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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, September 08, 2014

Quia ergo femina (Symphonia 12)

For the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
An Antiphon by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias III.3:
Amor Caelestis.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 139r.
Quia ergo femina mortem instruxit,   
clara virgo illam interemit,
et ideo est summa
in feminea forma
pre omni creatura,
quia Deus factus est homo
in dulcissima et beata virgine.
For since a woman drew up death,
a virgin gleaming dashed it down,
and therefore is the highest
     blessing found
in woman’s form
before all other creatures.
For God was made a human
in the sweet and blessed Virgin.

Quia ergo femina by Ensemble Mediatrix on Grooveshark

This antiphon continues the narrative description of the Virgin’s place within salvation history begun in Hodie aperuit nobis; in this way, the pair are set apart from the responsories that precede them and the antiphons that follow, which directly address the Virgin in praise and intercession. With its opening, Hildegard provides a striking complement to 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, in which the two women (Eve and Mary) act in place of the two men (Adam and Christ): “For since by a human came death, by a human came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”[2] The choice of verbs to describe the contrastive actions of the two women—instruxit and interemit—continues the imagery that Hildegard used in the responsories, Ave Maria, o auctrix vite and O clarissima mater, in which Eve “constructs” the hollow walls of death and the Virgin tears them down, the “authoress of life...rebuilding up” hale salvation in their place.

That shift in perspective from the Adam/Christ pair to the Eve/Mary one allows Hildegard to move into one of her more elegant expressions of the “highest blessing found / in woman’s form,” precisely because of the Virgin’s victory over death in the purity of her sweet, life-giving womb. Barbara Newman notes that this piece joins the antiphon, O quam magnum miraculum, and the sequence, O virga ac diadema, in expanding this exaltation in the person of the Virgin to “woman per se,” whose form “denotes both the Platonic idea and the physical beauty of woman.”[3] Because of Hildegard’s Platonic metaphysics, in which humanity stands astride the ladder of being, stretching from the heart of divinity itself down to the vilest, mortal materiality, God’s choice to become a human through a feminea forma raises her weakness into a blessing that surpasses all other creatures. Moreover, although the text itself contrasts the femina (Eve) of the first line with the virgo (Mary) of the second, the benedictio of the third is shared by the Virgin with her fallen ancestor, as Hildegard repeats the musical phrase of line 1’s femina on line 3’s benedictio.

This sweet blessing of vibrant life, virginal in the sense of being unsullied by death or sin, recalls one of the Marian analogues that appear among the five virtues that adorn the Tower of Anticipation of God’s Will in Scivias III.3—we’ve already looked at another, the figure of Mercy, in relation to the responsory, Ave Maria, o auctrix vite. The first virtue to appear upon that tower is Celestial Love (amor caelestis), who declares in the vision (as inscribed upon her scroll in the Rupertsberg illustration above): “O sweet life, O sweet embrace of eternal life, O blessed happiness, in which consist eternal rewards! For You are always in true delight, and so I can never be filled or sated with the inner joy that is my God.”[4] In her left hand, she carries a palm branch, “which has grown out of the secret place of blessed virtue in remembrance of death; and with it she can stop death as if by rolling stones in its path” (Scivias III.3.6).

In this vision, the five virtues form a prefigurative progression in salvation history—and crucially, the first step after the Fall on that journey to salvation in the Incarnation is in this figure of Celestial Love. Only after her come Discipline and Modesty, who come together in Mercy; and as a quartet these lead ultimately to Victory. As these virtues acted before the coming of Christ to foreshadow God’s will, so now they act along the same path from Fall to Redemption in the life of each penitent:

Among the five virtues the first is celestial love, which consists in a person knowing and loving God above all things. Then the person, because of their faith, is bound by the law of discipline; and from there they go on to repress their tendency to sin through good and righteous modesty. And so by these three powers the person will attain a just heart, and be able to see the next thing, the suffering of their neighbor; and then they will provide all necessities for their neighbor as for themselves.

And with these three powers the person soon becomes a strong soldier, perfected in mind by imitating My Son, the true Samaritan, in mercy. And then they win victory over the power of the Devil with the arms of virtue; they conquer themselves and govern their neighbor, and by these virtues slay all evil, rejecting the pride that drove Adam from Paradise.
     —Scivias III.3.9

Scivias III.3: Victoria.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 139r.
And thus we come to Victory (italicized text is from Hildegard’s initial vision; the remainder its explication):

Armed and arrayed with a helmet on her head, and a breastplate and greaves, and iron gloves, a shield hangs from her left shoulder; she is girded with a sword and holds a spear in her right hand. And under her feet a lion lies, its mouth open; this is the Devil, laid low by Victory at the foot of the righteous path of life and truth as he was gaping with bitter cruelty to swallow the human race. Its tongue is hanging out, which represents his plan wickedly to devour the whole race of people descended from Adam.
     —Scivias III.3.9

Had Hildegard written to the Corinthians, she might have concluded: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through the womb of a gleaming Virgin, in which God became a human!”

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 116; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 in the Latin Vulgate: “Quoniam quidem per hominem mors, et per hominem resurrectio mortuorum. Et sicut in Adam omnes moriuntur, ita et in Christo omnes vivificabuntur.” 
[3] Symphonia, ed. Newman, p. 273. 
[4] 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 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The music is also great!