Last Thursday, September 16, the Church celebrated the life of St. Hildegard of Bingen who lived from AD 1098 to 1179. She was the founder and abbess of a Benedictine monastery in what is now Germany. As a theologian, politician, monastic leader, natural philosopher (scientist), mystic, poet, and musician she was incredibly accomplished; a true polymath. She wrote many books including an encyclopedia of medicine and medicinal plants, several saint’s lives, and mountains of correspondence. Her magnum opus was a massive three volume work that detailed her visionary prayer experiences, which, as she reflects on the visions and their meaning, unfold as a complex and detailed work that could be described as a systematic theology. Though not recognized until later and still underrated, Hildegard’s work is on par with other great medieval (male) theologians of the church, like Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas.
The first volume of Hildegard’s visionary work, called (in English translation) Know the Ways of the Lord, is preserved in several medieval manuscripts, including one that was prepared under Hildegard’s supervision at her monastery near the time of her death. This manuscript included a number of unique illustrations and illuminations created by nuns in the monastic workshop. On its own merits, Hildegard’s writing is important and fascinating. Her writing and the unique manuscript that was created was also important as perhaps the only surviving medieval illuminated manuscript entirely written and produced by women. Alas, during World War II, the manuscript resided in Dresden and was lost during the bombing of that city. By that time, a detailed copy had been made by German Benedictine nuns, preserving its illuminated contents for us (see the illustration below). Other copies of the text also still exist.
Here is a portion of one of her visions in which she saw a representation of God as Trinity, along with its accompanying illustration.
“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.”
(Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. Trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press (1990), page 161)
Hildegard was also a composer of music and accompanying lyrics. Many of her chants have survived. Here is an example: