“I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in sun, moon and stars.”
Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine nun canonized in 2010, was an abbess, a leading scholar, theologian, visionary, musician, linguist, artist and scientist. The tenth child of a noble German family, she was sent from around the age of eight to live with and be educated by Jutta of Sponheim, an anchorite in a Benedictine cloister at the monastery of Disibodenberg. At fifteen, she began wearing the Benedictine habit and pursuing a religious life. When Jutta died, Hildegard was elected as the new abbess by her fellow nuns. Hildegard lived to eighty-one - the equivalent of two average lifetimes in the twelfth century. During the course of her life, Hildegard wrote three major theological works, the first recorded morality play, two scientific treatises, over three hundred letters, composed a large body of music, invented her own language and founded two monasteries.
From a young age, Hildegard experienced visions which she called the umbra viventis lucis, the reflection of the living light. She returned to her visions again and again in all her works. Alongside extensive descriptions of her visions, she provided explanations, commentaries and sometimes visual representations. A letter which she wrote at the age of seventy-seven describes her experience of this light:
“From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves, and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even to the present time when I am more than seventy years old. In this vision my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places. And because I see them this way in my soul, I observe them in accord with the shifting of clouds and other created things. I do not hear them with my outward ears, nor do I perceive them by the thoughts of my own heart or by any combination of my five senses, but in my soul alone, while my outward eyes are open. So I have never fallen prey to ecstasy in the visions, but I see them wide awake, day and night. And I am constantly fettered by sickness, and often in the grip of pain so intense that it threatens to kill me, but God has sustained me until now. The light which I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it "the reflection of the living Light." And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam.”
Throughout her life, Hildegard sought ways to explore the deeper truths of the universe, which she felt had been revealed to her through her visions. She wrote that she was ‘compelled by a great pressure of pains to make known what I had seen and heard. ..But then my veins and marrow became filled with powers I had lacked in my childhood and youth’. A voice told her to ‘cry outtherefore and writ!’ It was at this point that with the assistance of Volmar, a monk, her visions began to be recorded.
These visions were subsequently confirmed as authentic by a committee of theologians when she was in her forties. A monk was appointed to help her record the visions in writing. The finished work, Scivias, written between 1141 and 1152, consisted of twenty-six visions which were “prophetic and apocalyptic” and dealt with topics such as the church, the relationship between God and humanity and redemption.
Hildegard’s writing is testimony to her view of divinity and love flowing through the natural world. She described the natural world as held in harmony through the female figures of Divine Love and Wisdom, hence her frequent reference to ‘greenness and fecundity’ in Scivias.
“I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in sun, moon and stars. And I awaken to life with every wind of the air, as with invisible life that sustains everything. For the air lives in greenness and fecundity. The waters flow as though they are alive. The sun also lives in its own light, and when the moon has waned it is rekindled by the light of the sun and thus lives again; and the stars shine out in their own light as though they are alive.”
“The soul is a breath of living spirit, / that with excellent sensitivity, / permeates the entire body to give it life. / Just so, the breath of the air / makes the earth fruitful. / Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it.”
The female figures of Divine Love and Wisdom were likewise used to describe the church as a mother caring for its child. In Scivias, the illustration Ecclesia representing Christians is depicted as a woman cloaked in gold, holding the faithful close to her. As a counterpart, the illustration Synagoga representing the Jews is depicted as a woman holding the prophets in her arms. Thus Hildegard, opposing violence, expressed her views that Jews and Christians both contributed to the church and therefore Jews ought not to be persecuted by the Crusaders.
In her scientific work Hildegard drew attention to the differences between male and female bodies to stress that they were unique, rather than one being inferior to the other. In her theology she put great emphasis on the importance of the female figures of Ecclesia, Synagoga, Love, Wisdom, Eve and the Virgin Mary as the foundations of both the spiritual and universal. She argued that all aspects of the church, and even Christ himself, only exist through the female. When describing her visions in her later theological works, she often switched between male and female pronouns as a way of showing that Divine Love flows through everything regardless of sex.
‘The Creation with the Universe and the Cosmic Man’, by Hildegard of Bingen dates almost 300 years before the geometrical construction of the ‘Vitruvian Man’ by Leonardo da Vinci.
Hildegard is the best known example of a female composer of early music. She emphasised that she learned how to create music “without any human instruction, although I had never learnt notation or singing”. “There is the Music of Heaven in all things and we have forgotten how to hear it until we sing.”
“Music stirs our hearts and engages our souls in ways we can’t describe. When this happens, we are taken beyond our earthly banishment back to the divine melody Adam knew when he sang with the angels, and when he was whole in God, before his exile.”
Hildegard’s songs were designed to inspire, transport and elevate members of her community. They celebrated the power and beauty of the Virgin Mary who is described as ‘Star of the Sea’, ‘Most Splendid of Gemstones’, ‘Author of Life’, ‘Holy Medicine’, ‘The Right Matter of the World’. Eve brought death but Mary brought salvation.
