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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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

O virgo Ecclesia (Symphonia 66)

For Holy Week, an Antiphon for the Church by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias II.6: The Crucifixion.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86rr.
O virgo Ecclesia,
plangendum est,
quod sevissimus lupus filios tuos  
de latere tuo abstraxit.
O ve callido serpenti!
Sed o quam preciosus est
      sanguis Salvatoris,
qui in vexillo regis
Ecclesiam ipsi
unde filios
illius requirit.
O Virgin Mother Church,
lament and mourn!
A savage wolf has snatched
your children from your side.
O woe to serpent’s trickery!
But O, how precious is
      the Savior’s blood
that with the royal banner sealed
his bridegroom’s promise
     to the Church,
whose children
he is seeking.

(You can listen to a recording of this antiphon on Sequentia’s album, Hildegard von Bingen: Voice of the Blood, via ex.fm here.)

The rubric for this antiphon in the Risenkodex (fol. 472rb) indicates that it was written for the dedication of a church, and it forms a natural pair with the antiphon that follows it, Nunc gaudeant materna, which we will look at as we celebrate the Resurrection at the end of this Holy Week. In this first antiphon of the pair, we find the Virgin Mother Church standing together with the Virgin Mother Mary beneath the beam of the cross, each a mater dolorosa grieving the schisms that have rent the body of Christ.[2] Hildegard evocatively addressed an entire antiphon to the blood that flowed from that body—blood that cried aloud with “a voice of woe” in O cruor sanguinis. Yet in today’s antiphon, that lament is countered by the promise that Christ made on the Cross, his marriage vow to the Church:

And after these things I saw the Son of God hanging on the cross, and the aforementioned image of a woman coming forth like a bright radiance from the ancient counsel. By divine power she was led to Him, and raised herself upward so that she was sprinkled by the blood from His side; and thus, by the will of the Heavenly Father, she was joined with Him in happy betrothal and nobly dowered with His body and blood.

And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to Him: “May she, O Son, be your Bride for the restoration of My people; may she be a mother to them, regenerating souls through the salvation of the Spirit and water.”
     —Scivias II.6, Vision[3]

Hildegard thus links upon the Cross the Church’s two most important sacraments, the vehicles by which she administers Christ’s grace and power to the children they bear together: in the illustration of this vision from the Rupertsberg manuscript (shown above), the blood pours from his side into the chalice Ecclesia holds—the Eucharist—but also onto her head, baptizing her in his blood as he will then regenerate their children “through the salvation of the Spirit and water.”

In Ecclesia’s first appearance in Scivias (II.3), Hildegard sees her thus:

Scivias II.3: The Church and Baptism.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 51r.
I saw the image of a woman as large as a great city, with a wonderful crown on her head and arms from which a splendor hung like sleeves, shining from Heaven to earth. (…) And that image spreads out its splendor like a garment, saying, “I must conceive and give birth!”

As her children then enter into her womb, she “draws them upward to her head, and they go out by her mouth,” stripped of the black garments of original sin, each now “clothed in a pure white garment.” Yet, despite the glory that surrounds these reborn children, Ecclesia knows that dark days lie ahead of them on their pilgrimage in the world:

And she, benignly gazing on them, said in a sad voice, “These children of mine will return again to dust. I conceive and bear many who oppress me, their mother, by heretical, schismatic, and useless battles, by robberies and murderers, by adultery and fornication, and by many such errors. Many of these rise again in true penitence to eternal life, but many fall in false obduracy to eternal death.”
     —Scivias II.3, Vision

As often as the Church appears in Hildegard’s visions as a grand and glorious figure, towering across time and space as she mediates God’s eternal counsel, wisdom, and maternal care for his children, she also has a tendency to appear battered and bruised, the victim of her children’s domestic violence against her as she “follows [her] painful but triumphant course through history to a consummation at the end of time.”[4]

In the years before he declared her a Doctor of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI made frequent reference to Hildegard. But her most dramatic appearance came in his address to the Roman Curia at the end of 2010. That year, the Church was wracked by a flood of new allegations throughout Europe of the clerical abuse of children and the hierarchical cover-up of scandal after scandal. In the face of such perversions, the Pope invoked the bitter condemnation found in Hildegard’s sermon to the clergy at Kirchheim:

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1170, I had been lying on my sick-bed for a long time when, fully conscious in body and in mind, I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. Her face shone with exceeding brightness and her gaze was fixed on heaven. She was dressed in a dazzling robe of white silk and draped in a cloak, adorned with stones of great price. On her feet she wore shoes of onyx. But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened. And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, “Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!”

And she continued: “I lay hidden in the heart of the Father until the Son of Man, who was conceived and born in virginity, poured out his blood. With that same blood as his dowry, he made me his betrothed.

For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.”

And I heard a voice from heaven which said: “This image represents the Church. For this reason, O you who see all this and who listen to the word of lament, proclaim it to the priests who are destined to offer guidance and instruction to God’s people and to whom, as to the apostles, it was said: go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15).”

The “savage wolf” who “has snatched [the Church’s] children from [her] side” in today’s antiphon can quite easily be imagined to be the abusers who have wracked the Church with their sins and the hierarchy that worked so long to cover them up. Just last week, Pope Francis again issued both an apology for these sins and a renewed commitment to rooting them out. These sexual perversions form the thrust of another of Hildegard’s disturbing visions of Ecclesia—her rape by the Antichrist in Scivias III.11.13-14 (words in italics are from the description of the vision):

Scivias III.11: The Five Ages
and the Antichrist.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 51r.
And you see again the figure of a woman whom you previously saw in front of the altar that stands before the eyes of God, standing in the same place. For the Bride of the Son of God is shown to you again, to reveal the truth, always present to the pure prayers of the saints and, as was said before, offering them devotedly to the eyes of Heaven. But now you see her from the waist down; for you see her in her full dignity as the Church, replete with the full number of her children, in the mysteries and wonders by which she has saved so many. And from her waist to the place that denotes the female, she had various scaly blemishes. This is to say that, though she is now flourishing worthily and laudably in her children, before the time in which the son of perdition will try to perfect the trick he played on the first woman, the Church will be harshly reproached for many vices, fornication and murder and rapine. How? Because those who should love her will violently persecute her.

