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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, January 13, 2014

O magna res (Symphonia R 407ra)

For the Octave of the Epiphany, a Verse for the Incarnate Word
and His Virgin Mother by St. Hildegard of Bingen [1]

Hand of God. Frontispiece,
Uta Codex, ca. 1025.
Munich, Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 13601, fol. 1v.
1a. O magna res
que in nullo constituto latuit,   
ita quod non est facta
nec creata ab ullo,
sed in se ipsa permanet.

lb. O vita
que surrexisti in aurora,
in qua magnus rex
que in antiquo
apud virum sapientem fuit
misericorditer manifestavit,
quia mulier per foramen
     antiqui perditoris
mortem intravit.
1a. O greatness that
no creature formed could hide—
not made indeed,
created not by anyone,
within itself abides.

1b. O life
that rose upon the dawn,
the dayspring when
     the mighty King
in mercy made his Wisdom known—
of old she dwelt
together with the sage—
for once a woman entered death
through the ancient slayer’s
     darkened door.

Uta with Virgin and Child.
Dedication Frontispiece,
Uta Codex, ca. 1025.
Munich, Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 13601, fol. 2r.
2a. O luctus! Ach meror!
     He planctus,
qui in muliere edificati sunt!    

2b. O aurora, hec abluisti

in forma prime coste.

3a. O feminea forma,
     soror Sapientie,
quam gloriosa es,
quoniam fortissima vita
in te surrexit,
quam mors nunquam

3b. Te Sapientia erexit,
ita quod omnes creature
per te ornate sunt,
in meliorem partem
quam in primo acciperent.
2a. O agony and woe!
     Ach, pangs of grief
that then were built in womanhood!

2b. O dawn, you washed
     these woes away
within the form of that first rib.

3a. O form of woman,
     Wisdom’s sister,
how glorious you are!
For mighty life
rose up in you,
and death shall never smoother it.

3b. For Wisdom raised you up
to grace all creatures
to receive through you
a better portion
than before.

Having taken the title of her study of Hildegard’s theology (Sister of Wisdom) from these verses—whose musical notation sadly does not survive—Barbara Newman has described them as “a succinct and effective synopsis of Hildegard’s sapiential thought.”[2] We have already seen Hildegard’s standard typological and contrastive pairing of Eve and Mary, the first mother tragically fallen, the second by grace upraised to glory (e.g. in Ave Maria, o auctrix vite [Symphonia 8] and O splendidissima gemma [Symphonia 10]). In this verse, however, she casts that contrast within the wider movement of divinity in the world in the form of Sapientia, the creative emanation of Divine Wisdom (see e.g. O virtus Sapientie [Symphonia 2]).

The series of five O! exclamations structures this movement by addressing each verse to the image that forms its key theme, with the final verse elaborating its conclusion. Thus, Hildegard opens with an evocation of the sheer greatness of God’s self-abiding existence, the absolute and necessary precursor to everything else. Before, behind, beneath all things is this simple fact of God’s being—all of it is contingent on him, and he is contingent on himself alone.

This simplicity of existence, however, only tells half the story, for in Hildegard’s perceptive philosophical mind, a key property of existence is its vitality. Thus, divinity’s self-subsisting being overflows with the next key theme: life. This is the essence of creation, as at the dawn of time God the King brought forth life through his creative agent, both the Word of God and the Wisdom of God. This figure of feminine Wisdom as creative agent was celebrated in several Old Testament and intertestamental writings, including Proverbs 8 and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 1 and 24; and especially in Wisdom of Solomon. Indeed, it is the latter’s description of Solomon seeking Wisdom as his bride (chs. 7-9) that Hildegard evokes in the second verse in describing her dwelling apud virum sapientem—“with a wise man.”

The dawn light upon which this creative Wisdom appears invokes one of the most important images of Hildegard’s symbolic vocabulary, as we have already seen (in e.g. Hodie aperuit nobis [Symphonia 11] and O Verbum Patris [Symphonia R 404va]). As I have described it elsewhere:

The dawn light is, in Hildegard’s visionary vocabulary, the preeminent marker of Christ’s Incarnation, the turning point in salvation history. (…) Furthermore, the Incarnation served as the ideal model for Hildegard’s notions of virginitas, the order of the Church in which she and her nuns were specially called to imitate the Savior. The connections between Christ, his Virgin Mother, and the Virgin Ecclesia are the hallmark of Hildegard’s particular interpretation of the absolute predestination of the Word, which is also why Hildegard tends to emphasize the entire Incarnation, and not just the crucifixion, as the triumphant key to salvation history.[3]
In today’s verses, moreover, the image of the dawn and of Wisdom’s “merciful manifestation” is polysemous, as it signifies both the first dawn of time in the original creation, and the dawn of the Incarnate Word’s recreation of the world. Thus, the end of our second verse introduces the bridge between the two—the imprisonment of humankind within the lair of death, whose door Eve darkened when she followed “the ancient slayer” through it. It is this fallenness that the third O! laments—the pangs and woe of life cut off from the dawn light, enchained within the prison “constructed in woman(hood)” (in muliere edificati).

