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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. 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.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

O spectabiles viri (Symphonia 31)

For the Feast of the Prophet Ezekiel, an Antiphon for Patriarchs and Prophets
by St. Hildegard of Bingen [1]

Scivias III.4: The Pillar
of the Word of God.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 145v.
O spectabiles viri
qui pertransistis occulta,
aspicientes per oculos spiritus
et annuntiantes
in lucida umbra
acutam et viventem lucem
in virga germinantem,
que sola floruit
de introitu radicantis luminis:

Vos antiqui sancti,
predixistis salvationem
exulum animarum
que inmerse fuerant morti,
qui circuisti ut rote,
mirabiliter loquentes
     mistica montis
qui celum tangit,
pertransiens ungendo
     multas aquas,
cum etiam inter vos
surrexit lucida lucerna,
que ipsum montem precurrens    
O men of sight—what a sight!
Through mysteries you’ve passed
with gaze of spirit’s eyes,
to announce
in shining shadow
a living, piercing light
that buds upon that single branch
that flourished at
the entrance of deep-rooted light:

You saints of old!
You have foretold salvation
of souls in exile plunged,
in death immersed.
You circled, spun like wheels
as wondrously proclaimed
     the mountain’s mysteries
whose top the heavens touched
and passed through many waters
     with anointing—
yet still among you
arose a shining lamp
that raced ahead, that mountain
     to reveal.

Barbara Newman compares this antiphon’s “cryptic intensity” and use of symbolism to the poetry of Blake, Mallarmé, or Coleridge—the use of “semi-private symbols” that nevertheless can be “decoded” if only the reader-singer is sufficiently steeped in both the scriptural and liturgical traditions that formed the bedrock of Hildegard’s religious life and her own experiences of the divine.[2] It wraps up many of her most characteristic images—the living light (viventem lucem), Mary’s branch blooming with the Incarnation, and the circling wheel (as in her antiphon to Wisdom, O virtus Sapientie)—with several scriptural images drawn from the Old Testament prophets and the story of Moses and the Exodus. Yet, the bewildering force with which Hildegard sets this panoply of ideas into swirling motion, cascading even faster than usual along her symbolist network of images, is rooted, like the divine light that both causes to grow and is grown from the Virgin’s branch, in Hildegard’s particular vocation as a prophet. The intensity of her own visionary experiences, which were the driver of her entire religious life, made her uniquely sympathetic with the prophets of old to whom this antiphon, which opens the choir of patriarchs and prophets in the heavenly symphony of Scivias III.13, is addressed.

It is with that visionary experience that we must begin, for it is the imagery of light that makes this antiphon’s invocation of the Virgin’s branch and the Stem of Jesse different from that image’s appearance in some of the Marian pieces (e.g. O virga ac diadema). We have looked before at Hildegard’s description of her visions in the famous letter she wrote to Guibert of Gembloux near the end of her life; for example, in connection with the antiphon O laus Trinitati, we saw that the very strength of Hildegard’s poetry is the way that her unpolished Latin allows the raw power of the images to stand together. It is instructive to read again, however, her description of the Living Light and its shadow:

The brightness [lumen] that I see is not spatial, yet is far, far more lucent than a cloud that envelops the sun. I cannot contemplate height or length or breadth in it; and I call it “the shadow of the Living Light” [umbra viventis lucis]. And as sun, moon and stars appear [mirrored] in water, so Scriptures, discourses, virtues, and some works of men take form for me and are reflected, radiant in this brightness.

