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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.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript

Imago expandit splendorem suum...
Scivias II.3: The Church and Baptism.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 51r.

Update: The full article on which this presentation was based has now been published in Eikón / Imago 4 (2013:2), pp. 1-68, available electronically here.

A major point of contention within Hildegard studies is the question of her role in the production of the illuminated Scivias manuscript known as the Rupertsberg Codex.[1] Much current German scholarship has tended to preclude Hildegard’s hand by dating the manuscript’s production after her death in 1179, based on stylistic comparisons to firmly dateable contemporary manuscripts or on the many places where the images in the manuscript diverge from or even contradict the text of the visions. Pre-war German scholars, however, who had access to the original manuscript before it was lost, and most modern Anglophone scholars have argued more or less strongly for Hildegard’s influence on the design. Today, I argue for Hildegard’s direction of the images based on their function as a theological discourse refracting the text. I propose that the manuscript was produced in the late 1160’s or early 1170’s, at about the same time Hildegard was writing the Liber Divinorum Operum; and that she designed the images specifically to offer a visual record of the work’s theology.

First, let me set a few preliminary parameters. As I just indicated, the original manuscript has been lost since its evacuation to Dresden in 1944. The images I will show you today are from the handmade facsimile executed by the nuns of the modern Abbey of St. Hildegard, working from the original manuscript in the 1920’s; we also possess black-and-white photographs made at the same time. Although some scholars, such as Madeline Caviness, have indicated slight stylistic discrepancies between the facsimile and original, as seen in the photographs, my arguments today rely on overall iconographical design and structure, for which the facsimile provides sufficient evidence.[2] Furthermore, this paper leaves aside Part III of Scivias, focusing instead on the transformative relationship between the Order of Creation in Part I and the Order of Redemption or Recreation in Part II. Finally, I am not arguing that Hildegard herself painted the images on the parchment; rather, I believe that she oversaw their design and execution.

By directing the iconography and composition of the images, Hildegard used them as a separate visual and theological discourse, equal to and interacting with the textual record of her visions. The images are not ancillary to or derivative of the textual work; they are integral to it. Points where they depart from the text are to be understood not as evidence against Hildegard’s involvement but as authorial statements. Furthermore, these visual markers invested with theological significance aid the viewer-reader in interpreting the complex visual allegories at work in Hildegard’s often enigmatic visions by revealing additional information about the context of each image within the overall narrative of salvation history. By placing them at the opening of each successive vision, Hildegard offers the viewer-reader an initial schematic for orienting the theological implications of what they were about to read.

Scivias I.2: The Fall.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 4r.

A key area of the manuscript design that reveals these authorial interventions is the color scheme. The use of certain colors that have particular meanings in Hildegard’s symbolic vocabulary—even when at odds with the colors described in the recorded vision text—reveals the theological place of each image within Hildegard’s perception of salvation history. Often, the colors in the image match those described in the vision text; it is those elements that either are not defined in the vision or in fact contradict it that add the additional level of complexity. Today I will focus on two specific color schemes in the manuscript: first, the contrasting use of red and green; and second, the use of blue, gold, and above all silver as markers of divine activity.

Scivias I.5: Synagogue.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 35r.

In designing the images in this manuscript, Hildegard invests green with the vital and fertile depth of meaning that viriditas has in her theology; by contrast, red frequently connotes the aridity born of sin and fallenness. This contrastive interplay appears already in the image accompanying the second vision of Part I of Scivias—Creation and the Fall (fol. 4r). The upper register of Heaven is separated from the lower register of earth by a red-and-white graduated band. Red appears likewise in many of the borders and bands of the visions of Part I and in the visions of Part II that deal with the original creation and with the Devil. It is most vividly noticeable in Part I’s fifth vision, of Synagogue (fol. 35r), where the heavy red border echoes Synagogue’s large, blood-red (sanguineam) feet, which Hildegard tells us are stained with blood, “for at the end of her time she killed the Prophet of Prophets” (Scivias I.5.4).[3]

Scivias II.7: The Devil.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 115v.
Red is also associated with the Devil in Vision 7 of Part II (fol. 115v); although Hildegard’s text describes the beast as having five differently-colored sections (green, white, red, yellow, and black—Scivias II.7), the monster appears in the image in black, muddy brown, and vividly bright red, which is echoed in the borders. Thus, red is associated in the manuscript with the evil of the Devil and with the blood he and all evildoers have on their hands. The red in the middle band of the first Creation vision represents both the disobedience for which Lucifer was cast out of Heaven and the break between Heaven and Earth incurred in the Fall.

