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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.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

O clarissima mater (Symphonia 9)

For the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, a Responsory for the Virgin by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias II.6: Virgin Mother
Church offers the Eucharist.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86r
V. O clarissima
mater sancte medicine,
tu ungenta
per sanctum Filium tuum
in plangentia vulnera mortis,     
que Eva edificavit
in tormenta animarum.
Tu destruxisti mortem,
edificando vitam.

R. Ora pro nobis
ad tuum natum,
stella maris, Maria.
V. O radiant bright,
O mother of a holy medicine,
your ointments
through your holy Son
you’ve poured
upon the plangent wounds of death,
by Eve constructed
as torture chambers of the soul.
This death you have destroyed
by building life.

R. Pray for us
to your child,
O sea star Mary.

V. O vivificum instrumentum
et letum ornamentum
et dulcedo omnium deliciarum,   
que in te non deficient.

R. Ora pro nobis
ad tuum natum,
stella maris, Maria.

Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui sancto.

R. Ora pro nobis
ad tuum natum,
stella maris, Maria.
V. O instrument of life
and joyful ornament,
and sweetener of all delights,
that in you will not fail.

R. Pray for us
to your child,
O sea star Mary.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.

R. Pray for us
to your child,
O sea star Mary.

As the Feast of the Presentation and Purification (Candlemas) places the final cap on the lengthy season of celebrating the Incarnation in its first small steps, it seems appropriate to look today at this responsory, which is closely linked with the responsory with which we began Advent more than two months ago, Ave Maria, o auctrix vite (Symphonia 8). Their most consonant shared theme is Hildegard’s treatment of the paired relationship between Mary and Eve, which in both of these pieces uses the peculiar imagery of architecture—Eve constructing one set of buildings, e.g. the “torture chambers of the soul;” and Mary tearing down those mortal halls and building life in their place.

Despite the arresting image of “the wounds of death” themselves lamenting their pain as Eve built them into our torments and tortures, however, this piece devotes more thematic space to the opening image of Mary’s role as healer of those wounds. The lengthy melismas of the opening five lines confirm the piece’s focus, especially as tu ungenta both reaches to the piece’s next-to-highest note and introduces a key motif repeated once on sanctum Filium and twice on infudisti. Indeed, the lengthy melisma on that verb draws particular attention to this other even more arresting image that invests the Virgin Mother with significant salvific agency: Mary herself pours out the ointment through her Son upon the wounds of death.[2] We see here Hildegard’s symbolist theological mind in action as she identifies Mary’s mediation of the Incarnation as mother with the doctor’s mediation of the healing powers of medicinal balm.

The second versicle is much less elaborate, with only a few notes per syllable. Yet in its own way, it amplifies the opening image in its celebration of the Virgin’s healing properties—as the instrument that brings life into the world, her ointments possess the decorous perfume that beautifies the world with its ornament and exudes the very sweetness of its delights. Moreover, Hildegard notes that, in contrast to worldly sweets, which the medieval mind readily recognized would always (and often quickly) pass to bitterness, the Virgin’s sweetness can never fail. Compare, for example, the following lines from the Prologue of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, composed ca. 1210:

ein ander werlt die meine ich,
diu samet in eime herzen treit    
ir süeze sûr, ir liebez leit,
ir herzeliep, ir senede nôt,
ir liebez leben, ir leiden tôt,
ir lieben tôt, ir leidez leben.
I speak now of a different world
that gathers in a single heart things once divided:
its sweet bitterness, its lovely suffering,
its heart’s delight, its passionately painful distress,
its beloved life, its painful death,
its beloved death, its painful life.

The Mary that we meet in the Gospel for today’s feast (Luke 2:22-40) is one whose heart feels this strange coagulation of opposites in Simeon’s words: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34-5). Hildegard’s Mary is not often the Mother of Sorrows—no, as in today’s responsory, she is the Mother of the Relief of those sorrows, the healer of our plangent wounds.

Yet Hildegard herself was all too aware of the pain that even the healer could suffer—as Barbara Newman notes, the imagery of medicine likely came easily to Hildegard’s mind because of her own interest in healing and medicinal cures, an interest that may have derived heavily from her own chronic illnesses and infirmities.[3] The Virgin Mother’s office as healer works in Hildegard’s symbolist mind in alignment with her own experiences and with Virgin Mother Church’s agency as doctor, healer, and hospital. Thus, the image of Ecclesia as the sweet, aromatic balm for the wounds of her people appears in Hildegard’s antiphon O orzchis Ecclesia—and this is an image that has even contemporary currency, as seen for example in remarks last September by Pope Francis: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. (…) Heal the wounds, heal the wounds!”[4]

The sacramental locus of that healing power mediated to us by both Virgin Mothers—Mary and Ecclesia—is the eucharistic Body of Christ. If we connect today’s imagery of medicine with the image of the virginal body as sparkling gem—as used, for example, in the antiphon to the Virgin, O splendidissima gemma—we arrive at one of Hildegard’s more evocative analogies for the Eucharist in Scivias II.6.13, of medicinal ointment and sapphire (the voice from heaven speaks):

