(Essay) Hildegard of Bingen by Angelika Heike Rüdiger

On 17 September the Catholic Church commemorates Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who was one of the outstanding women of the Middle Ages. She was a researcher in nature, healer, mystic, poet and composer. She was Jutta of Sponheim’s pupil and lived with the nun Jutta in closure next to the Benedictine abbey on the Disibodenberg. After Jutta’s death she became magistra, head of the enclosed women. In the years 1147-1150 Hildegard founded her own convent on the Rupertsberg near Bingen, later another one at Eibingen near Rüdesheim.

Hildegard had visions since her childhood which came to her when she was awake. In one of those visions she was told by God to write down what she saw. Although she was of weak health, she travelled far to Cologne, Trier and to southern Germany. There she preached mainly about the willingness to do penance and to lead an upright life following Christ. Many persons of different social rank asked for her advice in personal communication or via correspondence

A main theme in all her writings is certainly the importance of the wholeness and unity of all. All things are referring to each other and are related in God.

O virtus sapientie*
que circuiens circuisti,
comprehendendo omnia
in una via, que habet vitam
tres alas habens,
quarum una in altum volat
et altera de terra sudat
et tercia undique volat.
laus tibi sit,
sicut te decet,
o sapientia.

O power of Wisdom
Who has surrounded surrounding
All comprising
In one way, which has life
Having three wings,
Of which one flies to the high
And the other toils on earth
And the third flies everywhere.
Praise to you,
As it is becoming,
O wisdom.

(*sapientia is a female noun in Latin)

Her thoughts about the role of women were courageous and gave important impulses. Today her teachings about healing have become important again. Hildegard was already in her lifetime honoured like a saint.  She was added to the Roman marytrologium, the list of the saints, and thus de facto canonized without an officially closed canonization process. Most recently she was entered into the list of saints by Pope Benedict XVI, thus extending her veneration to the whole church. Benedict XVI also declared her a Doctor of the church in October 2012.

Hildegard saw the nun, the woman who had dedicated her life to the service of the divine as a bride, and she celebrated this understanding of the role of a nun in all splendor in her convent. This and the fact that she accepted preferably noble women in her convent raised the opposition and criticism of Tenxwind, the magistra of the women convent of St. Mary at Andernach. The correspondence of the two formidable women is certainly worth reading, as it reflects the different ways of medieval monastic piety, which seem to discuss in the persons of Hildegard and Tenxwind.

I do not want to go into a scholarly discussion about Hildegard, her life and her oeuvre; others have done this before, and better than I could do it here and now. I just want to highlight some features of her poetry which fascinate me.

Her understanding of the nun as the bride of Christ rooted certainly in the rich images of the Song of Songs, and her songs of Ursula evoke the Canticum Canticorum.

 Favus distillans
Ursula virgo fuit,
que agnum dei amplect
mel et lac sub lingua eius….”

“A dripping honeycomb was the virgin Ursula,
Who desired to embrace the lamb of god,
Honey and milk under her tongue..”

Floral motifs abound in the Hildegard’s poetry. This is no surprise as the flowering branch is a biblical motif. The rose and the lily as tokens of the Virgin Mary are well known. But the metaphoric of Hildegard runs deeper. She applies the flower motif also to the fighting apostles calling them “O cohors milicie floris virge non spinate,” “O cohort of the army of the flower from the branch without thorns” and to the martyrs, “Vos flores rosarum…”, “You flowers of roses….” Time and again Hildegard evokes the power of the growing plants, the greenness, to describe the beauty of the soul seeking the divine. She celebrates the roots in “O vos felices radices…” “O you happy roots…” in the song for the prophets and patriarchs, and the “green of the finger of God” when glorfying St. Dysibod:

O viriditas digiti dei,
in qua deus constituit plantationem
que in excelso resplendet
ut statuta columna….

O greenness of God’s finger,
in which God founded the plantation
which shines in the high
like a pillar…

 In De sancta Maria the Virgin Mary is “viridissima virga”, “the most green branch; and finally my favourite of all “O nobilissima viriditas”, “O most noble Green”, celebrating the virgins:

O nobilissima viriditas,
que radicas in sole
et que candida serenitate luces
in rota,
quam nulla terrena excellencia comprehendit.

O most noble Green,
You, who roots in the sun
And who shines in splendid serenity
In the circle,
Who no earthly excellence can comprehend!

 The poetry of Hildegard attracts strongly the modern reader who searches for the divine feminine, and the following examples might show the source of this attraction:

Hildegard celebrates the Virgin Mary, who is called “auctrix vite”, “the (female) founder of life” (auctrix is a feminium to auctor). All the words sapientia, virtus, ecclesia, caritas are of female gender and they are given the role of the bride of the divine as in “Caritas habundat” with the caritas, Love (in the sense of agape) giving the king of heaven the kiss of peace “quia summo regi osculum pacis dedit,” “as she gave the kiss of peace to the highest king.” The ultimate masterpiece in balancing the male trinity with female nouns is her “Laus Trinitati” (praise of the trinity). Again “trinitas” is a female noun in Latin and hence Hildegard can use “creatrix,” “she who creates,” as a description of the divine trinity, thus creating a union of male and female by gender of words and connotation of the term:

Laus trinitati
que sonus et vita
ac creatrix omnium
in vita ipsorum est…

Praise of the trinity
Which is sound and life
And she who creates all
In the life of themselves

I hope I could do Hildegard of Bingen honour and I have roused your interest in the work and biography of this great woman.


Latin text edition according to

Diers, M. (1998). Hildegard von Bingen (Deutscher TaschenbuchVerlag, München).

Biography of Hildegard

Berschin, W. and  Schipperges, H. (2004). Hildegard von Bingen. Symphonia. Gedichte und Gesänge (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt).

Uphus, B. J. (ed.)  (2013). Maginficat. Das Stundenbuch. September 2013.(Butzon & Becker, Kevelaer).

All translations by Angelika Heike Rüdiger.

mas roses from Penmon priory
Roses from Penmon Priory
photograph by Angelika Heike Rüdiger

See related post:  (Poem) lingua ignota by Donna Snyder

See Meet Mago Contributor, Angelika Heike Rüdiger, and her other posts.