Scivias I.2: The Fall.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 4r.

Yet, this first vision of Creation is not without the hope of life amidst the pains of death. The image departs significantly from the text in a significant way in its depiction of Eve’s “white cloud” (candida nubes), for its white swirls have been highlighted with green. Drawing on the fresh vitality of the natural world, the concept of viriditas (“greenness”) becomes a key concept in Hildegard’s theological works to describe the essential life-force that animates humanity, and further the internal living dynamic of the Trinity itself. Although Hildegard’s text never ascribes viriditas to the cloud that is Eve (the matrix and mother of the human race, her offspring imagined as twinkling stars), the color has been added to the image to indicate the fresh life that will flow from her womb.

Scivias II.7:
Crucifixion & Eucharist
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 115v.

That viriditas as a creative and living force makes a more potent appearance in the image accompanying Part II, Vision 6: the Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross and in the Eucharist (fol. 86r). Here, the green infuses both the upper and lower borders of the image, as well as the band separating the two registers. Just as the red band separating the upper and lower registers in the image of Creation and the Fall in Part I indicated the entrance of death and sin into the world, so here its presence reminds us that the drama of the Crucifixion and Eucharist is not about death but about overflowing Life. Indeed, both the band and the borders of this image are overrun by the Cross, which here has a unique feature: it is silver.

This brings us, then, to the second color scheme under examination today: that of gold, blue, and above all, silver. It is no great surprise to find the first two colors in extensive use, as they were standard in medieval book art—though as we will see, they also take on a particular meaning within Hildegard’s visio-theological vocabulary. It is the extensive use of silver in the manuscript, however, that is remarkable, and for a simple reason. Open a medieval manuscript and its gold leaf will shine as brightly today as it did when it was first laid down a thousand years ago. The same often cannot be said for silver, however, because of its tendency to tarnish.[4]

Scivias II.2: Trinity.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 47r.

Why would Hildegard make the costly, labor-intensive, and highly unusual decision to use so much silver? To answer this, we must turn to the image accompanying her vision of the Trinity in Part II, Vision 2, for its unique iconography provides the key (fol. 47r):

Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential. (Scivias II.2, Vision)
The explication tells us that the “bright light” is the Father, the “man the color of sapphire” is the Son, and “the gentle glowing fire” is the Holy Spirit. The miniature develops a specific color scheme for this Trinity, in which the Father is portrayed as a circle of gold overlaid with concentric lines of red or brown lacquer-finish stripes, the Son as either a blue man or simply as blue circles, and the Spirit as a circle of silver, sometimes overlaid with concentric lines of yellow. This color scheme of gold, blue, and silver, informs depictions of the Trinity in the rest of the paintings.

Scivias II.1: Creation,
Fall, and Redemption.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 41v.

Thus, in the illustration of the first vision of Part II (fol. 41v), which recapitulates the Creation and Fall by broadening it to include the coming of the Redeemer, these circles of the Trinity appear at the top of the image. The iconography of this image, however, departs from the exact description of the vision text, in which Hildegard sees:

…a blazing fire, incomprehensible, inextinguishable, wholly living and wholly Life, with a flame in it the color of the sky, which burned ardently with a gentle breath… And I saw that the flame sparked and blazed up. And behold! … [T]hat flame hovered over [the atmosphere] and gave it one blow after another, which struck sparks from it, until that atmosphere was perfected, and so Heaven and earth stood fully formed and resplendent. Then the same flame was in that fire, and that burning extended itself to a little clod of mud which lay the bottom of the atmosphere, and warmed it so that it was made flesh and blood, and blew upon it until it rose up a living human. (Scivias, II.1, Vision)
In the explication of the vision, we are told that the “blazing fire symbolizes the Omnipotent and Living God,” and the “flame the color of the sky” is the Son, for “before any creatures were made, the Infinite Word was indivisibly in the Father; Which in course of time was to become incarnate in the ardor of charity, miraculously and without the stain or weight of sin, by the Holy Spirit’s sweet, green freshness (viriditatem) in the dawn of blessed virginity” (Scivias II.1.1 and 3). We see the gold and blue circles of the Father’s bright, blazing fire and the Son’s sky-blue flame at the top of the image, but the field of the miniature, as well as the finger-like form extending from the Father and Son, is in silver. Although the vision text identifies this flame extending down into creation as that of the Son, we must here identify it with Holy Spirit, stretching to the bottom of the circle of creation to touch a human head rising from a gelatinous pile of red clay: the creation of Adam.

