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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, April 27, 2014

Alleluia! O virga mediatrix (Symphonia 18)

For the Octave of Easter, an Alleluia-verse for the Virgin
by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Initial F: Tree of Jesse
Stammheim / Hildesheim
Missal (ca. 1160-70), fol. 146r.
J. Paul Getty Museum
O virga mediatrix,
sancta viscera tua
mortem superaverunt
et venter tuus omnes creaturas    
illuminavit in pulcro flore
de suavissima integritate
clausi pudoris tui orto.
O branch and mediatrix,
your sacred flesh
has conquered death,
your womb the world illumined,
all creatures in the bloom of beauty
sprung from that exquisite purity
of your enclosèd modesty.

In our celebration of Easter through Hildegard’s music, we looked particularly at her symbolic transformation of the Virgin Mother Mary’s role in Christ’s life into the Virgin Mother Church’s role in the life of Christ’s body. For today’s “Low Sunday”, we return to that prior mother in one of Hildegard’s elegant meditations on the Virgin Mary’s role in salvation history as prefigured in the “flowering branches” of two Old Testament figures: Aaron’s blooming staff (Numbers 17:1-11) and the branch of the root and Tree of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1).[2] The prefiguration was particularly fertile for medieval minds because of the similarity of the two Latin words, virgo (virgin) and virga (branch or rod), and the illustration of salvation history as a tree of life rooted in those patriarchs and blossoming into the Virgin and the fruit of her womb was popular in medieval art.

This antiphon rings on several themes characteristic of Hildegard’s treatment of the Virgin Mother, images quite familiar to us from throughout Hildegard’s Marian corpus, e.g. Hodie aperuit, O quam preciosa, O splendidissima gemma, and Ave generosa. Her blossoming flower breaks forth like the dawn, viscerally aligned with the fruit of her womb bursting forth into the world to redeem it—and in this season of Alleluias, that light burst forth again from the cold darkness of the tomb to overcome and conquer death. The parallel between Christ springing up from the fertile ground of her womb, a flower borne upon the light of dawn, and his rising again from the dead is reflected in the fact that today’s verse, meant to accompany the singing of the Gospel at Mass, begins with an elaborate melisma on the Alleluia!, and ends on an even more elaborate melisma on orto—the flower “sprung” and “raised.” Although Hildegard does not explicitly make a play on the parallel of womb and tomb, one cannot but help observing the juxtaposition of enclosure and openness, a paradox shared by Virgin Mother and Buried Life. The exquisite sweetness of the Virgin’s pure wholeness (suavissima integritas) is paradoxically fertile ground for the Savior, precisely because her garden remains modestly closed to the intrusions of sin and lust.

But the most powerful image of this antiphon, like the final verse of the sequence, O virga ac diadema, is the one that transfers salvific agency directly into the heart and flesh of the Virgin herself: she is the mediatrix, the feminine mediator, and it is her flesh (viscera tua) that overcame death (mortem superaverunt). Hildegard here invokes one of her most striking gender inversions to express the radical complementarity between feminine and masculine, Mother and Son, in the central event of salvation history. The Virgin’s fertile womb is the necessary instrument for mediating the Incarnation, and she thus becomes the indispensible Mother without whom that mediation of salvation would not have been possible. That salvific power is paradoxically delicate—the tender and beautiful flower of her virgin womb can only mediate death-destroying Life to the world because it remains enclosed and modest.

A virgin gave birth, and death brought new life to the world—this is the foolishness of God that surpasses human wisdom, the weakness of God that surpasses human strength:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”
     —I Corinthians 1:27-31

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 124, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] Newman, Symphonia, p. 276. 

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