That oblation, by the power of God, is invisibly borne on high and brought back again in an instant, and so warmed by the heat of the Divine Majesty that it becomes the body and blood of God’s Only-Begotten. People do not perceive this mystery with their bodily senses; it is as if someone encased a precious unguent [unguentum] in simple bread and dropped a sapphire into wine, and I then changed them into a sweet taste, so that in your mouth, O human, you could not taste the unguent in the bread or the sapphire in the wine, but only the sweetness [suavem saporem]—as My Son is sweet and mild. What does this mean? The unguent symbolizes My Son, born of the Virgin, Who was anointed with precious ointment. How? He was clothed with holy humanity, which is a precious unguent, pouring so sweetly over the deadly wounds of humans that when they turn back to Him they will no longer putrefy or stink with Adam’s perdition. And the sapphire symbolizes the Divinity in My Son, Who is the Cornerstone; He is meek and humble, for he did not grow from the root of human flesh begotten by a man and a woman, but was miraculously incarnate by My fire in the sweet Virgin, and therefore his body and blood are sweet and delightful for believers to take in.[5]
Hildegard emphasizes that the very sweetness by which this precious unguent heals is Christ's humanity, received from his Virgin Mother. She reiterates this point in the next two chapters (Scivias II.6.14-15), where she explicitly models the priest who performs the Eucharist upon Mary:
My Son was miraculously born from the most pure Virgin, whose body was untouched and never burned in the sweetness of lust, for the virginal vessel in which I willed My Only-Begotten to be incarnate was the purest possible. Thus I did not permit this sweet Virgin’s vessel to melt in fiery ardor, since in it My Son miraculously took on a human body.

But as the blessed Virgin heard true words of consolation from the angel in secret, and believed, she uplifted the sighs of her soul and said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word” [Luke 1:38]. Thus she conceived the Only-Begotten of God. This indicates that the priest who is performing this office must invoke with his words Almighty God, faithfully believing in Him, offering Him in devotion of heart a pure oblation and speaking the words of salvation in the service of humility. (….) As My Son miraculously received humanity in the Virgin, so now this oblation miraculously becomes His body and blood on the altar.[6]
A few chapters later, Hildegard again discusses the Eucharist as medicine, this time in the exegetical context of the Song of Songs (Scivias II.6.21):
“Eat, my friends; drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved!” [Song of Songs 5:1] What does this mean? Eat in faith, you who through holy baptism have come to My friendship; for the spilled blood of My Son has purged you from Adam’s fall, and as you chew the true medicine in the body of My Only-Begotten, the repeated deeds of crime and injustice you have done will be mercifully wiped out for you.[7]

Scivias II.6: Crucifixion
and Eucharist.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86r
Although a Marian reading of the Song of Songs was often popular in the twelfth century, Hildegard here takes the more generalized route of reading the Bride as the faithful soul. However, the hallmark of that faithful soul is, in her symbolist web of images, the very thing that connects Mary, the Church, and Hildegard herself: their paradoxically fecund virginity.[8] Thus, although the textual framework of Scivias II.6.15 parallels the priesthood with Mary, the image that accompanies this vision in the Rupertsberg manuscript (shown in detail above) places Ecclesia, the Virgin Mother Church, in the place of the priest. Moreover, Hildegard’s lengthy exegesis of another verse from the Song of Songs (2:3) in Scivias III.8—a vision of the Pillar of the Savior’s Humanity, parts of which we discussed in relation to Hodie aperuit—subtly returns to the eucharistic language of II.6 to explain why the Bride is so enamored of the Bridegroom’s sweet fruit. The faithful soul—which, for Hildegard, can only mean here the virginal soul, unsullied by any earthly spouse as she yearns for her heavenly Bridegroom—declares that, “His sweetest fruit, which I tasted in my soul when I sighed for God, is sweeter to me than all the sweetness of carnal delights I used to feel.” And why is this fruit so sweet, Hildegard asks?

Because He was born of the Virgin, and so has the sweetest savor and the strongest unguent, which He distills like balsam; which is the resurrection unto life, by which the dead have been raised. And that unguent has the healing in it that through His Incarnation cleanses the wounds of sin; for the Incarnation is full of sanctity and sweetness and all the virtues of virginity.[9]
As we turn in our journey through the liturgical year from the great joy of the Nativity and Epiphany into the more somber reflections of Gesimatide and then Lent, it seems appropriate to think more about the wounds that we have that are in so great need of this medicine. The Incarnation is, indeed, full of sanctity and sweetness—but to recognize its pure sweetness, mediated to us in the Virgin Mother’s flesh, we must recognize how bitter the things are that we nominally call, “sweet”—the carnal delights that may seem sweet but which the Virgin’s flesh eschews for the true sweetness of the Lord. The sweetness that never bitters, never fails, is the sweetness of this unguent, this medicine with its glorious perfume, whose instrument, ornament, and bottle, as it were, is the Virgin Mother Mary.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 112, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] My thanks to Beverly Lomer for pointing out these features in the music and their rhetorical impact upon the meaning of the text. 
[3] Ibid., p. 272. 
[4] 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. 60-1; available online here
[5] Trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 245; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 242-3. 
[6] Trans. Hart and Bishop, pp. 245-6; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, pp. 243-4. 
[7] Trans. Hart and Bishop, p. 249; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, pp. 248-9. 
[8] On this, see especially my discussion of O nobilissima viriditas (Symphonia 56) and O magna res (Symphonia R 407ra). 
[9] Trans. Hart and Bishop, p. 440; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43a, p. 502. 

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