St. Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B.
Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary
|Doctor of the Church, Sibyl of the Rhine|
Bermersheim vor der Höhe, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire
|Died||17 September 1179 (aged 81)|
Bingen am Rhein, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church|
(Order of St. Benedict)
|Beatified||26 August 1326 (confirmation of cultus) by Pope John XXII|
|Canonized||10 May 2012 (equivalent canonization), Vatican City by Pope Benedict XVI|
|Major shrine||Eibingen Abbey|
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall. Wellcome V0002761
Hildegard von Bingen
Liber Divinorum Operum
|mystical theology, medicine, botany, natural history, Music theory, literature|
|Lingua ignota, humoral theory, morality play, German natural history, melisma (music), viriditas, neume|
|Part of a series on|
|OSB (German: Hildegard von Bingen; Latin: Hildegardis Bingensis; 1098 – 17 September 1179), also known as Saint Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath of the High Middle Ages. She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony, as well as the most-recorded in modern history. She has been considered by many in Europe to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.
Hildegard's fellow nuns elected her as magistra in 1136; she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs for female choirs to sing and poems, while supervising miniature illuminations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she is one of the few known composers to have written both the music and the words. One of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play. She is also noted for the invention of a constructed language known as Lingua Ignota.
Although the history of her formal canonization is complicated, branches of the Roman Catholic Church have recognized her as a saint for centuries. On 10 May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI extended the liturgical cult of St. Hildegard to the entire Catholic Church in a process known as "equivalent canonization". On 7 October 2012, he named her a Doctor of the Church, in recognition of "her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching."
Hildegard was born around the year 1098, although the exact date is uncertain. Her parents were Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, a family of the free lower nobility in the service of the Count Meginhard of Sponheim. Sickly from birth, Hildegard is traditionally considered their youngest and tenth child, although there are records of only seven older siblings. In her Vita, Hildegard states that from a very young age she had experienced visions.
From early childhood, long before she undertook her public mission or even her monastic vows, Hildegard's spiritual awareness was grounded in what she called the umbra viventis lucis, the reflection of the living Light. Her letter to Guibert of Gembloux, which she wrote at the age of seventy-seven, describes her experience of this light with admirable precision:
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.
Perhaps because of Hildegard's visions, or as a method of political positioning (or both), Hildegard's parents offered her as an oblate to the Benedictine monastery at the Disibodenberg, which had been recently reformed in the Palatinate Forest. The date of Hildegard's enclosure at the monastery is the subject of debate. Her Vita says she was professed with an older woman, Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the age of eight. However, Jutta's date of enclosure is known to have been in 1112, when Hildegard would have been fourteen. Their vows were received by Bishop Otto Bamberg on All Saints' Day, 1112. Some scholars speculate that Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta at the age of eight, and the two women were then enclosed together six years later.
In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were enclosed together at the Disibodenberg, and formed the core of a growing community of women attached to the male monastery. Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the cloister. Hildegard tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard sound biblical interpretation. The written record of the Life of Jutta indicates that Hildegard probably assisted her in reciting the psalms, working in the garden and other handiwork, and tending to the sick. This might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could have been the beginning of the compositions she would later create.
Upon Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as magistra of the community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg asked Hildegard to be Prioress, which would be under his authority. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns, and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move towards poverty, from a stone complex that was well established to a temporary dwelling place. When the abbot declined Hildegard's proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, an event that she attributed to God's unhappiness at her not following his orders to move her nuns to a new location in Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery. Hildegard and about twenty nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and scribe. In 1165 Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen.
Before Hildegard's death, a problem arose with the clergy of Mainz. A man buried in Rupertsburg had died after excommunication from the Church. Therefore, the clergy wanted to remove his body from the sacred ground. Hildegard did not accept this idea, replying that it was a sin and that the man had been reconciled to the church at the time of his death.
Hildegard said that she first saw "The Shade of the Living Light" at the age of three, and by the age of five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term 'visio' (the Latin for "vision") to describe this feature of her experience and recognized that it was a gift that she could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard's tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to "write down that which you see and hear." Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations. In her first theological text, Scivias ("Know the Ways"), Hildegard describes her struggle within:
But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. (...) And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out, therefore, and write thus!'
It was between November 1147 and February 1148 at the synod in Trier that Pope Eugenius heard about Hildegard's writings. It was from this that she received Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit, giving her instant credence.
On 17 September 1179, when Hildegard died, her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.
Vita Sanctae Hildegardis
Hildegard's hagiography, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, was compiled by the monk Theoderic of Echternach after Hildegard's death. He included the hagiographical work Libellus or "Little Book" begun by Godfrey of Disibodenberg. Godfrey had died before he was able to complete his work. Guibert of Gembloux was invited to finish the work; however, he had to return to his monastery with the project unfinished. Theoderic utilized sources Guibert had left behind to complete the Vita.
Hildegard's works include three great volumes of visionary theology; a variety of musical compositions for use in liturgy, as well as the musical morality play Ordo Virtutum; one of the largest bodies of letters (nearly 400) to survive from the Middle Ages, addressed to correspondents ranging from popes to emperors to abbots and abbesses, and including records of many of the sermons she preached in the 1160s and 1170s; two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures; an invented language called the Lingua ignota ("unknown language"); and various minor works, including a gospel commentary and two works of hagiography.
