Saturday, March 25, 2023

“O Jewel Resplendent”

From MDPI:

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) comes down to us as one of the most dynamic intellectual figures of the twelfth century. As a leader of religious women in the Rhineland, she authored extensive volumes of visionary theology; designed visual images for at least one of those; composed the largest corpus of liturgical music ascribed to a single author of the Middle Ages; wrote works in natural science and medicine; preached to religious communities throughout her region; and engaged in an extensive correspondence with people from all ranks of society, from popes and kings down to local monks and nuns. This extraordinary, interconnected body of work offers us a unique entry point into medieval intellectual life, at once rooted in tradition and recasting that tradition in startlingly innovative ways. Hildegard’s Mariology exemplifies this creative range.
The best overview of Hildegard’s “theology of the feminine” remains the foundational work of Newman (1997). She demonstrated that for Hildegard, the feminine can be understood at a cosmic level as the matrix for the manifestation of divinity into time. The Virgin Mary is the most concentrated focal point of a dynamic that stretches from the figure of eternal Wisdom ordering creation, through the fertile but fallen mother Eve, and then on to the Virgin Mother Church. Essential elements in this Mariology include the predestination of the Virgin (i.e., that God preordained from eternity that the Virgin would bear his Son); Mary’s restoration of Eve’s fallenness through the power of virginity; and the Virgin’s exemplarity for Ecclesia, the Church, who is a Mother to the faithful in baptism and bears for them the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.1
Most studies of Hildegard’s Mariology find their richest sources in her lyrics. She composed more liturgical music for the Virgin Mary than she did for any other single subject: sixteen pieces that survive with musical notation (including antiphons, responsories, a sequence, a song, an Alleluia verse, and a hymn), as well as several others that survive only in a textual miscellany (Hildegard of Bingen 1998). There is good reason for this: Hildegard’s thought reaches its densest and most sublime in her liturgical poetry, which summarizes her larger theological project. Hildegard’s music thus provides an entry point for exploring the deeper roots of her Mariology, not only through manifest images of the Virgin but also through what Denk (2021) has called “Mariological allusion.” Essentially, we can learn even more about Hildegard’s views on the Virgin Mary by tracing allusions, analogues, and motifs that make the Virgin present even in the absence of explicit invocations. Denk (2021) has done this principally through musicological allusions to the wider chant repertoire, a valuable line of inquiry pioneered in recent years by Bain (2021).
This study, too, will take two of Hildegard’s musical compositions for the Virgin as its springboard: the antiphon, O splendidissima gemma; and the responsory, O tu suavissima virga. The context in which we will explore their allusive power, however, will be the treatise in which Hildegard embedded them: her first work, Scivias, written 1142–1151. This book (whose title is shorthand for “Know the Ways of the Lord”) consists of twenty-six visions organized into three parts and serves as a kind of summa or “summary” of Christian theology. The first part surveys the order of creation and its fall, both of Lucifer and the angels and of humans in Adam and Eve. The second part articulates the order of redemption, with a focus on the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the sacraments of the Church. The third part, finally, dramatically retells the stories of the first two by setting them within a vast “Edifice of Salvation,” with the Virtues as our guide through salvation history and into eternity.
This study of Hildegard’s Scivias will proceed not only from its text,2 but also from its illustrations and music. Hildegard designed a detailed cycle of illustrations for a copy of Scivias produced in her monastery during the final decade of her life, which I will refer to as the Rupertsberg Scivias.3 Although no extant copies of Scivias include musical notation for the song cycle in the work’s final vision, the notation does survive in copies of Hildegard’s music in two other manuscripts.4 As Fassler (2022) has recently argued, Hildegard certainly intended that her nuns would know both the illustrations and the music when they engaged with the treatise.5 Meanwhile, as I have argued elsewhere (Campbell 2013, 2021), the illustrations produced about two decades later function as teaching tools to refine and highlight certain aspects of the text. Interpretation of the work is dynamically strongest when it attends to all three of its modes of communication: textual, musical, and visual.
Previous studies of the Virgin Mary’s place in Scivias have focused on the contrast with Eve (Garber 1998) and the place of the Annunciation as a model for authorizing female inspiration (Wain 2017). Wain (2017) offers a valuable critique of the ways in which many discussions of medieval Mariology rely too simplistically on the “Eva/Ave” trope to set up an oppositional parallel between Eve and Mary. She suggests that Hildegard instead sees the Virgin Mary as a model for her own intellectual fertility, positing the opening illustration of the Rupertsberg Scivias (which accompanies Hildegard’s preliminary Protestificatio) as an adapted Annunciation scene, with Hildegard gestating and giving birth to the work. Garber (1998), meanwhile, draws together the architectural metaphors found in several of Hildegard’s Marian lyrics with the imagery of the edifice of salvation in Part 3 of Scivias to suggest that Hildegard and her nuns shared with the Virgin a role as builders, not only of the physical monastery that they renewed at the Rupertsberg, but also of the life of monastic virtue. She contrasts the symbolic abstraction of Eve and Mary in much of Scivias with the more physically concrete personifications of the Virtues, who thus offer more relatable role models for Hildegard’s nuns.
The salient historiographical issue is the extent to which the Virgin Mary could serve as a viable role model for medieval women. It is sometimes suggested that she could displace the gross misogyny that often resulted from the identification of women as “daughters of Eve.” But how realistic would that displacement be if we recognize that the Virgin Mary was in many ways “an inaccessible paragon” (Wain 2017, p. 164)? In Hildegard’s hands especially, the Virgin takes on cosmic proportions. We do not find Hildegard meditating on the humanly relatable aspects of the Virgin’s life, such as her compassion or sorrow for her Son, that would become powerful models in later medieval spirituality. Instead, as we will see in this study, Mary appears as “majestic and impersonal” (Newman 1997, p. 166), a radiant light shining distantly, blinding in its brilliance like the sun. But this study will also show that Hildegard mediated the Virgin’s light through analogues of traditional Marian imagery. Building on the insights of Garber (1998) and Fassler (2022), it will reveal how the Virgin exemplifies the life of the virtues and through them could indeed serve as a model for Hildegard and the virgin nuns under her care. Again, in contrast to later medieval spiritual practices that encouraged interior meditation on details of the Virgin’s life—even when those details, such as her reading at the Annunciation,6 could authorize women’s learning and intellectual life—Hildegard’s focus for her nuns was on actively developing virtues that for her imitate the Virgin’s key role in salvation history. When her nuns would join their voices in the music of the liturgy, in particular, they would be transformed into resplendent gems, “living stones” to build up the heavenly Jerusalem and take their place as the perfected work of the Church. (Read more.)


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