Hildegard von Bingen’s Eternal Garden

In the granite-lined Gothic courtyard of Eibingen Convent in the verdant Rhine River Valley, a group of nuns stand in the chill air of autumn as snowflakes swirl through the open cloisters, sing antiphons as if they were hovering upon the very breath of the Holy Spirit Herself. This is September of 1179, during the last days of their founder, 81-year-old Hildegard von Bingen. Wearing long white veils to signal their betrothal to Christ, outfitted in jewel-encrusted crowns each topped with a cross — uncharacteristic for nuns who normally take a vow of poverty — their long hair exposed over their white robes, the sisters sang a song to Hildegard that she herself had written: “And so the highest blessing/ In all of creation/ Lies in the form of a woman/ Since God became man/ In a sweet and blessed Virgin.” 

Ostensibly a hymn in honor of Mary, Hildegard’s song harkens back to ancient traditions of feminine spirituality: the Jewish kabbalistic belief that God’s indwelling presence, known as the Shekinah, was feminine, and the Greek Platonist account of divine wisdom called Sophia, to name but a few. Consider a representative image from The Book of Divine Works, completed in 1173, which contains dozens of beautiful illuminations of her mystical visions. At bare minimum, Hildegard oversaw their illustration; many scholars, however, believe she rendered them herself. In that volume, Caritas, or Divine Love, is depicted as a young, thin-waisted, red-faced woman framed by resplendent gold-and-silver wings, holding a lamb and trampling a serpent underfoot, crowned by the head of God as a grey-bearded man. In this picture, male and female are combined, rendering divinity androgynous, a holy creature beyond the arbitrary binaries of sex and gender.  

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At the monastery of Disibodenberg — today, a ruin — Hildegard brought together the monk Volmar and the nun Richardis von Stade, the former her dedicated scrivener and the latter her intimate secretary. “Together,” writes Janina Ramirez in Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (2023), “they craft[ed] her abstract images of searing lights, sapphire figures and star-encrusted skies into a theological work.” Richardis and Volmar would assist Hildegard in the transcription and editing of hundreds of thousands of her words. Their massive oeuvre includes 82 songs marked by distinctive soaring octaves that transcend even contemporaneous Gregorian chants in their ethereality, for which Hildegard wrote both melody and lyrics. It includes hundreds of letters to crucial figures including Popes Eugene III and Anastasius IV, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. It includes a variety of scientific and medical treatises that count within its range recipes for drugs that induce abortions and the first accurate physiological description of the female orgasm. It includes an allegorical drama entitled Ordo Virtutum (c. 1151) that established the popular Medieval genre of morality play, an ingenious mystical language called Lingua ignota, and most importantly, those three volumes of visionary theology. 

Officially canonized in 2012 and made a Doctor of the Church that same year — one of the very few to have approvingly described how to terminate a pregnancy — Hildegard is a polymath who has attracted devotees among both Catholic clergy and New Age gurus, Christian traditionalists and radical feminists. It’s always difficult to enlist a figure a millennia-old into contemporary debates, yet when it comes to Hildegard’s view of the “natural world held in harmony through the female figures of Divine Love and Wisdom,” as Ramirez describes her theology, it’s not unfair to detect a blessed, emancipatory doctrine beyond stultifying orthodoxy. Often thought primarily today as a composer — “unique, haunting, experimental, extraordinary” recordings of her music, in Ramirez’s words, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the last few decades — Hildegard must also be conceived of as a visual artist. In her clerical vocation, theology, science, music, and art all moved together towards the same purpose, a type of sacred consilience. 

Yet it was her prophetic gift of visions, her ability, as Hildegard herself wrote at age 77, to find entrance into the “shadow of the living light,” the dimension of the “trembling flame… a cloud stirred by clear air” that established her authority. Indentured to the Church as an oblate at the age of 8 because of those divinatory gifts — she was able to describe the marking on a calf fetus perfectly when it was still in utero — Hildegard’s prophetic powers returned, after a long disappearance, at the age of 43. The result was her lushly illuminated 1151 Scivias (roughly translating to “Know the Ways”), followed 12 years later by The Book of the Rewards of Life, and finally, in the last decade of her life, The Book of Divine Works. First at Rupertsberg and then at Eibingen, Hildegard would establish communities of independent women that promulgated her visions and theology that courted heresy while craftily remaining orthodox, to the point that her official patrons included the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Eugenius III. 

Where much of Medieval theology can be overly embellished, especially among the followers of Aristotle, Hildegard’s philosophy remains enthralling and visceral, vibrant and enrapturing. Only in seminaries does Aquinas still interest or Bonaventure really matter; only the academics still care for Ockham — but Hildegard remains for all of us. At the center of Hildegard’s thought was the concept of viriditas. Etymologically connected to the Latin word for “greenness,” viriditas in Hildegard’s philosophy connotates verdancy, fecundity, regeneration, creation. This was Hildegard’s intimation of paradise, which was not mythical but closer than our very breath: Heaven was a “high mountain, where the flowers and the costly aromatic herbs grow,” as she wrote to Henry, the Bishop of Liège, “where a pleasant wind blows, bringing forth their powerful fragrance where the roses and lilies reveal their shining faces.” According to Hildegard, viriditas is an ever-ongoing process, where the cosmos is sustained not just by a unique act of creation in the past, but by an eternal flux of generation and regeneration. 

