About Me

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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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

O quam magnum miraculum (Symphonia 16)

For the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
An Antiphon by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Virgin Mary, Queen of Heavens'
Symphony, Scivias III.13
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 229r
O quam magnum miraculum est  
quod in subditam femineam
formam rex
Hoc Deus fecit quia humilitas
super omnia ascendit.
Et o quam magna felicitas
est in ista forma,
quia malicia,
que de femina fluxit hanc
femina postea
et omnem suavissimum
odorem virtutum edificavit
ac celum ornavit
plus quam terram prius
How great the wonder is!
Into the female form subdued
the King
has come.
This God has done, for meekness
mounts o’er all.
And O how great the happiness
is in that form,
for malice,
which from a woman flowed—
a woman then this malice wiped
and ev’ry sweet
perfume of virtues she has raised—
the heavens graced
far more than e’er the earth
in chaos cast.

This antiphon exemplifies St. Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, as the central character is not just the Virgin Mary or Eve, but womanhood itself—the feminea forma that encompasses both mothers, one fallen into chaos, the other raised in meekness to grace the heavens with her sweet perfume of virtue.[2] While the parallel of Eve and Mary was a common trope, Hildegard’s poetic density here collapses the two into one, in order to articulate the peculiar role that Woman plays in salvation history as the revelatory face of the divine: it is through “the female form subdued” that the mighty King enters into the world, into time, into history. Hildegard intentionally combines the two paradigmatic women of Mary and Eve because of the paradoxes that suffuse that entrance of eternity into time: the agency of submission, the exaltation of humility (cf. Luke 1:52), the fortunate fall (magna felicitas), and heavenly adornment (ornavit) excelling earthly disorder (turbavit).

As she explains in Liber Divinorum Operum I.1.17:

God chose from his stock that sleeping earth that was completely unblemished by the taste of that [fruit] by which the ancient serpent deceived the first woman. This earth was prefigured by the staff of Aaron (Num. 17:8) to be the Virgin Mary, who in her great humility was the enclosed bedchamber of the King. For when she received from the throne the message that the Highest King wished to live in her enclosure, she perceived that earth from which she was created and replied that she was the handmaid of God (Luke 1:38). The woman who was first deceived did not do this, since she desired to have that which she ought not to have had.[3]

This antiphon’s two exclamatory “how greats” establish the waypoints of salvation history—first, the great miracle of the Incarnation, and then the “happiness” (felicitas) of the “fortunate” fall. Yet, this felicitas is not merely the paradoxical fruit of the Fall that “merited so great a Redeemer” (as sung in the Easter Exsultet), but also the felicity that the Virgin restores to womanhood in wiping away the wickedness of the flesh (malicia) that had marred Woman’s sacred fecundity. Thus, the second o quam magna looks both back to the Fall and forward to its resolution and the restoration of womanhood through the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Church.

Hildegard alludes to this manifestation of restored, virginal womanhood through Mary and into the Church in describing how the Virgin washed away Eve’s malice: by constructing (edificavit) a salvific structure redolent of the sweet perfume of virtues. This perfume of the gracious power by which the Church and her ministers enact the work of salvation is the sweet smell of “the blossom of celestial Zion, the mother and flower of roses and lilies of the valley,” as is sung in the great responsory for the Feast of the Assumption. These fragrant, virtuous ministries belonged particularly, in Hildegard’s mind, to the musical opus Dei that she and her order of virgins enacted every day—and thus that responsorial verse for the Virgin’s Assumption also resounded in the words of the visionary voice from heaven that declared the central place of Virginitas among the orders of the Church in Scivias II.5 (for which see my discussion of the antiphon, O nobilissima viriditas).[4]

On today’s solemnity, Hildegard and her nuns would have celebrated the Assumption of the Virgin to reign as Queen of Heaven in the songs and music with which they participated in the eternal, celestial symphony that resounds in her court. Her greater grace in heaven subsumes their ministry on earth, and the long, final melisma of today’s antiphon brings harmony to the chaos of turbavit.

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 120; in consultation with the musical transcription of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] It shares this symbolic exaltation of womanhood with Hildegard's verses, O magna res
[3] My translation, from the Latin text of the Liber Divinorum Operum in CCCM 92, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996). 
[4] See further 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. pp. 57-61; accessible online here


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful series! I had the good hap to buy a discount-priced boxed set of her music, but costs were kept down by excluding printed texts - and translating such poetry by ear is quite beyond me.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Dear David,

Thank you for your appreciation! Since beginning this series--on which I'm only about two-thirds done here on my blog--I have collaborated with several musicologists at the International Society for Hildegard von Bingen Studies to produce a complete online edition of Hildegard's music, with texts, translations, recordings, musical transcriptions, and commentary.

Although that project is still in progress, we have chosen to make what is already complete available now. You can access those materials at http://www.hildegard-society.org/p/music.html.