Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hildegard von Bingen

Today (September 17th) is the feast day of the German Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098 -1197 ) who not only wrote music but  was also a poetess, theologian, a Benedictine Abbess and all round polymath. The Sibyl of the Rhine as she was known, was consulted by princes, popes and emperors for her prophetic insight. Like Julian of Norwich, Hildegard experienced serious illness before receiving her visions. 

It was the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who remarked -

The creative mystic was ever a cross for the church, but it is to him that we owe what is best in humanity.

Jung might have added  and her as far as Christian mystics are concerned for many notable women mystics are recorded throughout the history of Christianity. Recently, feminist interest in Hildegard has  also grown, as has her place in  'New Age' philosophies for her holistic approach to life.

The above picture entitled  Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water dates from 1165. It's an extremely intriguing quaternity of images conveying a certain numinous quality of Hildgard's mystical experiences and   shares in my view, an affinity with the Layer Monument quaternity.

The other image worth pondering upon in Hildegard's art is her Universal Man, an illumination from her Liber Divinorum Operum (1165). To my mind its an image which strongly suggests that perhaps Hildegard had the opportunity to read of the so-called Vitruvian man of antiquity, the human proportional representation which Leonardo Da Vinci based his own famous image upon. Essentially a vision of the Anthropos, or Greater Man within, of which Christ remains the most potent living symbol of; Hildegard can be seen in the bottom left corner,  receiving and writing her vision.

But with mystics one can never be too confident there was ever a previous vision to the original one presented. However, universal and cosmic, Hildegard von Bingen and her Christian faith has endured, nine centuries on, to speak deeply of the spiritual life. The mystic, as ever, has the last word on the soul.

There's been a renaissance in recordings of Hildegard's music in the past two decades, I particularly like Richard Souther's pop music interpretation Vision (1995) with Emily van Evera singing. Hildegard's music has been considerably modernized on this recording, complete with multi-tracking and synthesizers but nevertheless its a very inexpensive buy on Amazon and a great introduction and reinterpretation. I used some of its tracks as interludes when first acting as Sir Thomas Browne in the church of Saint John the Baptist, Maddermarket in December 1996. 

A more traditional approach to Hildegard's music is A Feather on the Breath of God with Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices (Hyperion 2000). But there's a bewildering range of recording available in the catalogue at present, a veritable mine-field of good and uninspired  interpretations of Hildegard's music.

Here's the link to the Wikipedia entry on  Hildegard von Bingen


Christine Whitelaw said...

Thanks for your beautiful words and images on Hildegarde of Bingen. A Feather on the Breath of God was my favourite recording for years ... I think I bought it in 1986!

teegee said...

I've had "A Feather on the Breath of God" since it was first issued. To the best of my knowledge, given the rudimentary notation in the Mss, performance must rely on knowledge of the practice of the time. Beyond that, what is done with what is written is up to the interpreter. Hildegard von Bingen was certainly one of the most learned and creative German Religious and, as a composer of music, so far as I know, unique--that is, uniquely preserved. She is also one of the most rigorously intellectual. Some convents were both learned and wealthy.

-E- said...

da vinci based his drawing on what vitruvius said were the perfect proportions of a human, no? or are you just saying that it was notable that she would have access to vitruvius's work?


E - sorry if I come across unclear on this. I just thought that the human body represented by Hildegard bears some resemblance to the Da Vinci image and am merely speculating as to whether she had the opportunity to read Vitruvius or not.