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, January 06, 2014

O quam preciosa (Symphonia 22)

For the Feast of the Epiphany, a Responsory for the Virgin
by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Nativity of the Lord.
Stammheim / Hildesheim
Missal (ca. 1160-70), fol. 92r.
J. Paul Getty Museum
V. O quam preciosa est
virginitas virginis huius
que clausam portam habet,     
et cuius viscera
sancta divinitas calore suo
infudit, ita quod flos
     in ea crevit.

R. Et Filius Dei
     per secreta ipsius
quasi aurora exivit.

V. Unde dulce germen,
quod Filius ipsius est,
per clausuram ventris eius
paradisum aperuit.

R. Et Filius Dei
     per secreta ipsius
quasi aurora exivit.
V. How precious is
this Virgin’s sweet virginity,
her gate kept closed,
her womb
divinity most holy with its warmth
has flooded so a flower sprung
     within it.

R. The Son of God's come forth
from her most secret chamber
     like the dawn.

V. And so the sweet and tender shoot—
her Son—
has through her womb’s enclosure
opened Paradise.

R. The Son of God's come forth
from her most secret chamber
     like the dawn.

O quam preciosa by Hildegard Von Bingen on Grooveshark

As Newman notes, this responsory is an expanded meditation on the themes of the antiphon Hodie aperuit (Symphonia 11): the gate, the flower, and the dawn light.[2] It again draws on the imagery of Ezekiel 44:1-3 to envision the Virgin’s chaste womb as the “closed gate” of the Temple whose threshold only the Lord’s Prince could cross.[3] The connection between the Temple gate and the gate behind which Hildegard and her cloistered nuns lived is made here more explicit, as is the symbolic conflation of temple, cloister, garden, and womb. The respond and second versicle in particular elegantly express the happy paradox of Mary’s hidden enclosure as a Virgin—an enclosure physically enacted by Hildegard and her nuns—from which the light of a reopened paradise burst forth.

There is a serene tenderness about this responsory that easily conjures the image of Hildegard herself sitting quietly in her garden in the early morning light, contentedly composing in her heart as her hands tended to the flowers and herbs. The Virgin’s secreta—an elegant expression for her private parts, as it were—are symbolically aligned with the privateness of the garden, a place where Hildegard could go to be alone with God in the viridity of creation. At the same time, there is an undercurrent of chaste eroticism in the tender warmth of God flooding into the Virgin’s womb as the warm sunlight floods into Hildegard’s private garden. The tenderness is reflected in the music’s effortless lightness of touch, which appears even in the octave-and-half run of notes up the scale on sancta divinitatis in the first versicle, as Hildegard circles round three more times to the A-C-D opening of sancta on infudit, ita, and crevit, a motif that reappears twice in the respond.

For those of us in the academic professions, Epiphany often marks the last, wistful moment of the Christmas hiatus. Though my own classes don’t begin for another week, I must start now with the preparations for the semester—finalizing syllabi, putting together handouts, setting up course software. But I hope that you will join me today in one last moment of contemplative peace, looking to the dawn light of the Savior appearing on the horizon, breaking forth into the world to bring new life, to reopen that garden that our own rash blindness closed.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 134, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] Ibid., p. 278. 
[3] On the use of this prophetic imagery in the illustration of the Nativity from the Stammheim / Hildesheim Missal above, see O splendidissima gemma (Symphonia 10), especially note 2