Scivias II.7:
Crucifixion & Eucharist
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 115v.

The thrust of that creative finger of silver, then, brings us back (or forwards, as it were) to the Crucifixion on fol. 86r, and the silver Cross bursting through the image’s own limits of narratival space, to bring “a great calm light” from Heaven down to bathe the altar and to lift its sacrificial gifts of bread and wine into Heaven, where they are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The upper register of the image is filled with the symbolic colors of the Trinity: the gold background of three of the four quadrants, the blue of the fourth, and the silver Cross. It is in this fiery flash, the embrace by the triune God in Heaven of the elements of bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the Mass, that we discover Hildegard’s program of the Eucharist as a new and perfected creation: as the silver flame and finger of the Holy Spirit reached down out of the Trinity to quicken Adam from the mud, so the silver Cross breaks through time and space to quicken Christ, the new Adam, from the Eucharistic elements of bread of wine. Furthermore, to the left of the Cross and upon a background of the Son’s sapphire blue, the gleaming, golden figure of Ecclesia, the Church, is both baptized in the blood streaming from his side and betrothed to him, she the bride and he the bridegroom.[5] This background is continued in the lower register, in which Ecclesia herself stands before the altar, offering up the sacrifice of the Mass.

Imago expandit splendorem suum...
Scivias II.3: The Church and Baptism.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 51r.

That blue background, marked with diamond clusters of white dots, is found also in Ecclesia’s first appearance in the manuscript, in the third vision of Part II (fol. 51r): the Church, the Bride of Christ, and Mother through baptism of the faithful:

After this I saw the image of a woman as large as a great city, with a wonderful crown on her head and arms from which a splendor hung like sleeves, shining from Heaven to earth. Her womb was pierced like a net with many openings, with a huge multitude of people running in and out. She had no legs or feet, but stood balanced on her womb in front of the altar that stands before the eyes of God…I could not make out her attire, except that she was arrayed in great splendor and gleamed with a lucid serenity, and on her breast shone a red glow like the dawn… And that image spreads out its splendor like a garment, saying, “I must conceive and give birth!” (Et eadem imago expandit splendorem suum velut vestimentum dicens, “Me oportet concipere et parere!”) (Scivias II.3, Visio)
Like the image of the Church expanding and spreading out its splendor like a garment to give birth to the faithful, so Hildegard used the images she designed for the Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript to expand and spread out it its theological splendor, to conceive and give birth to a new, visio-theological discourse.

[1] This is adapted from a paper delivered under the same title in Session 94 (May 9), “Hildegard von Bingen: Bridges to Infinity,” at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 9-12, 2013, at Western Michigan University. 
[2] Madeline Caviness, “Gender Symbolism and Text Image Relationships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias,” in Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeanette Beer (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), 71-111, esp. 75-76. 
[3] All quotations are taken from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990). They have occasionally been modified to reflect more directly Hildegard’s use of specific Latin terms, especially those related to color. 
[4] See Hiltgart Keller’s discussion of the image of Ecclesia on fol. 66r (Part II, Vision 5): Mittelrheinische Buchmalereien in Handschriften aus dem Kreise der Hiltgart von Bingen (Stuttgart: Surkamp, 1933), 59-60; and Caviness’ discussion of the same, with plates comparing the photograph to the facsimile, in “Gender Symbolism and Text Image Relationships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias,” 75-6 and figs. 7-9. 
[5] The banderole held in the hand of God in the upper right reads, “May she, O Son, be your Bride for the restoration of My people; may she be a mother to them, regenerating souls through the salvation of the Spirit and water” (Text from Scivias II.6, Vision.) 

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