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.

Monday, April 01, 2013

O virtus Sapientie (Symphonia 2)

An Antiphon for Divine Wisdom by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias III.5: The Zeal
or Jealousy of God.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 153r.
O virtus Sapientie,
que circuiens circuisti,
comprehendendo omnia
in una via que habet vitam,
tres alas habens,
quarum una in altum volat  
et altera de terra sudat
et tercia undique volat.

Laus tibi sit, sicut te decet,
O Sapientia.
O Wisdom’s energy!
Whirling, you encircle
and everything embrace
in the single way of life.
Three wings you have:
one soars above into the heights,
one sweeps about the earth,
and with the third you fly
Praise be to you, as is your due,
O Wisdom.

On this Easter Monday, we joyously contemplate the abiding, sustaining, and all-present energy of Divine Wisdom in this antiphon. The antiphon is the most frequent of compositional forms employed by Hildegard, for the monastic office of daily prayers demands a lot of them. In the course of each week, the liturgy of the hours (which St. Benedict called the Opus Dei, “the work of God”) contains every one of the 150 psalms; and before and after each psalm or set of psalms is sung a short verse called an antiphon.

The figure of Sapientia (Divine Wisdom), personified at several points in some of the Old Testament’s more poetical books (e.g. Proverbs 8-9, Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 24, and Wisdom of Solomon 7-8), is one of Hildegard’s most constant visionary companions. Like Caritas (Divine Love), who appears in similar ways in others of Hildegard’s visions, she represents “the ultimate mystery of creation, the bond between Creator and creature.” As I mentioned yesterday, Hildegard’s thought often works within the platonizing mirror of emanation and return, the cycle at the center of which is the Incarnation. That cyclical process is, for Hildegard, the place in which the feminine side of God is most clearly revealed. The hallmark of both her theology and her poetic style is that the feminine is the place where God stoops to human weakness and human weakness can, in turn, reach out to touch the face of God.[2]

The triple-winged figure in this piece is often thought to recall an image that appears in the third part of the Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript (as seen above), though in the context of Scivias III.5, the grotesque, “terrible” face affixed to the Edifice of Salvation signifies the Zeal or Jealousy of God, each wing representing the Holy Trinity’s “ineffable power”, beating like mighty wings against the Devil (Scivias III.5.14-15).

Our antiphon today is a much lighter image, full of wonder not terrifying, but elevating and edifying. It recalls the six-winged Seraph of Isaiah 6, together with the omnipresent Wisdom as the agent of creation in Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 24; as well as the two great wings of Caritas in the opening vision of the Liber Divinorum Operum, representing love of God and love of neighbor.

Fundamentally, however, it is the Trinitarian imagery that comes to the fore: the one wing soaring in the heavens like the Father, the second upon the earth like the Incarnate Son, the third sweeping everywhere, the vital force of the Holy Spirit.[3]

Furthermore, what I have translated as the “sweeping” of the earth by the second wing is in fact a more complex (and grounded) image: the verb sudat literally means “sweats”, but for Hildegard, it “has the associations not of the sweat of effort but of the distillation of a perfume, a heavenly quality, out of anything that is fertile or beautiful on earth.”[4] It thus latently evokes one of Hildegard’s favorite and expansive symbols of God’s fertile, creative goodness: viriditas, “viridity”, the overflowing, vibrant, fresh greenness of health and life.

The glory of this piece, which Peter Dronke describes as “an image of surrealist fantasy, but weighty with meaning,”[5] is that the poetry is never bogged down by the complexity of its images, but rather urged with a divine lightness of touch into the playful, joyous, and yet full-bodied twirling movement of God’s provident, creative, and life-giving Wisdom.

[1] Standard Latin orthography would render the title of this antiphon, “O virtus Sapientiae”. Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 100. Translation by Nathaniel Campbell; throughout this project, I will be working to strike a balance between poetics and literal accuracy, offering, as it were, a middle ground between the two translations that Barbara Newman offers for each piece—an ultra-literal and one whose poetry often takes flight beyond the bounds of the original. A transcription of the music (in chant notation) of “O virtus Sapientie” can be found at Br. Francis Therese Krautter’s Symphonia blog. 
[2] See Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (University of California Press, 1987), pp. 43-45. 
[3] See Newman’s commentary, Symphonia, p. 268. 
[4] Peter Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1970), p. 157. 
[5] Dronke, ibid., p. 156. 

1 comment:

lilimarlene1 said...

Wow. Great stuff. Reading some background on Hildegard. Mostly over my head, but persevering.