And thus in the place where the female is recognized is a black and monstrous head. (…) It has fiery eyes, and ears like an ass’, and nostrils and mouth like a lion’s; for he runs wild in acts of vile lust and shameful blasphemy, causing people to deny God and tainting their minds and tearing the Church with the greed of rapine. It opens wide its jowls and terribly clashes its horrible iron-colored teeth; for with his voracious and gaping jaws he evilly infuses those who consent to him with his strong vices and mordant madness.

Later in the vision text, Hildegard describes the rape itself:

And behold! That monstrous head moved from its place with such a great shock that the figure of the woman was shaken through all her limbs. And a great mass of excrement adhered to the head; and it raised itself up upon a mountain and tried to ascend the height of Heaven. And behold, there came suddenly a thunderbolt, which struck that head with such great force that it fell from the mountain and yielded up its spirit in death. And a reeking cloud enveloped the whole mountain, which wrapped the head in such filth that the people who stood by were thrown into the greatest terror.

As I have discussed elsewhere, the illustration of this image pulls no punches: though Ecclesia’s upper body is a golden orans figure, her lower body has been replaced with a brutal assortment of bruising reds and scaly browns, capped with the monstrous and grotesque head of the Antichrist leering out from her genitals, his phallic ear erect for penetration.

Though Hildegard sees sexual sin as a particular hallmark of this grotesque (e)sc(h)atological vision, she was just as much concerned—like the current pontiff—with the corrosive effects that worldly pomp and wealth could have on the Church. The wolf of today’s antiphon appears also as the symbol of the last of five periods of tribulation that she prophesies to come before the end of the world in Scivias III.11:

And the last is a grey wolf. For those times will have people who plunder each other, robbing the powerful and the fortunate, and in these conflicts they will show themselves to be neither black nor white, but gray in their cunning. And they will divide and conquer the rulers of those realms; and then the time will come when many will be ensnared, and the error of errors will rise from Hell to Heaven.

Barbara Newman has made the persuasive argument that today’s antiphon and its universalized image of Church in crisis marks Hildegard’s symbolic response to a specific crisis of the Church in the 1150’s, the revolt of Arnold of Brescia.[5] Arnold had long been a troublemaker in the twelfth-century church, in ways not dissimilar to Hildegard on occasion. He was deeply disturbed by the corruption that ecclesiastical wealth seemed to breed in those of the Church’s ministers who were entangled in political affairs, and began to preach poverty against the luxury of the bishops and possessions of the monasteries. But whereas Hildegard only prophesied the radical disendowment of church property as the punishment awaiting such corruption, Arnold tried to actively effect it through his support of popular insurrections in Italy in the 1130’s, which earned him repeated condemnations, exiles, and penances.

As part of the penance enjoined on him by Pope Eugenius III in his reconciliation to the church in 1145, Arnold made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he fell in with those powers who agitated for the establishment of the Roman Republic and secular rule over the city—tensions that broke out into a full-fledged rebellion against the papacy that forced Eugenius to flee the city from 1146 to 1149 while it was ruled as a republican commune, with Arnold as one of its greatest supporters. Excommunicated in 1148, Arnold’s rhetoric did not abate: he condemned the entire hierarchy from Pope on down for not acceding to his demands that they relinquish temporal power. Eventually, Eugenius’ successor, Pope Adrian IV, went so far as to the place the entire city of Rome under interdict during Holy Week of 1155, a measure that finally compelled the populace to hand over Arnold and receive back the Pope. It may thus have been the context of Arnold’s final defeat—a ban on the public performance of any liturgy during the highest week of the liturgical calendar—that prompted Hildegard to situate this antiphon within the drama of the Crucifixion and Fortunatus’ great hymn, Vexilla regis prodeunt.

It is clear why Hildegard would hold Arnold for censure as “a savage wolf” and “treacherous serpent”—he broke with the Church and went too far, rending her garments with his schismatic zeal. Yet, she also shared in some ways his quite valid concerns over the corruption of the Church—simoniacs were among her most frequent targets for censure. At the same time, she made no apologies for certain uses of finery and wealth, as she makes clear in her letter responding to Tengswich of Andernach’s criticism of her abbey’s classism and use of fine jewelry and silk veils.[6] The key is to understand the place of that wealth within the Church’s service of God—the Opus Dei, the especially musical liturgical worship that Pope Adrian’s interdict would have silenced during this week in 1155 in the city of Rome. We know from Hildegard’s own response to such an interdict near the end of her life how grave such a situation was for her, for it would let loose the Devil from the symphonic fetters that kept him at bay.

There is a reason the bells and organs will fall silent on Friday and Saturday. For those few desperate hours, the earth was shaken to its core and the Devil briefly danced his tuneless jig as the Lord was put to death. Our silence will mark his silence—but only for a time. The symphony will not be quieted for long; the royal banners will fly again soon.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 250; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] See Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Univ. of California Press, 1987 / 1997), p. 236. 
[3] All quotes from Scivias adapted from the trans. of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990); Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 and 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 
[4] Newman, Sister of Wisdom, p. 196. 
[5] Newman, Symphonia, p. 315; and eadem, Sister of Wisdom, pp. 237-8. 
[6] See Letters 52 and 52r in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. I, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 127-30; and 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. 36-9 and 57-61; accessible online here

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