Several manuscripts of her works were produced during her lifetime, including the illustrated Rupertsberg manuscript of her first major work, Scivias (lost since 1945); the Dendermonde Codex, which contains one version of her musical works; and the Ghent manuscript, which was the first fair-copy made for editing of her final theological work, the Liber Divinorum Operum. At the end of her life, and probably under her initial guidance, all of her works were edited and gathered into the single Riesenkodex manuscript.
Hildegard's most significant works were her three volumes of visionary theology: Scivias ("Know the Ways", composed 1142–1151), Liber Vitae Meritorum ("Book of Life's Merits" or "Book of the Rewards of Life", composed 1158–1163); and Liber Divinorum Operum ("Book of Divine Works", also known as De operatione Dei, "On God's Activity", composed 1163/4–1172 or 1174). In these volumes, the last of which was completed when she was well into her seventies, Hildegard first describes each vision, whose details are often strange and enigmatic, and then interprets their theological contents in the words of the "voice of the Living Light."
With permission from Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg, she began journaling visions she had (which is the basis for Scivias). Scivias is a contraction of Sci vias Domini (Know the Ways of the Lord), and it was Hildegard's first major visionary work, and one of the biggest milestones in her life. Perceiving a divine command to "write down what you see and hear," Hildegard began to record and interpret her visionary experiences. In total, 26 visionary experiences were captured in this compilation.
Scivias is structured into three parts of unequal length. The first part (six visions) chronicles the order of God's creation: the Creation and Fall of Adam and Eve, the structure of the universe (famously described as the shape of an "egg"), the relationship between body and soul, God's relationship to his people through the Synagogue, and the choirs of angels. The second part (seven visions) describes the order of redemption: the coming of Christ the Redeemer, the Trinity, the Church as the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the Faithful in baptism and confirmation, the orders of the Church, Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the Eucharist, and the fight against the devil. Finally, the third part (thirteen visions) recapitulates the history of salvation told in the first two parts, symbolized as a building adorned with various allegorical figures and virtues. It concludes with the Symphony of Heaven, an early version of Hildegard's musical compositions.
In early 1148, a commission was sent by the Pope to Disibodenberg to find out more about Hildegard and her writings. The commission found that the visions were authentic and returned to the Pope, with a portion of the Scivias. Portions of the uncompleted work were read aloud to Pope Eugenius III at the Synod of Trier in 1148, after which he sent Hildegard a letter with his blessing. This blessing was later construed as papal approval for all of Hildegard's wide-ranging theological activities. Towards the end of her life, Hildegard commissioned a richly decorated manuscript of Scivias (the Rupertsberg Codex); although the original has been lost since its evacuation to Dresden for safekeeping in 1945, its images are preserved in a hand-painted facsimile from the 1920s.
Liber Vitae Meritorum
In her second volume of visionary theology, composed between 1158 and 1163, after she had moved her community of nuns into independence at the Rupertsberg in Bingen, Hildegard tackled the moral life in the form of dramatic confrontations between the virtues and the vices. She had already explored this area in her musical morality play, Ordo Virtutum, and the "Book of the Rewards of Life" takes up that play's characteristic themes. Each vice, although ultimately depicted as ugly and grotesque, nevertheless offers alluring, seductive speeches that attempt to entice the unwary soul into their clutches. Standing in our defence, however, are the sober voices of the Virtues, powerfully confronting every vicious deception.
Amongst the work's innovations is one of the earliest descriptions of purgatory as the place where each soul would have to work off its debts after death before entering heaven. Hildegard's descriptions of the possible punishments there are often gruesome and grotesque, which emphasize the work's moral and pastoral purpose as a practical guide to the life of true penance and proper virtue.
Liber Divinorum Operum
Hildegard's last and grandest visionary work had its genesis in one of the few times she experienced something like an ecstatic loss of consciousness. As she described it in an autobiographical passage included in her Vita, sometime in about 1163, she received "an extraordinary mystical vision" in which was revealed the "sprinkling drops of sweet rain" that John the Evangelist experienced when he wrote, "In the beginning was the Word..." (John 1:1). Hildegard perceived that this Word was the key to the "Work of God", of which humankind is the pinnacle. The Book of Divine Works, therefore, became in many ways an extended explication of the Prologue to John's Gospel.
The ten visions of this work's three parts are cosmic in scale, to illustrate various ways of understanding the relationship between God and his creation. Often, that relationship is established by grand allegorical female figures representing Divine Love (Caritas) or Wisdom (Sapientia). The first vision opens the work with a salvo of poetic and visionary images, swirling about to characterize God's dynamic activity within the scope of his work within the history of salvation. The remaining three visions of the first part introduce the famous image of a human being standing astride the spheres that make up the universe and detail the intricate relationships between the human as microcosm and the universe as macrocosm. This culminates in the final chapter of Part One, Vision Four with Hildegard's commentary on the Prologue to John's Gospel (John 1:1–14), a direct rumination on the meaning of "In the beginning was the Word..." The single vision that constitutes the whole of Part Two stretches that rumination back to the opening of Genesis, and forms an extended commentary on the seven days of the creation of the world told in Genesis 1–2:3. This commentary interprets each day of creation in three ways: literal or cosmological; allegorical or ecclesiological (i.e. related to the Church's history); and moral or tropological (i.e. related to the soul's growth in virtue). Finally, the five visions of the third part take up again the building imagery of Scivias to describe the course of salvation history. The final vision (3.5) contains Hildegard's longest and most detailed prophetic program of the life of the Church from her own days of "womanish weakness" through to the coming and ultimate downfall of the Antichrist.
Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard's music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers.