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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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

O vos felices radices (Symphonia 32)

For the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist,
A Responsory for Patriarchs and Prophets by St. Hildegard of Bingen [1]

Scivias III.13: Symphonia in
Heaven: Choir of Patriarchs
and Prophets (detail).
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 229r
V. O vos felices radices
cum quibus opus miraculorum  
et non opus criminum
per torrens iter
perspicue umbre
plantatum est,
et o tu ruminans ignea vox,
precurrens limantem lapidem
subvertentem abyssum:

R. Gaudete in capite vestro.

V. Gaudete
in illo quem non viderunt
in terris multi
qui ipsum ardenter vocaverunt.

R. Gaudete in capite vestro.
V. O merry roots,
with whom the work of miracles—
but not the work of crimes—
was planted by a journey
rushing, tearing forth,
a path of shade perlucid;
and you, O voice of ruminating fire,
forerunner of the Rock that grinds
to polish and to topple the abyss:

R. Rejoice in him, your captain!

V. Rejoice
in him whom most on earth
have never seen—
yet ardently have called upon.

R. Rejoice in him, your captain!

Hildegard: O Vos, Felices Radices by Sequentia on Grooveshark

This responsory follows closely in imagery and theme its companion antiphon, O spectabiles viri, in the choir of patriarchs and prophets in the heavenly symphony of Scivias III.13, whose illustration in the Rupertsberg manuscript appears above. In particular, it advances on the antiphon’s use of the Stem of Jesse’s prefiguration and root of the Virgin’s blossoming, living branch to address the prophets as their own roots upon the tree of life. This image draws on Hildegard’s vision of the Pillar of the Word of God in Scivias III.4, from whose root sprung Abraham and the successive branches of the prophets (text in italics is from the initial description of the vision):[2]

Scivias III.4: The Pillar
of the Word of God.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 145v.
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. 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

Yet, in classic Hildegardian style, the operative force coursing through those roots in today’s responsory is synaesthetically and paradoxically aligned with the light of their foreshadowing prophecy. The path taken by the light as it travels along those roots—almost as if they were fiber-optic cables—is also Israel’s journey (iter), their pilgrimage from bondage in Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land the classic figuration and foreshadowing of the spiritual journey of humankind.

Scivias II.1: John the Baptist's
Star amid fallen creation.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 41v.
The final voice whose fire lightens the last steps of the shadowed path as it enters Palestine at the time of the Emperor Augustus is that of John the Baptist, singled out in this responsory (as in the illustration above) for his particular role at the cusp of the Incarnation’s dawning light. His is a voice that ruminates upon all of his predecessors—that fertile, organic image embraced by early Christians of “chewing the cud” (like the clean animals of Jewish dietary law, notes Barbara Newman) of the Hebrew scriptures in order to plumb the depths of their revelation of the Word of God.[3] The image of John as the greatest of the prophetic lights is found in Hildegard’s description of his “star” in her vision of Creation, the Fall, and the Coming of the Redeemer in Scivias II.1.10:

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.

But in today’s responsory, John’s light is the “voice of fire” (ignea vox), perhaps struck alight by the sparks scattered by Hildegard’s unique reinterpretation (inspired by the sharp edges of the Pillar of the Word?) of the foretold Christ as a rock or stone (lapis) in Psalm 117(118):22, Isaiah 22:16-17, and St. Peter’s sermon in Acts 4:11—for rather than simply the corner-stone of the temple, this Rock is a stone used for grinding and polishing (limans). Christ the grinding stone wears away the imperfections of sin in the materials of the new temple as he overthrows the rough, rocky ramparts of the abyss.

This stone is also, in the respond and second versicle, the prophets’ head and captain (caput), and the thrice-repeated vocative dispels any gloom their shadowed lives might have suffered—Rejoice! The second versicle is thus infused with the hope of unseen salvation for the many on earth who never saw the Incarnate Word, yet with the burning desire of their hearts had ever called upon him. Implicitly, the vocative of the second respond expands, as often in Hildegard’s responsories, to include not just the audience of patriarchs and prophets, but of all humankind and especially her own community of religious women, in whose Captain she urges: Rejoice!

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 160; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] 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). 
[3] Newman, Symphonia, p. 285. 

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