(…) And the words I see and hear through the vision are not like words that come from human lips, but like a sparkling flame and a cloud moved in pure air. Moreover, I cannot know the form of this brightness [lumen] in any way, just as I cannot gaze completely at the sphere of the sun. And in that same brightness [lumen] I sometimes, not often, see another light, which I call “the Living Light” [lux vivens]; when and how I see it, I cannot express; and for the time I do see it, all sadness and anguish is taken from me, so that then I have the air of an innocent young girl and not of a little old woman.[3]

This is the same light that Hildegard describes in the Protestificatio (“Declaration”) at the opening of Scivias:

It happened [Factum est] that, in the eleven hundred and forty-first year of the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, when I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened [aperto caelo] 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.[4]

I have included snippets of Hildegard’s Latin here because they reveal her self-conscious construction of this Protestificatio in parallel to the opening of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, whose image of himself as prophet and visionary became one of the most significant models for Hildegard’s own self-construction:

It happened [Et factum est] in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened [aperti sunt caeli], and I saw [et vidi] visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was upon him there. As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze.
     —Ezekiel 1:1-4

Et vidi…And I saw… This refrain, echoed often by both Ezekiel and Hildegard, uses the immediacy of its opening conjunction to jar the normal frame of narrative progression out of kilter, to set it running in medias res, in mid-story, from the start. These are experiences that defy the bonds of language into which their seers struggle to set them, and the unnerving vibrancy of their images corresponds to the slightly breathless force with which they are called to be God’s prophets.

Part of what makes the prophetic call so unnerving is, moreover, its nature as a double-edged sword: as the light of God’s message pierces through their eyes and sears into their hearts, they become aware of both its sharpness (as an instrument of castigation for a wayward people) and its sweet fertility (as an instrument of comfort and consolation to the oppressed). Hildegard combines these two images in the acuity of the light (acutam…lucem) that takes root to cause the tree to blossom. While the blooming branch is primarily an image of the Virgin as the Stem of Jesse, it operates here also in conjunction with Hildegard’s vision of the Pillar of the Word of God in Scivias III.4, which appears near the northern corner of the Edifice of Salvation (the illustration of this vision in the Rupertsberg manuscript appears above). This “pillar the color of steel” has “three sides, with edges sharp as a sword.” As Hildegard continues (the description of the vision itself is in italics):

And from the edge which faces East, branches grow out from the root to the summit. This is to say that when God first became known through the just Law, branches appeared on that eastern edge, which was the time of the patriarchs and prophets. For this sharp-edged pillar of Divinity carries on the work from its root [ab initio radicis], which is the good beginning in the minds of the elect, to its summit, which is the manifestation of the Son of Man, Who is all justice.

And therefore, at the root you see Abraham sitting on the first branch; for the time of inspiration by God began with Abraham, when he obeyed God and with a tranquil mind departed from his country. Then Moses on the second; for after this God inspired Moses to plant the Law, and so foreshadow the Son of the Most High. Then Joshua on the third; for he afterward had the spirit of the Lord in him in order to strengthen the custom of the Law as God commanded.

And then you see the rest of the patriarchs and prophets, one above the other on each branch, sitting in the order in which they succeeded each other in time; for God inspired each patriarch and prophet in his own time to nurture his particular shoot toward the height of his commands, and all in their day reposed on the disposition and order of the justice He showed them, faithful and obedient to the divine majesty as it showed itself in their times.

They are all looking toward the edge of the pillar that faces the North, marveling at the things to come that they can see upon it in the spirit [in spiritu]. For they were all alerted in their souls by the Holy Spirit, and so turned and saw how the Gospel doctrine repulsed the Devil by the strength of the Son of God. They spoke of His Incarnation, and marveled at how He came from the heart of the Father and the womb of a virgin and showed Himself with great wonders both by Himself and by His followers, who wonderfully imitated Him in new grace and trod the transitory underfoot, greatly thirsting for the joys of the eternal.
     —Scivias III.4.7-8

Filled by the same Holy Spirit, Hildegard too was commissioned, in the first vision of Scivias, to bring the message of those joys eternal to God’s people in her own day, to overflow with the waters that would quench that thirst:

O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice. Unlock for them the enclosure of mysteries that they, timid as they are, conceal in a hidden and fruitless field. Burst forth into a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation. For you have received your profound insight not from humans, but from the lofty and tremendous Judge on high, where this calmness will shine strongly with glorious light among the shining ones.

