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Know the Ways of the Lord: Illuminations from Saint Hildegard

Liber Scivias
Hildegard of Bingen
Graz : Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 2013
ND3385 H55 S279 2013

“The Earth is at the same time mother,
She is the mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human
She is the mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all.
The earth of humankind contains all moistness, all verdancy, all germinating power. ”

— Hildegard of Bingen

The Liber Scivias is the first theological-cosmological work by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, polymath. The manuscript – to be considered as a guide – takes into consideration the concepts of Universe, respectively representing macrocosm and microcosm, and deals with the process of salvation which can only be attained through redemption.

Hildegard was born in the Rhineland valley of western Germany and from an early age exhibited signs of being an extraordinary child. Hildegard claims that she had her first visionary experience when she was only five years old. From then, her enthusiasm and eccentricity, combined with constant illness, attracted the attention of her family, particularly her parents. Coming from noble descent and having the means of wealth, Hildegard was sent off around the age of seven or eight to a monastery in Disibodenberg, where she would continue to experience visions throughout her adolescent and adult life.

Due to embarrassment, Hildegard ceased talking about her supernatural experiences and took a vow of silence at the age of thirty-eight. Shortly after, she became so ill that she was forced into years of bed rest. She attributed her illness as a punishment from God for refusing to openly discuss her visions. In the preface of her first book, Scivias, Hildegard describes her decision to introduce the world to her relationship with God,

But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion (of myself) and because of the diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time the call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by the scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness.

Thus, at the age of forty-two, Hildegard began writing down her visions with impeccable detail. Written over the course of ten years, Scivias (a contraction of the Latin Sci Vias Domini, or “Know the Ways of the Lord”) was finally completed some time around 1151. The manuscript is divided into a trinitarian or tripartite pattern in which Hildegard reflects on the works of God and His relation to humanity; the figure of Christ and the process of redemption; and Holy Spirit with particular emphasis on the virtues and the path to salvation. Combined, each of the three sections detail twenty-six visions that provided instruction and direction with regards to religious doctrine.

Years later, Hildegard’s writings were transformed into an exquisitely illuminated manuscript, with thirty-five illuminations inspired by her visions. Created in the monastery of Rupertsburg, it is considered one of the most lavish and decorated medieval manuscripts. Although the illustrator and time of illustration is highly debated, the images provide extraordinary insight toward Hildegard’s attitudes of a feminine divine. Such a work coming from a female writer was unheard of, especially in the twelfth century; and despite being uneducated, Hildegard chose to write Scivias entirely in Latin, thus positioning herself among the male literary and theological elite.

In addition to Scivias, Hildegard published two other works which described her visionary theology, Liber Vitae Meritorum and Liber Divinorum Operum. Moreover, she was well-known for her musical compositions and examinations of the natural world, as exemplified in her scientific and medicinal writings. Her work continued to inspire both men and women of the faith long after her death and, in 1324, Hildegard finally reached the status of sainthood.

Suggested Reading:

Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179 : a visionary life
Susan Flanagan
London ; Routledge, 1998
BX4700 H5 F54 1998 (level 2)

Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator

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