend; but I knew the victory would be mine.” Yet, Perpetua’s dream-vision both draws on details from her earlier visions (e.g. treading upon the dragon-serpent’s head in the first dream) and, with that single sentence of interpretation, sets itself within the context of the cosmic battle against the Fiend that was the spiritual hallmark of the early martyr’s experience. As Peter Dronke concludes:
In the dream Perpetua wins her combat, wins the apples of immortality. The conclusions of the ladder dream, of the Dinocrates dreams, and of this combat dream, are all serene. In her dreaming, that is, Perpetua always triumphs in the agon she has set herself: to be brave enough to face death, despite all that life holds out—a young son, a family, the joy of earthly existence (‘in carne hilaris’, XII 7). There is a crescendo in the inner conquests portrayed in these visions, and in the rewards—the cheese, the water that never fails, the golden apples. As von Franz aptly observed, ‘The closer destruction comes in the outer sphere, the more do the consoling images in dreams become heightened.’ (…)
It is in the light of von Franz’s comment that I would see Perpetua’s words as she wakes from her last dream (…). This brief attempt at allegorical interpretation suggests that here Perpetua has reached a decisive moment of certainty in her waking life—by way of her vision and beyond it. Yet it is one moment of allegory, or rationalization, only. The many vivid details within the last vision—the clothes of Pomponius and the fencing-master, the seconds, her own mode of fighting—cannot be translated into allegoric terms, or could be so only by imposing allegories wilfully. The dream has its own imaginative life, and its own truth as dream. (…) Perpetua was not writing hagiography—she was recording her own outer and inner world, harrowing and untarnished, with shining immediacy.
It is that powerful yet fluid linkage between outer and inner world, concrete image and spiritual reality, that also animates the illustration that I have paired with Hildegard’s responsory for the martyrs above. It comes from a collection of drawings produced by the nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburg in Eichstätt, Germany, around the year 1500; and it shows, contained within a rose blossom, an image of Christ in prayer and undergoing the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemene the night before his passion and death. As Jeffrey Hamburger observes of this picture:
Just as the wounds of Christ’s body were imagined as openings from which the sacraments flowed and through which the mystic could penetrate the mysteries of Christ’s heart, so too the rose in the drawing from St. Walburg unfolds at its center, inviting deeper examination. Like images of Christ’s disembodied wounds, it provides an isolated focal point for intense and ardent scrutiny. At the center of the drawing we penetrate, as if peering from the wrong end of a telescope, to the small-scale view of the Agony in the Garden. As the event that inaugurated the Passion, the Agony stood, pars pro toto, for the whole of Christ’s suffering.
The nun who held this drawing in her hands worshiped in tandem with Christ. Even as she said her own prayers, she was confronted by an image of the Savior engaged in the archetypal act of prayer: Christ praying before his own Passion. The image has a similarly reflexive character. It functions like the mirror it resembles. Seeking her reflectioin, the nun would instead have found the model whose actions hers reflect.
This symbolic capacity to connect an intensely particular and concrete image with an eternal and universal exemplar likewise connects in today’s responsory these three devout women across 1300 years of the life of the Church—St. Perpetua, St. Hildegard, and the artist at St. Walburg. Each woman in her own way participated “in him who was unfounded at the start”—the Word from whom all things founded spring, who then took on our flesh and in it suffered pain and death, that he might raise it up to new life. Each woman likewise became “the Church’s instrument” in that participation: Perpetua’s blood really did pour forth in waves to water and feed the Christian community in Carthage, symbolically aligned through the appearance of Christ in her first dream-vision as a shepherd milking his sheep and making cheese from it to offer to her as her martyr's reward, with the milk that her young son sucked from her breasts while she waited in prison to die; while Hildegard and the artistic nun both bore the martyrdom of the flesh of vowed virginity in their service to the Church and thereby took on that particular form of virginal motherhood.
The Orders of the Church.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 66r.
We saw in Hildegard’s antiphon for St. John (O speculum columbe) and her responsory for virgins (O nobilissima viriditas), that her own order of Virgins holds the highest and most honored place in the orders of the Church. She describes the splendor of virginity as the Church’s ornament in this way in Scivias II.5.5 (text in italics comes from the description of the vision):
That splendor glows like the dawn from [the Church’s] throat to her breasts; for this perfection arose from the taste of the excitement of miracles and extended in virginal gladness to the sweet nourishment of churchly religion. And it shines from her breasts to her navel mixed with purple and blue; for she fortified herself for the stringency of inner chastity by the noblest training, namely by imitating the Passion of My Son to gain the celestial love He guarded in His heart. Therefore, where it glows like the dawn, its brightness shines forth as high as the secret places of Heaven; for the perfection that flowers in the state of virginity directs its strength not downward toward earthly things, but miraculously upward to what is in Heaven.
There is one final figure we should consider in the journey of this blooming, bloodied rose of Christ’s passion and those who imitate it—the woman who, above all others in the Middle Ages, was associated with the rose, its thorns pricking her heart as she gazed upon her crucified Son: the Virgin Mother Mary. We’ve seen already that the flower was one of Hildegard’s favorite images for the Virgin (in e.g. Ave generosa or O virga ac diadema); but the more unusual connection of the Virgin to today’s responsory is in the role she shares with the martyrs as an instrumentum, as seen in the responsory O clarissima mater. As they roll forth as perfumed waves in the wounds of their blood (in vulneribus vestri sanguinis undatis) to water the Church, they echo the Virgin’s role as an “instrument of life” spreading the sweet perfume of the medicinal balm that she poured forth out of her womb—the very same redemption “that flowed from th’ inmost heart of counsel kept before all time,” redolent with the sweet aroma of the blood of Christ and his passionate imitators.
 Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 172, in consultation with the Riesenkodex manuscript (fols. 133ra and 470ra-b) and the musical edition of Hildegard’s Lieder, ed. Pudentiana Barth and M. Immaculata Ritscher (Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1969); translation by Nathaniel Campbell. ↩
 Newman, Symphonia, p. 288.↩
 Ibid., p. 299.↩
 Hildegard of Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke, CCCM 192 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), pp. 285-344.↩
 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. 28; accessible online here.↩
 Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Univ. of California Press, 1987), p. 93.↩
 Campbell, “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,” pp. 29-30 (accessible online here).↩
 Trans. by Peter Dronke in Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (†203) to Marguerite Porete (†1310) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 4.↩
 Ibid., pp. 15-6.↩
 Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent (Univ. of California Press, 1997), pp. 79-82.↩