Arise therefore, cry out and tell what is shown to you by the strong power of God’s help, for He Who rules every creature in might and kindness floods those who fear Him and serve Him in sweet love and humility with the glory of heavenly enlightenment and leads those who persevere in the way of justice to the joys of the Eternal Vision.
     —Scivias I.1, Vision
Scivias I.1: The One
enthroned upon
the mountain.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 2r.

This commission of Scivias I.1 accompanies a vision of God enthroned upon “a great mountain the color of iron;” Hildegard's description continues:

On each side of him there extended a soft shadow [lenis umbra], like a wing of wondrous breadth and length. Before him, at the foot of the mountain, stood an image full of eyes on all sides, in which, because of those eyes, I could discern no human form. In front of this image stood another, a child wearing a tunic of subdued color but white shoes, upon whose head such glory descended from the One enthroned upon that mountain that I could not look at her face. But from the One who sat enthroned upon that mountain many living sparks sprang forth, which flew very sweetly around the images.

The explanation of this vision indicates that the figure full of eyes represents fear of the Lord, while the child-like figure—an analog for Hildegard herself—represents poverty of spirit. It is clear enough that this mountain and the One enthroned upon it, with his shadow-like wings and swirl of living sparks, is at least one of the images that Hildegard must have had in mind as she composed today’s antiphon. Yet it, like today’s antiphon, reaches also back into the myriad of images rooted in Ezekiel’s visions. Perhaps the most notable are the wheels to which Hildegard compares the prophets, which recall the wheels that joined the Four Living Creatures in the surreal first chapter of Ezekiel:

Now as I beheld the living creatures, there appeared upon the earth by the living creatures one wheel with four faces. And the appearance of the wheels and their work was like the appearance of the sea: and the four had all one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the midst of a wheel. When they went, they went by their four parts: and they turned not when they went. The wheels had also a size, and a height, and a dreadful appearance: and the whole body was full of eyes round about all the four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels also went together by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels also were lifted up with them. Whithersoever the spirit went, thither as the spirit went the wheels also were lifted up together, and followed it: for the spirit of life was in the wheels. When those went these went, and when those stood these stood, and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels also were lifted up together, and followed them: for the spirit of life was in the wheels.
     —Ezekiel 1:15-21
Scivias III.1: The One
upon the throne.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 122v.

Hildegard’s mountain “the color of iron” returns, together with the Shining One enthroned upon it and a great wheeling circle, in the opening vision of Part III of Scivias, which recapitulates Hildegard’s commission:

And from this Shining one seated upon the throne extended a great circle colored gold like the dawn, whose width I could not take in; it circled about from the East to the North to the West and to the South, and back toward the East and the shining One, and had no end. And that circle was so high above the earth that I could not comprehend it; and it shone with a terrifying radiance the color of stone, steel, and fire, which extended everywhere, from the heights of Heaven to the depth of the abyss, so that I could see no end to it.
And I heard the One Who sat on the throne saying to me, “Write what you see and hear.” And from the inner knowledge of that vision, I replied, “I beseech you, my Lord, give me understanding, that by my account I may be able to make known these mystical things; forsake me not, but strengthen me by the daylight of Your justice, in which Your Son was manifested. Grant me to make known the divine counsel which was ordained in the ancient counsel, insofar as I can and should: how You willed Your Son to become incarnate and become a human being within Time; which you willed before all creation in Your rectitude and the fire of the Dove, the Holy Spirit, so that Your Son might rise from a Virgin in the splendid beauty of the sun and be clothed with true humanity, a human form assumed for the sake of humankind.”

And I heard Him say to me, “Oh, how beautiful are your eyes, which tell of divinity when the divine counsel dawns in them!” And again I answered from the inner knowledge of the vision, “To my own inner soul I seem as filthy as ashes and transitory dust, trembling like a feather in the dark. But do not blot me out from the land of the living, for I labor at this vision with great toil. (…)”

And again I heard the same One saying to me, “Now speak, as you have been taught! Though you are ashes, I will that you speak.”
     —Scivias III.1, Vision
Scivias III.2: The Edifice of Salvation.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 130v.

The following vision continues:

Then I saw, within the circumference of the circle, which extended from the One seated on the throne, a great mountain, joined at its root to that immense block of stone above which were the cloud and the throne with its Occupant; so that the stone was continued on to a great height and the mountain was extended down to a wide base. And on that mountain stood a four-sided building, formed in the likeness of a four-walled city. —Scivias III.2, Vision

This city is the Edifice of Salvation whose allegorical representation of salvation history dominates the third part of Scivias. This mountain and city are also, however, rooted in Ezekiel’s vision of the same, which also returns to the beginning, as it were, to declare the time of the revelation:

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was conquered, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God into the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city opposite me.
     —Ezekiel 40:1-2

The holy mountain as the privileged place of revelation was one of the most important tropes in the stories the Hebrew people told of their encounters with the God who had chosen them. It was to the holy mountain that Abraham went with Isaac for the sacrifice (Genesis 22); it was the holy mountain that served as root of the garden of Eden in Ezekiel 28:12-16 (a passage that likely also influenced Hildegard’s description of prelapsarian bodies as like jewels); and it was, of course, upon the holy mountain that God descended to be with his people and to give Moses the Law in the Sinai (Exodus 19ff). The holy mountain, too, holds its place in the Gospels: it is upon the mountain that Jesus proclaims his message about the Law (Matthew 5-7); it was on Mt. Tabor that he was transfigured with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17); it was on a mountain both sacred and accursed, the hill of Golgotha, that he was crucified; and it was from the Mount of Olives that he ascended into heaven.

Perhaps the most extraordinary of Hildegard’s symbolic transfigurations in today’s antiphon is to identify the holy mountain with the person of Christ himself, “who touches heaven” (qui celum tangit). As the end of the antiphon suggests, the greatest of the prophets to arise as “a shining lamp” (lucida lucerna) was Christ’s forerunner, John the Baptist. Hildegard had used the image of the prophets as stars in Scivias II.1, and he shone as the largest of the stars in the darkness of the time of sin:

And then a gigantic star appears, radiant with wonderful brightness, which shoots it rays toward the flame. This is the greatest prophet, John the Baptist, who glittered with miracles in his faithful and serene deeds, and pointed out by their means the true Word, the true Son of God; for he did not yield to wickedness, but vigorously and forcefully cast it out by works of justice.
     —Scivias II.10

Yet more striking is Hildegard’s conflation of the holy mountain upon which he received the Law and the patriarch Moses himself, who prefigured Christ in the crossing of the Red Sea. In the fluid language of this antiphon, Christ the Mountain “passed through many waters” (pertransiens…multas aquas) in an echo of the patriarchs and prophets who “passed through mysteries” (pertransistis occulta). Yet simultaneously, these are also the implied waters of death in which “are immersed the exiled souls” (exulum animarum / qui inmerse fuerant morti), to whom Christ the Mountain brought salvation by touching the waters with his healing ointment (ungendo).

The language of prophecy before the advent of Christ was the language of the obscure, the hidden, the ambiguous, and the unknown. Immersed in those dark waters of sin, the beacons of the patriarchs and prophets shone to guide the people to a mountain they didn’t even know was there. Christ, too, had to swim those stormy waters in order to lead his people out of the bondage of exile and into the freedom of the promised land, “the joys of the Eternal Vision” (Scivias I.1, Vision). As we prepare to commemorate again that passage from death into life, we will hear again the voices of those ancient prophets calling to us across the centuries, foretelling not only the coming of Christ but the suffering he will endure. Yet in the arduous ascent of that mountain, though cloaked in smoke and mist, the thunder and lightning of its cloud striking terror in our hearts, we will be guided by those lanterns as they point us to the summit.

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 158; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] Newman, Symphonia, p. 284. 
[3] Hildegard to Guibert, Letter 103r, ed. L. Van Acker in Epistolarium II, CCCM 91a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1993), pp. 261-2; translation adapted from Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 168. 
[4] All quotes from Scivias adapted from the trans. of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990); Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 and 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 

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