As Teresa Berger notes at PrayTell, September 17 is the anniversary of the death (or dies natalis, “day of birth” [into heaven]) of Hildegard of Bingen — abbess, visionary, theologian, medical practitioner, playwright, and the first female composer (Update: As Maria Gwyn McDowell graciously points out in the comments, this is not the case — that honor goes instead to St. Kassiani, whose hymn is sung in Orthodox churches on the Tuesday of Holy Week). Hildegard’s contemporaries described her chants–you can listen to clips of Anonymous 4 performing them here–as “strange and unheard-of music.” 

While not a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church (see Berger’s posts on the reasons for this), Hildegard is recognized in Lutheran and Anglican / Episcopal liturgical calendars, as well as in the regional German Roman Catholic calendar.

Hildegard’s first theological text, the Scivias, includes this wonderful vision of the trinity:

Hildegard's Vision of the Trinity

Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. 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 one power of potential.

And again I heard the living Light, saying to me: ….

Therefore you see a bright light, which without any flaw of illusion, deficiency, or deception designates the Father; and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which without any flaw of obstinacy, envy, or iniquity designates the Son, Who was begotten of the Father in Divinity before time began, and then within time was incarnate in the world in Humanity; which is all blazing with a gentle glowing fire, which fire without any flaw of aridity, mortality, or darkness designates the Holy spirit, by Whom the Only-Begotten of God was conceived in the flesh and born of the Virgin within time and poured the true light into the world. And that bright light bathes the the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathes the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire pour over the whole human figure, so that the three are one light in one power of potential.

And this means that the Father, Who is Justice, is not without the Son or the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit, Who kindles the hearts of the faithful, is not without the Father or the Son; and the Son, Who is the plenitude of fruition, is not without the Father or the Holy Spirit. …

The Scivias is an illustrated text — hence the image of the trinity above — but the identity of the artist is unclear. In her introduction to the Paulist Press edition of the Scivias, Barbara Newman writes:

Recent literature has presented the abbess herself as a painter, but there is no medieval evidence to support this hypothesis, and if it were true both Hildegard and her biographer would surely have mentioned such a notable achievement. Given the particularities of the work, however, it seems likely that the artist (or artists) lacked formal training and worked under the visionary’s personal supervision. The painter may have been a gifted Rupertsberg nun, or perhaps a monk from St. Disibod or another monastery closely associated with Hildegard.

Whoever the artist, he or she stayed close to the text of the visions and apparently eschewed the use of models, recombining iconographic motifs in new forms as creatively as Hildegard re-envisioned the familiar themes of Christian doctrine. The paintings are thus far more than illustrations; insofar as possible, they draw the viewer into the numinous world of the visionary’s own experience.

Commenting on Hildegard’s descriptions of the trinity, Newman writes:

It is noteworthy that none of [Hildegard’s] analogues is gender-specific, and the naming of Father and Son is balanced by a reference to “the embrace of God’s maternal love,” which is charity.

From the rather abstract language of Hildegard’s text the artist has conceived another mandala-image. “Light” and “fire” become concentric circles glimmering with gold and silver leaf, and quivering lines suggest the vitality and energy of the living God.

And because I do not believe in passing over the troubling aspects of our tradition, I should also note that Hildegard’s visions perpetuate the common medieval image of triumphant Ecclesia and blind, vanquished Synagoga (Church and Synagogue). (In the illustration of Synagoga, Moses wears the medieval European Jewish hat which seems to have originally been a chosen element of religious dress, but in 1215 at Lateran IV, not long after Hildegard’s death (1179), was mandated of Jewish men by Christian authorities.) Again quoting Newman:

Hildegard is adapting a traditional iconography, which depicted the two women as rivals–Synagoga rejected and blinded because of her unbelief and supplanted in God’s favor by Ecclesia, or the Gentile church. The stereotype of the Jews as a literal, carnal epople is present in force. But the “true believers” in Israel–Abraham, Moses and the prophets–enjoy a privileged status and are allowed to admire the new bride [i.e. Ecclesia]’s beauty from afar. Like many of the figures in Hildegard’s visions, Synagoga can be “read” vertically from head to feet as an allegory of successive historical periods. In the end, the seer teaches, the Jews will be converted and “run back with great haste to the way of salvation.”

On this feast day of Hildegard, I am inspired by her brilliance — a Renaissance woman avant la parole! — and resistance to many of the limitations she and her sisters faced due to their gender, and sobered by the many ways in which we are all blind to the oppressive ideologies of our own eras (and I intend this as a call to self-examining humility, not as a croon of 21st-century progressive triumphalism…)

In the words of the Episcopal Church’s collect for the Commemoration of Hildegard,

God of all times and seasons: Give us grace that we, after the example of your servant Hildegard, may both know and make known the joy and jubilation of being part of your creation, and show forth your glory not only with our lips but in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

7 thoughts

  1. Great post, Bridget! By the way, in the “People’s Companion to the Breviary,” vol. II (The Liturgy of the Hours with Inclusive Language) which is published by the Carmelites of Indianapolis) Sept. 17th is the feast of HIldegard of Bingen (with a reading from Gloria Durka’s “Praying with Hildegard of Bingen”

    1. Thanks so much — and thank you for pointing that out. Several of us, myself included, actually own the People’s Companion, and used to be in the habit of praying together with it… but then the semester shifted and we all fell out of routine — so thank you for the reminder to pick that back up again, particularly for days such as this!

  2. Nice post, but I have a small quibble: Hildegard is not the first female composer of hymns. The earliest (that I know of) is Kassiani (or Cassiani), a 9th century Byzantine abbess, poet and hymnographer. She was also an outspoken defender of icons, for which she is canonized in the Eastern Church. Her most famous hymn is still sung on Tuesday night of Holy Week.

    The most popular story is her tart reply to the iconoclast emperor Theophilus. An excerpt from an old blog post I wrote (

    “Invited by the mother-in-law of Theophilus the Iconoclast to a “bride show,” only the beautiful and intelligent Kassiani and the beautiful Theodora remained from among the original field of eligible young women. Theophilus was to make the final choice by handing a golden apple to his intended bride. Apparently, Theophilus valued beauty, but not necessarily intelligence. Standing before Kassiani, Theophilus stated: “Εκ γυναικός ερρύη τα χείρω” (“From woman came the worst in the world”), a reference to Eve and her introduction of sin into Paradise. Kassiane calmly replied: “αλλ’ ως εκ γυναικός πηγάζει τα κρείττω” (“From woman also came the best”), referring to the Virgin Mary who bore the Son of God. As our priest summarized, “the issue was settled then and there, and Theodora got the golden apple and became the Empress.””

    Here is a wikipedia link:

    1. Thanks so much for this correction and the link, Maria — this is wonderful information. I’m quite grateful to be be introduced to Kassiani and have my Occicentrism corrected!

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