St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

“We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home” (St Hildegard of Bingen).

Hildegard of Bingen, also known as “Sibyl of the Rhine” was a German Benedictine Abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Born of a noble family, she was apparently subject to supernatural religious experiences from early childhood. At the age of 8 she was entrusted to the care of Bl. Jutta, a recluse attached to a Benedictine monastery and on Jutta’s death in 1136, she succeeded her as Abbess of the community which had gathered round her. Under the direction of her confessor she began to record some of her visions from the year 1141 which became the Scivias, an illustrated work completed in 1151 or 1152. Sometime between 1147 and 1152 she moved her community to Rupertsberg near Bingen in Germany where a large convent was built. Thence she undertook many journeys in the Rhineland and probably in 1156 founded a daughter house at Eibingen, near Rüdesheim, Germany. Towards the end of her life, she had difficulty with the ecclesiastical authorities and for a short time the convent was placed under an interdict.

Hildegard seems to have exerted a wide influence, numbering the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and various kings, prelates and saints among her correspondents. The basis of her writings was an awareness of her divinely appointed office as prophetess in the conception of which she was indebted to Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and John Scottus Erigena. Hildegard located herself within the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Like those prophets, Hildegard was politically and socially engaged and offered frequent moral exhortations and directives. Scivias was her best known work. It is divided into three books containing 26 visions, combines insights into the nature of man and the world, with her vision of salvation history leading to the Last Judgement, a theme which is also taken up in her letters. The title comes probably from the Latin phrase “Sci vias Domini” (“Know the Ways of the Lord”). The book is rather long – over 150,000 words, or what would be about 600 pages of printed text. The book is illustrated by 35 miniature illustrations. The work is divided into three parts, reflecting the Trinity. The first and second parts are approximately equal in length, while the third is as long as the other two together. The first part includes a preface describing how she was commanded to write the work, and includes six visions dealing with the themes of creation and the fall. The second part consists of seven visions and deals with the salvation through Jesus Christ, the church, and the sacraments. The third part, with thirteen visions, is about the coming kingdom of God, through sanctification, and increased tension between good and evil. The final vision includes 14 songs, plus a portion of the music drama which was later published as the Ordo Virtutem. In each vision, she first described what she saw, and then recorded explanations she heard, which she believed to be the “voice of heaven.” It was followed by the Liber vitae meritorum in six books completed between 1158-63 which is devoted to the disputation of the virtues and vices before the Divine Man and her visions of the joys and torments with which they are rewarded in the after-life. Her third major work, the Liber divinorum operum in three books, completed between 1163-1173, contains visions of the cosmos, the earth and created things. This work, like the Scivias, was provided with remarkable illustrations. Her remaining works include musical compositions, letters, theological treatises and two important medical texts, which reflect a degree of scientific observation unusual at the time. In later times various anticlerical prophecies came to be associated with her name. Miracles already reported during her life multiplied at her tomb after her death. Various efforts to secure her canonization during the 13th and 14th centuries were unsuccessful but from the 15th century she is called a saint in the Roman martyrology and her feast day on 17th September is observed in several German dioceses.

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