Saint Hildegard of Bingen – Visionary, Mystic, Writer, and Composer
Saint Hildegard of Bingen is arguably one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages. During her lifetime, she was abbess, mystic, visionary, and composer. In addition, she was a respected intellect and wrote on a variety of topics, including theology, botany, and natural history, and a highly-talented musical composer. After her death, Hildegard remained a popular figure in her homeland of Germany and was even proclaimed a saint by her earliest biographer.
Hildegard was not formally canonized by the Catholic Church until much later, i.e. in 2012. In the same year, Pope Benedict XVI declared the new saint a Doctor of the Church, one of only four women to hold this title (the other three, incidentally, being Saints Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, and Thérèse of Lisieux).
Saint Hildegard of Bingen was theologian who wrote about her visions in the Scivias. Source: Richard Villalon / Adobe Stock.
Hildegard of Bingen’s Early Life
Hildegard von Bingen, as she was known in Germany, was born in 1098 at Böckelheim on the Nahe (in the modern state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany). Hildegard’s early biographers state that the saint’s parents were Hildebert and Mechtildis (or Mathilda), though they are silent about her family name. These biographers also note that Hildegard came from a noble and wealthy family, though they do not elaborate on the matter further.
Later legends would make Hildegard a Countess of Spanheim. According to one version of the story, Hildegard was the 10th child of the family. As the family could not count on feeding her, she was handed to the church from the time of her birth.
According to another version of the story, although Hildegard’s parents were wealthy, they were also pious Christians, and therefore had her dedicated to the church. Yet another story states that Hildegard’s parents decided to dedicate their daughter to the church because she was a weak and sickly child.
Whatever the case, when she was eight years old, Hildegard was set to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, where she was placed under the care of Jutta, an anchoress (a female anchorite). Jutta was a sister of the Count of Spanheim, which would have made her a noblewoman. She, however, chose to give up all worldly pleasures and to dedicate her life to God.
Hildegard of Bingen was sent to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. (Mefusbren69 / Public Domain)
As an anchoress, Jutta lived an ascetic life that was severed from the rest of the world. Typically, the cell of an anchorite would be built adjacent to a church, so that he/she could follow the services. The only link between the anchorite and the outside world was a small window, through which food could be delivered into the cell, and refuse taken out.
Jutta, however, was somewhat different form her fellow anchorites, as she was also a tutor to girls from noble families. During her later years of her life, Jutta’s fame spread far beyond the walls of the monastery, and many local nobles sent their daughters to study under her. The education that the girls received from Jutta was quite rudimentary and of a religious nature.
Hildegard was taught to read the Psalter (the Book of Psalms) in Latin, as well as to sing the psalms of the monastic hours, and the Divine Office. In addition, she was taught to play the ten-string psaltery, a musical instrument resembling a dulcimer.
Hildegard of Bingen’s Visions and Role in the Church
In 1113, at the age of 15, Hildegard took her vows and became a Benedictine nun. Jutta died in 1136, when Hildegard was 38 years old. Hildegard was elected by the nuns of her community as Jutta’s successor.
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Hildegard of Bingen and her nuns. (Tetraktys / Public Domain)
Hildegard’s life during the period between 1113 and 1136 is not well-recorded, and as a result, there is little information about these 23 years of her life. We do know, however, that during this time, Hildegard told Jutta about the visions she was experiencing. Her tutor spoke to a monk from a neighboring abbey about this, but nothing more was done about it at that time.
Although the identity of the monk is unclear, it has been speculated that he was Volmar of Disibodenberg, another of Hildegard’s teachers, who also became her confessor and secretary. Later on, Hildegard wrote down her visions, as she claims to have been commanded by God to do so.
In her later writings, Hildegard mentions that she was already receiving visions at the age of three. Some modern scholars, such as the neurologist Oliver Sacks, have suggested that Hildegard suffered from migraines, which may account for her visions.
Hildegard’s efforts in recording her visions resulted in her first major work, the Scivias. This is an illustrated manuscript, whose title is derived from the Latin phrase Sci vias Domini, meaning ‘Know the Ways of the Lord’. Subsequently, Hildegard produced two other works detailing her visions – Liber vitae meritorum (‘Book of Life’s Merits’), and Liber divinorum operum (‘Book of Divine Works’).
The Scivias, showing Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision, dictating to Volmar, and sketching on a wax tablet. (Eisenacher~commonswiki / Public Domain)
Although Hildegard never doubted the divine origin of her visions, she wanted them to be sanctioned and approved by the Catholic Church. Therefore, she first wrote to a fellow Benedictine, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, for his blessings. Although Bernard showed little interest in Hildegard’s visions, he did bring them to the attention of the pope, Eugenius III.
The pope sent delegates to Disibodenberg to obtain a copy of Hildegard’s work-in-progress, so as to verify the authenticity of the visions. Having read Hildegard’s writings, the pope approved of it, blessed it, and commanded Hildegard to continue writing. Due to the visions she experienced, Hildegard became known also as the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’.
Hildegard of Bingen’s the Scivias
The Scivias was completed in 1151/2, 10 years after Hildegard began this endeavor. The final work contains 26 of Hildegard’s most vivid visions, split between three books. These include ‘Creation and the Fall’ (Vision Two, Book 1), ‘Christ’s Sacrifice and the Church’ (Vision Six, Book II), and ‘The Last Days and the Fall of the Antichrist’ (Vision Eleven, Book III). Some of these visions are apocalyptic in nature and Hildegard takes on the role of a prophetess.
For instance, ‘The Last Days and the Fall of the Antichrist’ begins as follows,
“Then I looked to the north and behold! five beasts stood there. One was like a dog, fiery but not burning; another was like a yellow lion; another was like a pale horse; another like a black pig; and the last like a gray wolf.”