“Because a woman brought death / A bright Maiden overcame it, / And so the highest blessing / In all of creation / Lies in the form of a woman, / Since God has become man / In a sweet and blessed Virgin.”
Hildegard is considered by some scholars to be “the founder of natural sciences in Germany” and her remedies are said to be well known among herbalists and practitioners of alternative medicine. She was fascinated by medicine and the human body. She repeatedly wrote about the importance of looking after the human body ‘since it took care of the soul’. She is believed to have been the first nun and one of the first people to have written in detail about healing and health in general. She practised and advocated moderation and balance. Her book Causae et Curae promoted the importance of following a different type of diet to suit particular seasons. Her book Physica explored how items in the physical world, such as plants and gemstones, could be used in healing.
Hildegarde’s creativity extended to an experiment with language and to the creation of a new alphabet. The Lingua Ignota survives as a glossary of around 1,000 words.
In a male dominated church and with heresy on the rise, Hildegard could easily have been put to death as a heretic if the church authorities had not thought she was divinely inspired. As a woman who held power, had visions, wrote books, went on preaching tours at a time when women were not supposed to preach, the threat of being declared a heretic was ever present.
Although spiritual, Hildegard was not detached from the world. Among her correspondents were three popes, St Bernard of Clairvaux (one of the most influential men in Christendom, Emperor Frederick Barbarosa, King Henry ll of England and Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine. When necessary she spoke out against corruption among certain prince-bishops of her time ‘The Play of the Virtues’ is thought to have been based on her observations of religious leaders of her time immersed in warfare, corruption and moral vices.
Hildegarde was loved and celebrated even when she was alive almost 900 years ago. During one of her frequent illnesses and fearing the worst, Volmar, the monk who was her scribe and friend, wrote:
“Who then will give answers to all who seek to understand their condition? Who will provide fresh interpretations of the Scriptures? Who then will utter songs never heard before and give voice to that unheard language? Who will deliver new and unheard-of sermons on feast days? Who then will give revelations about the spirits of the departed? Who will offer revelations of things past, present and future? Who will expound the nature of creation in all its diversity?”
Hildegarde’s name survived down the centuries because of her extraordinary character, intellect and determination; because of her longevity and productivity, particularly in the latter part of her life; because she was supported by some of twelfth century Europe’s most powerful people but most particularly because towards the end of her life she had committed her ideas to writing.
The Reisencodex – ‘the giant book’ contains almost all her writings; many scribes worked for years to collect her visions, music, linguistic writings, homilies, biography and letters while she was still alive.
The Reisencodex has had an interesting history. During the ‘Thirty Years War’ (1618-48), Swedish troops looted Hildegard’s monastery of Rupertsberg but the nuns escaped with the book and hid it at their sister house of Eibingen.
Some two hundred years later, when religious establishments in Germany were secularised and their property taken, the manuscript went to the newly founded State Library of Wiesbaden.
At the start of the Second World War, under the threat of bombing raids, the library director sent it hundreds of miles east to Dresden along with another of Hildegard’s most precious manuscripts, a priceless copy of her major work Scivias, containing illuminations that Hildegard herself had a hand in.
In 1945 Dresden city was destroyed by Allied bombs but the bank vault containing Hildegard’s manuscripts survived. However, when officials arrived to examine its holdings they discovered that it had been pillaged and the only manuscript still in the vault was the Riesencodex.
Dresden was in Soviet occupied territory and in accordance with Soviet instructions to collect first-class artefacts found in Russian-held German territories, the Riesencodex became the property of the state. A new director of the Wiesbaden State Library tried every possible legal means of having the manuscript returned, but each was unsuccessful. So he forged a plot to remove the Riesencodex from Dresden so it could be reunited with the nuns of Hildegard through the collaboration of two brave women.
Margarete Kuhn, a medieval scholar who lived in the American sector of West Berlin but travelled to the Soviet East for work was working on a project collating all primary German texts from the Romans to AD1500. She could legitimately request for the manuscript to be sent from Dresden. Margarete persuaded the Soviet authorities to lend her the manuscript so it could be photographed. Next, her friend Caroline Walsh, an American military spouse, hid the manuscript on her person and took it via train and car to the nuns of Hildegard.
Marianne Schrader, a nun at Eibingen, asked the library director in Wiesbaden, to find a book of the same size and weight as the Riesencodex, the idea being that the fake would be returned in its original box while the original was held in Eibingen. It wasn’t until the Soviet authorities opened the box a few years later that the fraud was detected. Margarete was in grave danger, but as she happened to have needed surgery to remove a cancerous eye, Gotting, the Wiesbaden library director and mastermind of the plot, told the furious Soviets that Margarete’s poor eyesight meant she mistook the book and returned the wrong one. A compromise was finally agreed. Wiesbaden could keep the Riesencodex in exchange for other valuable books. So, after a sojourn with the Hildegard nuns, the manuscript returned to the state library in Wiesbaden, where it still resides today. Scivias, on the other hand, is still untraceable but fortunately, reproductions were made of the images before the manuscript was lost.
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