Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) – musician, writer, prophetess – and saint

We celebrate Hildegard’s life on September 17.

Accounts written in Hildegard’s lifetime  (1098-1179) and just after describe an extraordinarily accomplished woman: a visionary, a prophet (she was known as “The Sibyl Of The Rhine”), a pioneer who wrote practical books on biology, botany, medicine, theology and the arts. She was a prolific letter-writer to everyone from humble penitents looking for a cure for infertility to popes, emperors and kings seeking spiritual or political advice. She composed music and was known to have visions

“CreationTide” wrote the following “Her version of viriditas or greening might not be quite what we have in mind when we use green to refer to environment, but there is a lasting wisdom in seeing human health and wellbeing in the context of wider issues. Just as with gardening, health needs to be nurtured and balanced.”

Hildegard commanded the respect of the Church and political leaders of the day. She was a doer: she oversaw the building of a new monastery at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, to house her little community, and when that grew too large she established another convent in Eibingen, which still exists today (though the present building dates from 1904).

Hildegard was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, on the Rhine, the tenth child of a noble family. It was the custom to promise the tenth child to the Church, so at eight (or 14, accounts differ),  Hildegard was sent to the isolated hilltop monastery of Disibodenberg in the care of an older girl, Jutta of Sponheim.

She spent nearly 40 years there with a handful of other women from noble families, each enclosed in a small stone cell, or “tomb”, in a confined area of the monastery away from the monks.

As abbess of this small community, Jutta instructed Hildegard in the Psalter, reading Latin and strict religious practices. In Jutta’s biography, written after her death by her secretary, the monk Volmar, we discover just how hard life was for the nuns.

A single window linked them to the outside world and they were allowed one meagre meal a day in winter and two in summer. They prayed at regular intervals throughout the day and night.

When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was appointed prioress and it was then that she started writing music for the first time, for her nuns to sing as part of the Divine Office. The only music teaching Hildegard had received from Jutta was instruction in singing and the duties of a choir nun.

But she had grown up hearing the chants of the Roman mass and she set her own vibrant, colourful verses to music to create antiphons, responses, sequences and hymns.

Hildegard had been having visions since she was a little girl – commentators today, including neurologist Oliver Sacks, suggest she may have been a migraine sufferer – but it was not until she was 42 that she had the courage to speak of them to her church colleagues.

“Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast,” she wrote. A heavenly voice told her to share her insights with the world

A committee of theologians subsequently confirmed the authenticity of Hildegard’s visions, and a monk was appointed to help her record them in writing. The finished work, Scivias (1141–52), consists of 26 visions that are prophetic and apocalyptic in form and in their treatment of such topics as the church, the relationship between God and humanity, and redemption]

About 1147 Hildegard left Disibodenberg with several nuns to found a new convent at Rupertsberg, where she continued to exercise the gift of prophecy and to record her visions in writing.

A talented poet and composer, Hildegard collected 77 of her lyric poems, each with a musical setting composed by her, in Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. There is also  music drama, Ordo Virtutum, a morality play whose subject is the struggle between 17 Virtues and the Devil over the destiny of a female soul.

Hildegard’s “compositions” stand out from other liturgical music because of the almost improvisatory nature of her melodies: they are freer, more wide-ranging and elaborate than the simple, one-octave lines of contemporaries

Her numerous other writings include lives of saints; two treatises on medicine and natural history, reflecting a quality of scientific observation rare at that period; and extensive correspondence, in which are to be found further prophecies and allegorical treatises. She also for amusement contrived her own language. She traveled widely throughout Germany

Hildegard died in 1179 in the monastery she had founded at Rupertsberg, near Bingen.

Interest in Hildegard started to grow around the 800th anniversary of her death in 1979, when Philip Pickett and his New London Consort gave possibly the first English performances of four of Hildegard’s songs.

Her earliest biographer proclaimed her a saint, and miracles were reported during her life and at her tomb. However, she was not formally canonized until 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI declared her to be a saint through the process of “equivalent canonization,” a papal proclamation of canonization based on a standing tradition of popular veneration. Later that year Benedict proclaimed Hildegard a doctor of the church, one of only four women to have been so named.

Gay Rahn priest at St. George’s wrote the following about Hildegard – "Hildegard of Bingen was a twelfth-century mystic, composer, and author. She described the Holy One as the greening Power of God. Just as plants are greened, so we are as well. As we grow up, our spark of life continually shines forth. If we ignore this spark this greening power, we become thirsty and shriveled. And, if we respond to the spark, we flower. "

You can hear Hildegard’s works here:

1. Voices of Angels, Voices of Ascension

2. Origin of Fire, Anonymous 4

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