Posted by: mikebackup | September 20, 2010

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen understood profoundly the need for creative expression and the spiritual wellbeing this enables. She also recognised the need for fullness in creativity. She was primarily a writer but understood that for those writings to achieve full and deep meaning for the reader, paintings were needed alongside. At a time in history when Illuminations in Bibles were common, Hildegard took it a spiritual step further with many of her paintings being mandalas, circular images designed to encourage deep meditation. Mandala is Sanskrit for ‘magic circle’ and is as simple as a circle or as complex as a domed cathedral. What is so profound about this form of painting is that it offers a “way to examine our inner reality, to integrate that understanding with our physical selves, and to feel connected to the greater universe”[1]. This was very important to Hildegard as she saw sought to link the microcosm and the macrocosm which meant the linking of humankind to the universe. Humankind was creation in miniature and at the same time part of the greater cosmos[2]. Hildegard says “with the vocation of creation. Humankind alone is called to co-create”[3]. This is the microcosm, but as we are linked to the macrocosm “All nature is at the disposal of humankind. We are to work with it. Without it we cannot survive”[4]. This brings straight to mind Genesis 1.26-29:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.

In the centuries that followed, these verses were used to justify exploitation of creation. As a result we are now in the precarious position of possible total ecological and environmental collapse, something that Hildegard warned would happen if we did not consider our actions in creation –“The earth which sustains humanity must not be injured! It must not be destroyed”[5]. Hildegard explores the microcosm and macrocosm time and time again in her mandalas, allowing the viewer to deeply consider their own exalted position as a creator within creation. If only the church had retained this incredible linking of image, word and reflection on creation at its core the world may well be in a far better position than it is now. Western Christian Spirituality would also be in a far better position as well, those practising and teaching would be artists and thinkers by default.

To get to her creative outpouring took 30 years of struggle for Hildegard. She didn’t think she would be any good, put off by the negative comments made by men. Then in her early forties she put aside her doubts and allowed her creativity to flow. Before looking at her work further it is worth exploring a little of her life history.

Hildegard was a remarkable woman who despite the heavy patriarchy of the 12th century was allowed to flourish, challenge authority and at the same time be recognised by those she challenged, including Pope Eugenius III. Born at the end the 11th century she was the youngest of ten children whose father was a German Knight. At eight she joined her tutor Jutta in the Celtic Benedictine monastery of Mount St Disibode. At around 18 she took the Benedictine habit and eventually became the leader of the female community when Jutta died in 1136. Throughout these formative years she had many visions and thoughts but did not record them. Then when she was 42 she had her ‘spiritual awakening’. She realised that the doubts and the suppressing advice she had been given must be put aside and her true creative calling to emerge. From that point she exploded in creativity. Out of the work she produced a remarkable amount remains to this day. This includes seventy-two songs, an opera, seventy poems, nine books, including three significant theological works, a book on physiology and a book on botany and biology including pharmaceutical advice. We also have many letters she wrote to those who held power both in and out of the church[6].

Shortly after her awakening Pope Eugenius III wanted to know more about her. After being impressed by what he heard he encouraged her to continue. No longer repressed by her male masters Hildegard replied by asking him to work harder for church reform. Church reform was very important to her; in her sermons she would describe the church as a weeping mother in pain, tortured by corruption and lack of faith by those who should have plenty.

This strong attitude continued through the rest of her life and despite great opposition broke away from Mount St Disibode in 1151 to found her own monastery. She oversaw its construction which had new inventions like piped in water. Around fifty sisters lived there and all had significant creative talents. She went on to found another monastery close to Bingen in 1165. Bingen was an important town as it was the place people passed through on their way down the Rhine[7].

Returning now to her mandalas, comment is going to be made on paintings that support her major theological works, particularly Scivias. Scivias is translated as “Know the Ways”. This was a work that looked at the problem of how people should live their lives so they can “reach the Heavenly City”[8].

The first painting of Scivias reflects on Hildegard’s awakening. Hildegard worked on Scivias for ten years immediately after her awakening and she begins the book by describing what lit the blue touch paper. She comments on how grasping

“at a heavenly vision with great fear and trembling attention, I saw the greatest brilliance”. She describes in detail this heavenly vision and the spiritual push to be creative – “When I was forty-two years and seven months it happened that a light of great flashing poured down from the open sky, setting on fire my entire head, all my breast and my whole heart. Suddenly I was tasting a discerning of the meaning of books, of the psalter, the Gospels, of other Catholic writers, of the Old and New Testaments….Beaten down by many kinds of illness at the same time, I decided to put my hand to writing. Once I did this, a deep and profound exposition of books came over me. I received the strength to rise up from my sick bed, and under that power I continued to carry out the work to the end, using all of ten years to do it.”[9]

What is so profound about this experience is not the vision or the end result but the fact Hildegard put pen to paper and allowed the creativity to flow, “the most beautiful thing a potter produces is…the potter”[10]. Hildegard herself was transformed, true metamorphosis. From the seemingly dead and confined chrysalis a butterfly emerged that changed everything. Like a new butterfly that has to struggle from the confines of its chrysalis, the only way Hildegard could spread her wings was if she made the effort. Only by putting pen to paper was she set free.

