Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Hildegard of Bingen |
The Sybil of the Rhine

Hildegard of Bingen is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 40, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Hildegard of Bingen, a nun of brilliant mind and powerful convictions, has been called ‘a Renaissance figure before the Renaissance’

Hildegard of Bingen - The Sybil of the Rhine

Hildegard of Bingen – The Sybil of the Rhine
“Humanity stands in the midst of the structure of the world.” Often compared to those of William Blake, Hildegard’s mystical paintings translated her visions into something tangible and iconographic. This painting, titled Universal Man, is from her Liber divinorum operum. Hildegard herself is in the bottom left corner, receiving the vision.

Dubbed by one New York Times article “a Renaissance figure before the Renaissance,” the twelfth-century nun Hildegard of Bingen had a renaissance of her own more than nine hundred years after she died. A recording of her music made in 1982 prompted wide interest in her genius, and in 1998, there was an exuberant celebration of the nine hundredth anniversary of her birth. Previously known only to medievalists and musicologists, she was thereafter appropriated by New Agers, lesbians, pantheists, environmentalists, avant-garde composers, holistic healers and feminists, all seeing in her work some validation of their respective causes.

Not a few of these new admirers would surely have astonished Hildegard. A commited and orthodox Christian, she was the tenth child of a noble German family. At the age of eight, she was offered as a tithe to God, a not uncommon act of piety, and became a companion to a recluse named Jutta. She took monastic vows at fourteen, succeeded Jutta as abbess of the small community of nuns attached to the male Benedictine house at Diessenberg, and at fifty-two founded a new women’s monastery near Bingen, on the banks of the Rhine, not far from the city of Mainz. A daughter house was established fifteen years later, and Hildegard served both as abbess.

Contemporary fascination with this devout monastic (the “Hildecraze,” as one wag called it) is doubtless due to the misperception that she willfully broke barriers of gender, culture and position. But Hildegard was no militant medieval feminist; her actions and writings resonated from deep faith, firmly grounded in tradition, and her own conviction that she acted “as the mouthpiece of God.” Her gift of writing also found expression in plays, poetry and works of natural science and medicine. She was the only known female composer of her era, possibly the most prolific identifiable composer of the Middle Ages.

About one gift, she was very secretive. Prophetic visions burdened her at age three, when she first witnessed “a dazzling heavenly light.” Although she never doubted that these came from God, the consequences of revealing her gift, and thereby opening herself to censure and ridicule, filled her with dread. A divine command to write about it, in her early forties, left her no choice. Validation eventually came from papal envoys who investigated her visions, and endorsed them as indeed unique and genuine.

They come down as prophetic, cosmic and apocalyptic, but what they actually mean is far from self-evident. Uniquely, Hildegard experienced them while wide awake with her ordinary sight uncompromised (that is, not in a trance or dreamlike state), which enabled her to reproduce in iconography their vivid colors and images. Visionary episodes were invariably accompanied by debilitating illness, pain and heaviness–symptoms that some modern commentators attribute to severe migraines. But for Hildegard, the “living light” provided a release: “And when I look upon it all sadness and pain vanishes from my memory, so that I am again as a simple maid and not as an old woman.”1

Her fervent devotion finds further expression in her music. Often her elaborate, haunting chants, a departure from the traditional Gregorian, are still able to inspire awe nearly a millennium later. Their continuing appeal is attested by the fact that over a million copies have been sold. In Scivias, Hildegard explains the power of music in worship: “The words symbolize the body, and the jubilant music indicates the spirit; and the celestial harmony shows the divinity, and the words the humanity of the Son of God.”

In a time of political and religious turmoil, Hildegard’s convictions and brilliant mind drew many to her, prompting one writer to refer to her as “abbess of the world.” Nearly four hundred of her letters have survived. They range from compassionate to caustic, offering spiritual advice and encouragement to monastics and laymen alike, while upbraiding popes, bishops and kings for sloth, injustice and abuse of power. Like many medieval abbesses, she traveled to other communities “to reveal there the words which God ordered me.”

The fame of the visionary “Sybil of the Rhine,” as she came to be called, grew rapidly, attracting many more women to the monastery. Thus in 1148, Hildegard determined to leave crowded Diessenberg and found her own convent. When foiled, she took to her bed, paralyzed, blind and in torturous pain, until the authorities granted permission–which miraculously cured her infirmities. Rupertsberg, established on the ruins of an old monastery at the junction of the Rhine and the Nahe rivers near Bingen, like most self-sufficient monasteries, boasted farm buildings, a mill, stables, gardens, workshops, church, cemetery and infirmary.

No mere showpiece for her extraordinary gifts, Hildegard’s community reputedly excelled in “lively devotion,” obedience and useful activity. She herself is described by early sources as humble, fair and generous–but also autocratic and tempestuous. Characteristically, she made few concessions to advancing age. In her sixties and seventies, she continued to give talks in monastic houses throughout Germany, and very near the end of her life engaged in a battle of wills with the archbishop of Mainz over the burial of a man who had supposedly been excommunicated.

Although she is considered by many to be both a saint and a “Doctor of the Church,”2 official canonization has eluded Hildegard. But within fifty years of her death, proceedings for canonization were initiated; she has been beatified, one step short of canonization. Her writings have been publicly circulated, studied and published since her lifetime. At the very least, her devotees endorse the summation of Christopher Page, director of the first recording of her chants: “A remarkable woman in an age of remarkable men.”

1. The texts of Hildegard’s visions, along with some of her illustrations, are published under the titles Scivias (an abridgement of Scito vias Domini or “Know the Ways of the Lord”) and De Operatione Dei (“Book of Divine Works”). Scivias so impressed Pope Eugene III that he read passages aloud to assembled clergy at the Synod of Trier. Both are available in modern editions.

2. Only three women have been officially recognized by Rome as “Doctor of the Church,” that is as “an eminent doctrinal writer.” They are St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

This is the end of the Hildegard of Bingen category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 40, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Hildegard of Bingen from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info