By Phillip Campbell
One of the most exceptional saints of the 12th century was the German nun, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Though St. Hildegard spent the majority of her life confined to the abbey of Disibodenberg on the Rhine, she was one of the most creative and prolific minds of her age. Besides governing the community that would be her home for 40 years, Hildegard wrote treatises on botany, medicine, theology, and the arts. She composed poetry and music and corresponded with popes and princes. In this article, we will take a very brief look at the creative energy of this exceptional soul.
Hildegard’s most notable work was Scivias, Latin for “Know the Way.” Hildegard took ten years completing Scivias, a book that details Hildegard’s private revelations. The themes of Scivias are broad, dealing with salvation history and the progress of the soul towards God.
The original manuscript of Hildegard’s Scivias contains 35 gorgeous illuminated drawings taken from the text. There is significant debate over who created the actual illuminations, or whether they were even produced during Hildegard’s lifetime. Regardless, the images assuredly capture the spirit of Hildegard’s visions: vibrant, colorful images of the spiritual journey of the soul, often framed as intricate mandalas. They reflect Hildegard’s profoundly creative mind and marvelously encompass the eternal and the temporal within each image. Their depiction of three dimensional space is also unique. Though the Scivias illuminations do not use conventional perspective (the method would not be rediscovered in the West until over a century later), they have their own internal way of depicting space, usually with mandalas within mandalas. The illuminations of Hildegard’s Scivias have become more popular than the actual text itself.
We could also cite Hildegard’s prodigious musical output. Throughout her life Hildegard composed around 151 songs, 82 of them for the Ordo Virtutem, the earliest morality play and the earliest surviving musical drama not associated with the liturgy or a particular feast. In addition to the Ordo Virtutem she composed around 70 other songs for liturgical settings.
Hildegard’s music is distinct from other medieval liturgical chants in what has been called the ” improvisatory nature” of her melodies. Most high medieval chants follow very predictable melodic movements, whereas the melodies of Hildegard are freer and more elaborate. Her choice of verbiage is also more lush and unconventional, perhaps reflecting her lack of formal Latin training. There is a stream-of-consciousness feel to her text, which is filled with colorful images taken from the natural world—jewels, flowers, fountains, gardens, light, the sky. Her words have a certain vibrancy to them; consider her beautiful description of the Holy Spirit in her hymn “O’ Holy Spirit, Root of Life”:
O Holy Spirit, root of life,
creator, cleanser of all things,
anoint our wounds; awaken us
with lustrous movement of your wings…
O Holy Wisdom, soaring power,
encompass us with wings unfurled,
and carry us, encircling all,
above, below and through the world.
Her verses about the Virgin Mary are equally rich, as in the famous Ave Generosa:
I behold you,
noble, glorious and whole woman,
the pupil of purity.
You are the sacred matrix in which God takes great pleasure…
Your flesh held joy,
like grass upon which dew falls,
pouring its life-green into it,
and so it is true in you also,
o Mother of all delight.
It is difficult to do justice to the creative scope of St. Hildegard’s work in a brief essay like this, but hopefully this will encourage you to study more about this remarkable woman. Her music is widely available commercially and on YouTube. So, put on some of her chants, peruse the beautiful artwork of the Scivias, and lift your mind and heart to things heavenly, letting the Holy Spirit carry you, “wings unfurled…encircling all above, below, and through the world.”
Phillip Campbell is a nationally known Catholic educator who has authored or edited over 20 books specializing in historical subjects. He is best known for his Story of Civilization series from TAN Books and is the founder of Cruachan Hill Press. Information about Phillip and his work can be found at http://www.phillipcampbell.net.