Monday, November 18, 2002
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen
Virgin, 1179 A.D.
Feast day: September 17th
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179) was a visionary, an abbess, a doctor, a composer, a politician, a painter, and a theologian. She was dedicated to God by her parents and became "enclosed", to be educated and formed in seclusion from the world, taking the habit of a Benedictine nun at the age of sixteen. She became the magistra of the women's community at the Disibodenberg monastery in 1136, but was instructed by God to take her "girls" and leave to form a separate convent in 1151. Hildegard was already famous for her prophecies and visions at this time, and her presence won the Benedictines at Disibodenberg a great deal of prestige; the monks therefore were fiercely opposed to the move. The head abbot accused her of acting from pride, but she insisted she was acting according to God's revelation. In the painting, the irate monks are peering through her window to see what she is up to, to observe her continuing revelations, and to see if they can't get her to come back. They are also a bit worried about what she might be saying about them, as she scolded her fellow religious without any hesitation when she felt they had wandered from the straight path.
The architecture of this room, with its narrow confines and arched ceiling, were inspired by a room in a 15th century anonymous Master of Flémalle painting in the Prado. I don't know if it is true to the architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries, but it does seem to capture the feeling of being cloistered. The composition nailed to the wall behind her is her song De Sancta Maria; there is a complete copy secreted behind the little door in the back of the painting. It celebrates the Virgin Mary as a "green branch" - to Hildegard, green was the holiest and purest of colors. The painting is done in egg tempera with translucent oils glazed over it, the darks built up slowly over the last year and a half. The frame is oak, and the inset marquetry panel has an oak background, with purpleheart letters. The diamond-shaped insets next to the keys are also purpleheart.
The 8th Psalm reads:
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels…
I imagine Hildegard at this point, looking up from her psalter and commenting wryly, "Thou hast indeed made man a little lower than the angels!" In the scriptural Latin she would have been familiar with, this translates:
Minuisti enim hominem paulo minus ab angelis!
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