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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.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

O nobilissima viriditas (Symphonia 56)

For the Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr,
A Responsory for Virgins by St. Hildegard of Bingen [1]

Scivias II.5: Virginitas
& the Orders of the Church.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 66r
V. O nobilissima viriditas,
que radicas in sole
et que in candida serenitate
luces in rota
quam nulla terrene excellentia    

R. Tu circumdata es
amplexibus divinorum

V. Tu rubes ut aurora
et ardes ut solis flamma.

R. Tu circumdata es
amplexibus divinorum
V. O noblest, freshest green, viridity
you are, deep rooted in the sun
and shining bright in clearest calm
within a wheel
no earthly excellence
can comprehend:

R. You are contained within
the embraces of the service,
the ministries divine.

V. As morning’s dawn you blush,
as sunny flame you burn.

R. You are contained within
the embraces of the service,
the ministries divine.

As Barbara Newman notes, this responsory addresses the entire order of virgins as a collective group, marked by the particular attributes of their virginity.[2] Indeed, were it not for the rubrics in the manuscripts marking this a responsory de virginibus, “for virgins,” it might be interpreted as a piece devoted to the Virgin Mary as a sapiential agent of the divine, as its themes echo those of similar pieces—the imagery of sunlight, for example, in O splendidissima gemma; of the dawn in Hodie aperuit, O quam preciosa, and O magna res; and the evocation of viridity in verse 6 of Ave generosa. This same complex of imagery also occurs in Hildegard’s antiphon for St. John, O speculum columbe, where it articulates the special contemplative gift afforded the Order of Virgins within the Church as they imitate “the beloved disciple” resting in “sunshine’s warm embrace” (quies amplexuum solis). Thus, we see that for Hildegard, the virgins among whose ranks she and her nuns were counted held a special place in salvation history as the particular heirs of Mary’s fecund virginity.

The beautiful paradox of this responsory is that opening image for virginity, one of vitality and fertility—viriditas, one of Hildegard’s favorite terms that connects the fresh, green life of nature to the active Life of the divine and its triple role as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. This participation of the created world in the divine nature results from her neo-platonic metaphysics and its continual process of creative emanation of the divine into all other being and then the return of all being into the divine. Thus, in today’s responsory, Hildegard immediately traces virginal viridity back to its source, “rooted in the sun” of divinity and its incomprehensible wheel—the rota is another of her classic images for the creative and eternal movement of the divine, as seen for example in O Verbum Patris and the opening of the final vision of Liber Divinorum Operum. Yet, this spinning wheel of divine power is not some cold or distant formulation, but one that sparks and glows with the red blush of dawn and sun’s warming flames, as Hildegard describes its virginal, life-giving activity in the second versicle.

The respond carries this complex of images from God’s general activity in salvation history into the particular service that Hildegard and her nuns offered in their daily lives—the “ministries divine” (divina ministeria) are the opus Dei, the “Work of God”, as St. Benedict described the hours of prayer and musical praise that monastics living under his Rule were to offer every single day. For Hildegard, this divine service was practically sacramental as its sung praises became an open channel to connect her community of nuns to the heavenly choirs and their eternal ministry of praise—in enacting daily “the Work of God”, she and her virgins became agents of divine grace and power. Indeed, the very veils and ornate jewelry with which Hildegard (in)famously clothed her nuns on high feast days were divinely-commanded signs of the verdant, virginal grace that worked within and through them. Their design was revealed in Scivias II.5, a vision of the Orders of the Church—and as the illustration for this vision in the Rupertsberg manuscript above shows, preeminent among those orders were the virgins standing at the breast of Ecclesia, some in verdant green cloaks and others in the sky-blue of the Incarnate Word, and in their center the dawn-red-cloaked Virginitas, her hands lifted in the same virginal praise of God as Virgin Mother Church:[3]

After this I saw that a splendor white as snow and translucent as crystal had shone around the image of that woman from the top of her head to her throat. And from her throat to her navel another splendor, red in color, had encircled her, glowing like the dawn (…) and shining mixed with purple and blue [pupura hyacintho]. (…) And where it glowed like the dawn, its brightness shone forth as high as the secret places of heaven; and in this brightness appeared a most beautiful image of a maiden, with bare head and black hair, wearing a red tunic, which flowed down about her feet.

