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.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

O vox nunc in caelo: A Chronogram for the Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Detail from painting by Cynthia Lange
o VoX nVnC In CaeLo
CantICa sonans sVperna,
sVper qVae anIMae nostrae
VeLVt pennae VoLant:
ora In obtVtV tVo pro nobIs,
Vt VIrtVs ChrIstI
qVasI CantICI noVI
In VIrga fLorentIs
nos VIrentes roboret.

O voice that echoes now
celestial songs in heaven,
on which our souls
as feathers fly,
in your beholding pray for us,
that the power of Christ
as of the New Song
that blooms upon the branch
might strengthen us as we flourish.

(O vox nunc in caelo cantica sonans superna, super quae animae nostrae velut pennae volant: ora in obtutu tuo pro nobis, ut virtus Christi quasi cantici novi in virga florentis nos virentes roboret.)

For today’s Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church (d. September 17, 1179), I have composed this chronogram and prayer. In it, I reflect upon the power of her music to lift up the soul like “a feather on the breath of God” (one of her famous descriptions of her own delicate yet divine mission). Music holds a peculiar redeeming power for Hildegard because it reflects the eternal harmony of the resounding Word that entered into the world as the New Song of Psalm 96(95 in the Vulgate). Drawing on the Symphonic Doctor’s synaesthetic descriptions of that harmony’s illuminating irruption through the Virgin’s fertile womb—imagined as Aaron’s flowering rod (Numbers 17:8) and Jesse’s budding branch (Isaiah 11:1)—this prayer bids the power of that Song to strengthen us as we, too, are called by it to bloom and flourish in virtue.

The chronogram is an epigrammatic prayer (in this case) where, if you take all of the letters that are also Roman numerals (I, V[U], X, L, C, D, and M, which are capitalized in the prayer above) and add their values together, the result is the year you are trying to commemorate. In this case, 1 M = 1000, + 7 C’s = 1700, + 4 L’s = 1900, + 1 X = 1920, + 18 V’s = 2000, + 16 I’s = 2016. I was inspired to write chronograms to honor Hildegard by those composed by Sr. Walburga Storch, O.S.B., a nun of the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, Germany, which appeared in Festschriften for the Sibyl of the Rhine in 1979 and 1998.

Here are links to previous chronograms I have composed for St. Hildegard:


Kris Townsend said...


Since you have a vast knowledge of St. Hildegard's oeuvre and are a translator of her works into English (I do hold that your translation of her Liber Divinorum Operum will be out soon), I was wondering if you could answer something that has somewhat puzzled me. It concerns the identity of the vir praeliator, which St. Hildegard refers to in her Letters to the Clergy of Trier and Conrad.

In the Letter to Conrad it is but a simile taken from the Book of Saiah 42:13, which she uses to describe the action of secular princes rising up to quash heresy during the great period of peace prophesied to come in her Age of the Lion, the so-called "return to the first dawn of justice".

But in her Letter to the Clergy of Trier, the medieval scholars Barbara Newman and Kathyrn Kerby Fullton contend that he "vir praeliator" had become a person.

I've read other scholarly commentaries on St. Hildegard's theology and they seem to imply that the vir praeliator is a term used in reference to Jesus as the Cosmic Man in her thought.

However Newman and Fullton suggest otherwise in their reading of her Trier Letter and I'm hopeful that you might able to tell me whether they are right or wrong? Newman writes:


"...Her Letter to the Clergy of Trier is unusual for its attempt, only hinted at in her earlier letter to Conrad, to overtly fill the secular leadership void in her apocalyptic program with this crusader, or vir praeliator. He will reign during the long period of coming spiritual renewal and his wisdom, supported by the prophets, will prolong that renewal..."

Fullton argues the same: that the vir praeliator is a secular crusading-leader in her Trier Letter but other scholars have contended that the vir praeliator, for instance in her play of the Virtues, is clearly Jesus himself.

Could you clear this up for me?

Kind regards,


Kris Townsend said...

By the way, I'm loving your work and translations of St. Holds hard!

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

That's a great question, Kris! The short answer is that the vir praeliator should be understood as Christ (there's no need to call him "cosmic" though, since Hildegard never uses that term).

The interpretation of the vir praeliator as a specific, temporal figure originated in Kerby-Fulton's dissertation, published as Reformist Apocalypticism and Piers Plowman (Cambridge, 1990), and she reiterated it again in her chapter in Newman's 1998 edited volume, Voice of the Living Light (which you quoted in your comment -- though Newman edited that volume, this interpretation of the Trier letter is all Kerby-Fulton's). It is, however, a misinterpretation -- when she wrote her dissertation, Kerby-Fulton missed that it is a cross-textual reference to the final chorus of the Ordo Virtutum. The parallels are only implicit in the Trier sermon/letter, but become explicit in the expansion of the Trier program in the final vision of the Liber divinorum operum (III.5), which Hildegard weaves around two poles: a successive explication of the Ordo finale (introduced in ch. 8, explicated in chs. 12, 14, 23, and 34); and the five animal-symbolized ages from Scivias III.11 (in LDO III.5, chs. 15, 17, 21, 26, and 33).

In the Ordo Virtutum finale, as well as its expansion in the Liber divinorum operum, it is quite clear that Christ is the vir praeliator, speaking to his Father on behalf of his wayward and suffering children (us). The same then holds for the Trier sermon/letter, and Baird and Ehrman picked that up in their translation (Letter 223r, in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 3 [Oxford, 2004], p. 22):

"For a 'man of war' [Is 42.13] will accomplish these things, Who sees in them the beginning and end of His works; in this way, He reins in the errant people. For He established the prophets first to be the head, the wise to be the eyes, the teachers to be the mouth, just as all things came into being by the Word of God [cf. John 1.3]. And then, because the rest of the body, that is, the faithful, will do good works, as I have said, God will place their head in His lap, that is to say, He will reveal the meaning of prophecy to them. (...) After these things take place, all things spiritual will be strengthened, with no weariness or flaw, and people will look into the eye of the Living Book. Then strength and courage and health will return to the people, because the 'man of war' will fill the air with health and will bring forth the viridity of the virtues, so that the faithful will not grow weak in body and spirit in this wayward time."

Kris Townsend said...

That's fantastic Nathaniel, many thanks for clearing this up in my understanding.

Her interpretation didn't sit well with me and I had felt that something was decidedly off about it. By cosmic I had not meant anything heterodox (like Matthew Fox et al) but rather simply her ideas on the interplay between macrocosm and microcosm (poor word choice on my part).

Apologies also for the typing errors in my aforementioned posts. I have an auto correct function on my tablet which changes words to what it thinks should be the correct spelling after I've written them. Very annoying.

Keep up the great work, I'm looking forward to your new translation of the Liber.

Kindest regards,


Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Also, a quick note: my translation of the Liber divinorum operum will appear from Catholic University of America Press in about a year, i.e. summer of 2018.

Kris Townsend said...

It will make an excellent addition to my library next summer then!