In others, however, Hildegard plays the role of a theologian, though her theological insights are claimed to be granted by God. For instance, on the topic of clerical celibacy (found in ‘Christ’s Sacrifice and the Church’), Hildegard begins by saying,
“Let them not look to an earthly marriage, for they have chosen a spiritual one. How? By entering upon My service. And if any of them suffers from the burning lust of the flesh, let him subdue his body with abstinence and fasting and chastise himself with cold and scourging. And if after all he defiles himself with a woman, let him fly from that contamination as from a burning fire or a deadly poison and cleanse his wounds with bitter penance; for I wish to be served in chastity”.
Apart from the visions, the Scivias, specifically the Rupertsberg Scivias-Codex, is known for its accompanying illustrations. The production of this copy could have been supervised by Hildegard herself or by her immediate disciples, as it was made around the time of her death. This copy contains 35 miniature illustrations and was initially kept in Rome.
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Hildegard of Bingen’s manuscript the Scivias is known for its illustrations. (Eloquence / Public Domain)
In 1814, the manuscript returned to Germany and was kept in Wiesbaden until the Second World War. During the war, the manuscript was sent to Dresden for safekeeping. When the war ended in 1945, however, the manuscript disappeared without a trace, and its whereabouts (assuming it survived the war) remains unknown till this today.
Fortunately, black-and-white photographs of this priceless manuscript were taken in 1925 as part of a series of exhibitions in Cologne. In addition, an exact copy of the manuscript was made by the Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen.
From 1927, three Benedictine nuns edited the text, while a fourth took on the task of producing the paintings. The duplicate was completed in 1933 and is still kept in the Hildegard Abbey today. This modern duplicate is the source of the color reproductions we have today.
It has been suggested that Hildegard read extensively, as she makes references to various works in her own writings. These include the other books of the Bible, especially those of the prophets, the Benedictine Rule, biblical commentaries, and perhaps even Greek and Arabic medical texts. It has also been speculated that Hildegard may have borrowed these books from the monks of Disibodenberg.
Hildegard of Bingen’s Other Works
Hildegard’s writings, however, were not limited to divine visions alone, as the saint wrote on various other subjects as well. For example, Hildegard’s Physica and Causae et Curae (collectively known as Liber subtilatum, meaning ‘The Book of the Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Things’) are works on natural history and the curative properties of various natural objects. Unlike the books recording her visions, these two works of Hildegard’s do not contain any divine revelation.
Instead, they are based on humourism, which was developed by Classical physicians and philosophers and served as the foundation of mainstream Western medicine until the 17th century. On the other hand, they are in accordance with the religious philosophy held by Hildegard, i.e. that man is the pinnacle of God’s creation and that everything in the world was made for him to use.
"Universal Man" illumination from Hildegard of Bingen's Liber Divinorum Operum, I.2. Lucca, MS 1942, early 13 th century copy. (Tsui / Public Domain)
Hildegard’s medical works, like humourism, are no longer considered to be part of mainstream Western medicine and are therefore not widely used today. By contrast, she is considered to be one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music and her musical compositions have been much recorded and performed in modern times.
Hildegard’s musical works, as one may expect, were focused on religious themes, such as the saints and the Virgin Mary, and were written for her nuns to sing at their devotions. Hildegard regarded music as a way of “recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise”.
According to the saint, prior to the fall, Adam had a pure voice, and joined the choirs of angels in praising God. After the fall, music and musical instruments were invented so that God could be worshipped accordingly. Therefore, Hildegard saw music as an extremely important aspect of human life.
Hildegard has one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. Her Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum contains about 70 lyric poems, each with a musical setting composed by Hildegard herself. It seems that as time went by, however, Hildegard’s music was forgotten.
For instance, it has been pointed out that her music is not mentioned in any reference book before 1979. Interest in Hildegard’s musical works, however, saw a revival in 1979, and since then, numerous recordings of her works have been made.
In addition to all these achievements, Hildegard also exerted a great deal of influence on the politics of her day, despite being an anchoress. This is evident, for instance, in her correspondences with popes, emperors, and kings. Letters were written to Hildegard seeking her prayers and advice (both on spiritual as well as earthly matters). Apart from that, Hildegard had the courage to stand up to even the most powerful men of her time.
For instance, she opposed Frederick I Barbarossa, the holy Roman Emperor, for his support of at least three antipopes. In another instance, Hildegard opposed the clergy of Mainz.
A young man who had recently died was allowed burial in the grounds of her monastery. The clergy, however, claimed that the man had been excommunicated prior to his death, and therefore sought to remove his body from the sacred grounds. Hildegard defended the deceased, saying that he had been reconciled with the church prior to his death and therefore was worthy of a Christian burial.
For her troubles, Hildegard’s monastery was placed under interdict and the celebration and reception of the Eucharist at the monastery was forbidden. The sanction was only lifted several months before Hildegard’s death.
Hildegard died in 1179, at the age of 81. Soon after, she was venerated locally as a saint. Hildegard is reputed to have performed miracles during her lifetime and they are said to have continued at her tomb after the saint’s death. Nevertheless, she was not officially canonized by the Catholic Church until much later.
Line engraving of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Hildegard as a saint through the process of ‘equivalent canonization’. In the same year, she was declared a Doctor of the Church.
Hildegard’s legacy extends well beyond the Catholic Church. As already observed, she is recognized as playing an important role in the history of Western music. Apart from that, in recent times, Hildegard and her writings have generated a considerable amount of interest among feminist scholars and followers of the New Age movement.
Top image: Ancient saint. Credit: Peer Marlow / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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