And around that maiden I saw standing a great crowd of people, brighter than the sun, all wonderfully adorned with gold and gems. Some of these had their heads veiled in white, adorned with a gold circlet; and above them, as if sculpted on the veils, was the likeness of the glorious and ineffable Trinity as it was represented to me earlier, and on their foreheads the Lamb of God, and on their necks a human figure, and on the right ear cherubim, and on the left ear the other kinds of angels; and from the likeness of the glorious and supernal Trinity golden rays extended to these other images.
     —Scivias II.5, Vision[4]

Hildegard elaborated this vision in a later letter to Guibert of Gembloux:

I saw that all the ranks [ordines] of the Church have bright emblems in accord with the heavenly brightness, yet virginity has no bright emblem—nothing but a black veil and an image of the cross. So I saw that this would be the emblem of virginity: that a virgin’s head would be covered with a white veil, because of the radiant-white robe that human beings had in paradise and lost. On her head would be a circlet [rota] with three colours conjoined into one—an image of the Trinity—and four roundels attached: the one on the forehead showing the lamb of God, that on the right a cherub, that on the left an angel, and on the back a human being—all these inclining towards the [figure of the] Trinity. This emblem, granted to me, will proclaim blessings to God, because he had clothed the first man in radiant brightness.[5]

When Tengswich, the magistra of a community of Augustinian canonesses in Andernach, wrote to Hildegard questioning the propriety of dressing her nuns in flowing white, silk veils, their hair bound only by a golden coronet (rota—the circlet of the crown and the wheel of divinity sacramentally combined), Hildegard responded with a glorious defense of her virgins:

Because the beauty of woman radiated and blazed forth in the primordial root, and in her was formed that chamber in which every creature lies hidden. Why is she so resplendent? For two reasons: on the one hand, because she was created by the finger of God and, on the other, because she was endowed with wondrous beauty. O woman, what a splendid being you are! For you have set your foundation in the sun, and have conquered the world.
Listen: The earth exudes the viridity of the grass [terra sudat viriditatem graminis], until winter conquers it. Then winter takes away the beauty of that flower, and the earth covers over its vital force [viriditatem] so that it is unable to manifest itself as if it had never dried up, because winter has ravaged it. In a similar manner, a woman, once married, ought not to indulge herself in primordial adornment of hair or person, nor ought she to lift herself up to vanity, wearing a crown and other golden ornaments, excepts at her husband’s pleasure, and even then with moderation.

But these strictures do not apply to a virgin, for she stands in the unsullied purity of paradise, lovely and unwithering, and she always remains in the full viridity of the budding rod [in plena viriditate floris virge]. A virgin is not commanded to cover up her hair and her viridity [non habet tegmen crinium viriditatis sue in precepto], but she willingly does so out of her great humility, for a person will naturally hide the beauty of her soul, lest, on account of her pride, the hawk carry it off.

Virgins are married with holiness in the Holy Spirit and in the bright dawn of virginity [in aurora virginitatis], and so it is proper that they come before the great High Priest as an oblation presented to God. Thus through the permission granted her and the revelation of the mystic inspiration of the finger of God, it is appropriate for a virgin to wear a white vestment, the lucent symbol of her betrothal to Christ, considering that her mind is made one with the interwoven whole [intexte integritati mens eius solidetur], and keeping in mind the One to whom she is joined, as it is written: “Having his name, and the name of the Father, written on their foreheads” [Apoc. 14:1] and also, “These follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth” [Apoc. 14:4].[6]

Although the bridal imagery does not appear in today’s responsory, it does fill several of Hildegard’s other musical compositions dedicated to virgins, especially the piece she called a “Symphony of Virgins”, O dulcissime amator (Symphonia 57), which we will examine at another time. Nevertheless, today’s responsory does make clear the preeminent place that Hildegard perceived for the virgins whose mother she became—the most dedicated of God’s servants, and thus his most powerful agents of fertile grace and viridity.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 218; although the second respond is not marked in the manuscripts, I have added it to fulfill the form of the responsory. Translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] Ibid., p. 304. 
[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. pp. 36-39 and 57-61.; accessible online here
[4] Letter 103r, in Epistolarium II, ed. L. Van Acker, CCCM 91a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1993), p. 253; trans. Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 169. 
[5] Scivias, ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 174-5; trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 201. For more on this vision and its discussion of virginity, see my discussion of Hildegard’s antiphon for St. John, O speculum columbe
[6] Letter 52r, in Epistolarium I, ed. L. Van Acker, CCCM 91a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), pp. 127-9; trans. adapted from The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 1, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 128-9. Barbara Newman also noted the similarities between this letter and today’s responsory (in Symphonia, pp. 304-5). 

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