This is captured in the supporting painting to her testimony (Fig1). Hildegard receives her vision in a style reminiscent of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit pours down on her like fire. Compositionally the eye is drawn first to this fire and then the earnest look in her eyes. She is looking at her Secretary Volmar who was to write her work in the correct Latin grammar before being published. His expression is one of surprise, as if unable to believe the outpouring of creativity. Easy to miss but highly significant are the two stick characters on the two pillars either side of Hildegard. Their true origin will never be known for certain but they closely resemble ‘corn man and woman’ found in American Indian Hopi paintings[11]. They symbolise that metamorphosis that Hildegard experienced, she was given new life. The painting has a feeling of earnest purpose about it. Creative awakening is available to all and it must be let out. The fact Hildegard depicts her awakening in such a powerful image is very significant, after all this is simply her introduction. 

Fig 1. Hidegard’s spiritual awakening[12].

Representative of her mandalas and her unity of the humankind within the whole of creation is “Egg of the Universe”[13]. Hildegard writes “By this supreme instrument in the figure of an egg, and which is the universe”. This symbolism brings to mind words such as maternal, unity, new creation, fragile, organic and alive. With her accompanying writing we are encouraged to engage our imagination with this image. Initial surface reading reveals the egg shape first and the fire surrounding it. Larger details are then picked out like the larger star, the moon like sphere and the centre that appears like the ‘yolk’ of the egg. Then the smaller details of the three winds and the inner stars are seen.

Fig 2. Hidegard’s ‘Egg of the Universe’[14].

We are clearly seeing the connectedness of all things as a living, breathing whole. We are then encouraged to respond to what we see at a deeper level. The fire signifies God burning everywhere, surrounding all things. The sun is Christ, moving from heaven to earth, “the son of justice having the lightning of burning love and existing with such glory that every creature becomes illuminated by the brightness of his light”[15]. The moon represents the church shining white because of the light of Christ, it “shines white in the faith of the innocent brightness and holds out great honour”[16]. If we allow it, our imagination can take us into deep meditation with an image like this. We are given the framework of the egg of the universe and our position in that. Mandalas are not about reading the image correctly or about understanding all the intended symbolism they simply encourage our response.

The final image I’m going to consider is “Cultivating the Cosmic Tree”[17] from her later work De Operatione Dei or “On the work of God”. This image continues her microcosm and macrocosm thinking.

Fig 3. Hidegard’s ‘Cultivating the Cosmic Tree[18].

Here very familiar details are shown and it quickly encourages the reflection of harmony. She writes “Our inner spirit so announces our power in both earthly and heavenly matters that even our body can foster an intimate association in its creative power with these things. For wherever soul and body live together in proper agreement, they attain the highest reward in mutual joy”[19]. Humankind is seen working with the seasons and the land. She compares this working with the seasons with a potter that turns his wheel to complete his work. The trees could symbolise a number of things, from the centre of the world to the centre of the cosmos or the growth of creative imagination and the wisdom that comes from that[20]. A sense of harmony through creativity and the presence of God are felt in this image.

There are many other mandalas that offer rich ground for personal meditation and engagement of our visual imagination. They are as powerful, creative and thought provoking now as they were in the 12th century. Hildegard of Bingen represents in her life story to the age of forty two so many people that struggle with creative birthing. So many people believe that they are no good, that they are unable to be truly creative. Hildegard finally overcame this burden and the result was a dam of creativity bursting out. This helped her express the fullness of her holistic understanding of life, God, the universe and personal spirituality.

          Irenaeus said: “The glory of God is the glory of people fully alive”. Make sure you are fully alive, so enabling the glory of God.

[1] Suzanne F. Fincher, The Mandala Workbook, 1.

[2] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 15.

[3] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 16.

[4] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 16.

[5] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 14.

[6] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 6.

[7] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 7-8.

[8] Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life, 57.

[9] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 190.

[10] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 14.

[11] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 29.

[12] on 27/7/10.

[13] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 35.

[14] on 27/7/10.

[15] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 37.

[16] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 37.

[17] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 47.

[18] on 27/7/10.

[19] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 48.

[20] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 48-9.

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