Hildegard’s visual idiom of describing viriditas relied on certain shapes and colors. Infinity and eternity were, frequently, translated through the form of a circle, while viriditas itself was often conveyed through earthly green and celestial blue. On vellum scraped clean of wool, illuminators at Eibingen produced Hildegard’s visions in green of iron sulfate and blue of flowering turnsole. Describing her third vision, Hildegard writes of the “firmament in the likeness of an egg… small at the top, large in the middle and narrowed at the bottom,” wherein the power of the “Omnipotent God, incomprehensible in His majesty, and inestimable in His mysteries and the hope of all the faithful” generates that Divine Love which sustains creation, the oval of the cosmic egg devoid of either beginning or ending, but unceasing in its eternal radiance. 

As imagined by Hildegard, the illustration of a cosmic egg from Scivias appears as two oblong circles, one within the other, the outer completed in radiant gold and the inner in the red of a bloodstream. Within the circles is the celestial blue of the cosmos itself, at the center of which is the sphere of the earth in green and blues, circled by the blazing sun. The apex of the oval is crowned with a red-leafed flower. Indeed, the much-reproduced illustration of this vision does appear as if an egg (an already feminine symbol), but to any casual viewer there is a much more obvious evocation in the picture. Those labial majora and minora boundaries, the clitoral flower at its top — Hildegard has imagined the universe as a vagina. “Women may be made from man,” she wrote of Genesis, “but no man can be made without a woman.” There is an intuitive sense in conceiving the universe’s creative abilities in terms of that realm from which all humans emerge, and Hildegard was neither the first nor the last to do so. But the power of this fiery, cosmic egg remains undiminished, an illustration of that where we’ve all come from, where all life emerges — the universe itself as an eternal womb. 

Writing to the theologian Odo of Soissons, Hildegard explicated her understanding that “God is full and whole and beyond the beginning of time, and therefore he cannot be divided or analyzed by words as a human being can.” This is a union of both epistemology and metaphysics, whereby our inability to grapple with the former as concerns definitions of God has implications for the latter. God is neither only symbol or metaphor, as Hildegard understands Him (or Her, or something else entirely), but rather a being beyond being itself, unable to be circumscribed in any language. “Human reasoning has to find God through names and concepts,” writes Hildegard, “for human reasoning is by its nature full of names and concepts.” She is careful to note that how we describe, define, analyze, and understand God is never the real thing. How we experience God, however, is an entirely different matter. 

An illustration from Scivias of her own mid-life enrapturing to the divine illustrates the otherworldly nature of transcendent instruction, of experiencing paradise beyond words and images, though inexactly remembered through those same mediums. In the picture, Hildegard sits in her anchorite’s cell with stylus and manuscript ready, Volmar at her side to act as amanuensis. Descending onto her habited head are the rays of God arriving as inspiration like the alien tentacles of a cephalopod massaging Hildegard’s brow as she begins to record the first of her Sibylline utterances. Volmar, in a pose that only adds to the strange humor of the composition, peers on at the scene with eyes bulging in unbelief. A voice from beyond, Hildegard remembers, said unto her “O fragile human, ashes of ashes… Say and write what you see and hear…. speak and write these things not by a human mouth… but as you see and hear them on high in the heavenly places in the wonders of God.” What has been rendered then is yet another circle without beginning or end, this open mouth shouting the cosmos itself into existence. 

Circles were Hildegard’s favorite shape, a figure of never-ending circumference that embraces an inner nothing and would not without coincidence also become the mathematical cipher for nothing in the nun’s own century. The illuminations throughout her corpus are replete with circles: An illustration from Scivias depicts the Seraphic choir as circles within circles of beatified angels chanting antiphons for all eternity. An anatomical diagram prefiguring Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man inscribes a man within a cosmic circle so that the correspondence between the microscopic and the macroscopic is made manifest. An image of the axis mundi around which creation rotates is represented as a cosmic tree within a circle. Then there is Hildegard’s evocation of the Trinity, lacking any of the sharp corners of the triangle, but rather a series of infinite circles, one within the other, rendered in grey and gold, a beardless and distinctly feminine Christ the hue of a glowing sapphire at the center. All were “blazing with a gentle glowing fire,” wrote Hildegard in the accompanying text. “And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in power of potential.” 

Any art which is to endure, which can still affect our ears in soaring monophony or our eyes in green and blue, must be composed as if from the position of eternity so that we can still hear them, and see them, from across the chasm of centuries, from that alien kingdom that is the distant past. Here, Hildegard’s very endurance is one with her work: Space and time are collapsed into that ever-rotating circle that is the paradise of her thought, so that such words could have been uttered a millennium or a minute ago. “I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in the sun, moon and stars,” Hildegard wrote of herself — but she understood that such an invitation to infinity was true for all of us. At the nexus of earth and heaven, in a realm called love, there you shall find Her, find us all, if only we’re willing to look. 

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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