Yet, the reappareance of that dawn light—a new irruption of divinity into the world and its falsely imposed prison of death—comes in that very same womanhood, as Hildegard characteristically conflates Eve and Mary in the striking symbol of femininity, the “first rib” from Adam’s side into which God created woman (Gen. 2:21-2). Thus, our final two O!’s address the Incarnate dawn light and the woman’s form through which it burst forth into the world. This woman who bore the Incarnate Word is the soror Sapientie, “Wisdom’s sister”, for just as Wisdom was God’s agent in creating the world, so this feminea forma, this “form of woman”, is God’s agent in recreating the world, to bring to it a new life that is far stronger (fortissima) than the initial life of creation, for now it is a life “that death shall never smoother.” The grace and beauty that all of creation receives in Mary’s womanhood is thus better (in meliorem partem) than it was in the first creation.

Hildegard’s use of language in the final pair of verses (3a and 3b), however, intentionally avoids naming the Virgin Mary as the specific female form by which God and his Wisdom accomplished this glorious feat. Rather, her use of non-specific language for this feminea forma—a phrase she often uses to describe herself—creates a space for interpreting this as a celebration of femininity in and of itself. The female figure of Wisdom, the first (though fallen) mother Eve, the second Virgin Mother Mary, the Virgin Mother Church, and Hildegard herself as a “mother” of the nuns in her care—each participates in the special divine trait of fertile (pro)creativity. The irruption of divinity into vital, living creation is, for Hildegard, a feminine act of God. Furthermore, her particular neo-Platonic model of being saw within the paired mothers of Eve and Mary the peculiar paradox that St. Paul ascribed to the Cross (I Corinthians 1:18-25): in weakness—and especially the feminine weakness inherited of Eve, stumbling across that threshold of painful death—is found the greatest of strength, the fortissima vita, the most powerful life.

The two images that appear above are the frontispieces of the Uta Codex, one of the finest examples of early 11th-century Ottonian book art, commissioned by Uta I, the Abbess of the monastery of Niedermünster in Regensburg. They appear on facing pages at the beginning of the manuscript and work together to visually show the interaction of eternal divinity with temporal creation and the story of salvation that unfolds from that interaction. On the left is depicted the Hand of God within a geometric complex of triangle, square, and circle—a visual attempt to grapple with the Trinity—whose poetic inscription corresponds well to the first verse of today’s piece by Hildegard:

Perpetuo totum nutu cingens deus aevum,
Sanxit ab aeterno: quae condidit omnia verbo.

God, encompassing all time by his everlasting will,
Has from eternity hallowed all things, which he created by his Word.[4]
This eternal evocation of divinity is mirrored on the page facing it on the right by the image of the Virgin and Child—the entrance of divinity into time and into history. Below the enthroned Mary and infant Jesus, which invokes the traditional iconography found in depictions of the Adoration of the Magi, appears the Abbess Uta herself, dedicating the Gospel lectionary book in which she appears to the Mother and Incarnate Word. As Adam Cohen concludes:
The opening two frontispieces contain visual and textual elements manipulated to produce polysemous compositions. The viewer is presented first with the timeless and cosmic Hand of God, the source of the celestial spirit that is said in the next picture to enable Mary to engender Jesus; like the Hand, the Virgin and Child are depicted within a central medallion. The first frontispiece, with its personified virtues cast as divine entities inextricably linked to God, conveys a message of distance from the human realm. In the facing representation, human elements are introduced; the Incarnation marks a demonstrable moment in the historical time stream. Central to the page is the construction of the relationship between Uta and Mary. (...) Uta’s relationship to the Virgin is further elaborated by the choice of specific titles for Mary, which reflect her position as the paradigm for Uta's own function as head of a nunnery.[5]

It is that same paradigm that Hildegard invokes for herself in today’s verses, and indeed in much of her ministry as a leader of a community of virgins and a prophetic conduit for the words and images of the Living Light.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 264; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. This is one of four pieces whose texts appear among those of Symphonia without musical notation (neumes) in what Newman has called the “Miscellany” section of the Riesenkodex (specifically, fol. 407ra), but that do not, unfortunately, appear in the later section of that manuscript with neumes, nor in the other manuscript to preserve the musical notation, the Dendermonde. Thus, though only its text has been preserved, it is likely that Hildegard either composed music for it or had it sung to preexisting notation. 
[2] Ibid., p. 319. See also Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Univ. of California Press, 1987), esp. pp. 42-75 and 250-65. 
[3] See 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. p. 51; accessible online here
[4] Adam S. Cohen, The Uta Codex: Art, Philosophy, and Reform in Eleventh-century Germany (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), p. 30. 
[5] Ibid., p. 51. 

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