Hildegard - Scivias synopsis
(with acknowledgements to Barbara Newman et al.)
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Book One - The Creator and Creation

1. The mountain of God

Hildegard sees the Lord of the universe enthroned as "angel of great counsel" on an iron-colored mountain, which represents the eternity of his kingdom. The commentary contrasts divine majesty with mortal humility, for the two Virtues irradiated by the glory of God are Fear of the Lord and Poverty of Spirit - both images of the seer's own state of mind as she confronts this awesome vision. One Virtue represents the beginning of wisdom, and the other, the first beatitude. Like Isaiah in his vision of the Temple (Is 6:1-8), Hildegard is called and sent by the Lord to proclaim his justice. She is then granted insight into the mystery of human intentions as God sees and judges them.

2. Creation and the fall

In a highly compressed and allegorical form this vision depicts the fall of Lucifer and his angels (represented as "living lamps" or stars) and the subsequent fall of Adam and Eve. The iconography is unusual and full of arcane significance. Eve, for instance, appears as a shining cloud full of stars because she is the "mother of all living," and her unborn children are meant to replace the fallen angels. Hildegard's commentary on the Genesis narrative largely exonerates Eve and lays the greatest burden of blame on Satan, breaking with the usual tendency to interpret this text in a misogynist vein.

Representation of the first human couple serves as a vehicle for teachings on sexuality and marriage. Hildegard's message here is in complete conformity with mainstream Catholic doctrine. She teaches that marriage is good, but virginity is better; divorce, adultery and fornication are wrong; consanguinity is a bar to marriage; procreation is a natural process designed by God but tainted by original sin; and sexual relations are permissible only when both partners are fertile. In the relations between man and woman she affirms male supremacy yet stresses mutuality, even to the point of misquoting 1 Corinthians 11:9. Where Paul said "Man was not created for woman, but woman for man," Hildegard states that "woman was created for the sake of man, and man for the sake of woman." She adds that there is no reason why a menstruating woman should not attend church, although a bride who has just lost her virginity and a man who has been wounded in battle should abstain. The vision ends on a note of reassurance. Although Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise, the sinless Redeemer delivered them by means of chastity, humility, charity and other virtues. Likewise, human disobedience caused the whole creation to rebel, destroying its original harmony, yet God preserved paradise inviolate as a sign of great mercy to come.

3. The cosmos

This vision of the cosmic egg, depicted in loving detail by the miniaturist, represents the universe as a symbolic, layered structure in which God sustains powerfully contesting forces in a delicate balance. Moving from the outermost layer inward, Hildegard sees zones of luminous and shadowy fire, representing divine purification and judgement; pure ether, which signifies faith; a watery layer for baptism; and finally the globe made up of four elements. Each of the heavenly bodies also has its allegorical meaning. the solar disk is Christ, sun of justice; the moon is the church, which reflects his light; stars are the works of piety., and so forth. Surprisingly, Hildegard does not develop the creation and birth mythology that the egg shape may suggest to readers; rather, she represents this form - "small at the top, large in the middle and narrowed at the bottom" - as symbolizing the stages of human history. The rest of the allegory also focuses on the mysteries of the incarnation and the church, in keeping with the overall theme of the Scivias.

In the Liber divinorum operum I.2 Hildegard presents an alternative vision of the universe in the form of a sphere. Her interpretation there correlates its proportions with those of the human body, since a major theme of that book is the correspondence of macrocosm and microcosm. To explain the discrepancies between her two visions she remarks that the egg shape better demonstrates the distinction between the various elements, while the sphere more accurately represents the measurements of the cosmos. The vision concludes with a long polemic against astrology, magic and divination. The seer argues that heavenly bodies are the servants of God and have no power in themselves for good or evil; people who scrutinize the stars to learn their fate are guilty of pride and fall prey to the devil's seductions. It is difficult to reconcile this polemic with the deterministic lunar astrology set forth in Cause et Cure.

4. Soul and body

In this three-part vision Hildegard begins with a powerful myth, continues with teaching on human nature and psychology, and closes with a series of moral exhortations. The vision must have been a favourite with the artist, who illustrated it with three separate paintings.

The structure is unusual in that a lengthy myth precedes interpretation of the vision proper. Hildegard introduces a lonely pilgrim soul wandering in the "tabernacle" of her body and lamenting because she has lost her mother, the heavenly Zion. The soul's poignant lament recalls the lamentations of Israel in the wilderness, seeking the promised land and the new tabernacle in which God dwelt. Attentive readers will hear echoes of job, Jeremiah and other biblical sufferers. There is also a strong Platonic coloring, for the soul grieves that it is oppressed by the sinful and burdensome flesh; the mother-daughter dynamics may even suggest Demeter and Kore, with the devil cast in the role of Pluto. The myth is illustrated in the right-hand column of the first miniature, reading from bottom to top; here the artist has depicted the soul led captive by demons, tortured on the rack, assaulted by savage beasts, hiding in a cave, scaling a mountain and, at last, given wings to soar up to its heavenly tabernacle, where the devil continues to attack it in vain. This vividly realized psychomachia is akin to the Ordo virtutum.

The heavenly voice next explains the vision itself, which represents the infusion of the soul into the embryo in its mother's womb. Conception and pregnancy are described by means of the ancient folk analogy of milk curdling into cheese; the quality of the milk or semen determines the strong, weak or bitter character of the product. This vision is illustrated in the left side of the miniature, which shows men and women-the ancestors of the unborn child-carrying bowls of cheese, into which a devil insinuates corruption. There follows a discussion of the natural powers of soul and body: the intellect or moral judgement, the will, the reason and the senses. Soul and body are meant to cooperate harmoniously; the body is not inherently evil, but, through the devil's temptations it is a continual source of tribulation to the soul. The second miniature portrays a Christian kneeling in prayer to receive strength against demonic attack.

In a third painting angels and demons struggle for possession of the soul as it passes from the dying person's mouth. This image of the four last things (death and judgement, 'heaven and hell) corresponds to Hildegard's classic teaching on the Two Ways. Every soul must choose between the sacred East, where the sun of justice rises, and the bitter North, where Satan rules his realm of darkness and cold (Is 14:12-15).

5. The synagogue

This brief vision personifies the people of the covenant in the form of a woman, Synagoga, who is the "mother of the incarnation" and thus the mother-in-law of the church. Hildegard is adapting a traditional iconography, which depicted the two women as rivals - Synagoga rejected and blinded because of her unbelief and supplanted in God's favour by Ecclesia, or the Gentile church. The stereotype of the Jews as a literal, carnal people is present in force. But the "true believers" in Israel - Abraham, Moses and the prophets-enjoy a privileged status and are allowed to admire the new bride's beauty from afar. Like many of the figures in Hildegard's visions, Synagoga can be "read" vertically from head to feet as an allegory of successive historical periods. In the end, the seer teaches, the Jews will be converted and "run back with great haste to the way of salvation." This commonplace view, derived from Romans ii, was shared by Bernard of Clairvaux, Honorius and many other contemporaries.

6. The choirs of angels

The nine choirs of angels were conventionally ranked, in ascending order, as angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim and seraphim, and arrayed in three clusters of three. Hildegard's text supplies an alternative division into two, five and two so that her nine choirs can provide analogues for human nature. Angels and archangels signify body and soul, the cherubim and seraphim, as always, symbolize the knowledge and love of God, and the five middle orders represent the five senses. Further allegorical details pertain to the incarnation and the life of virtue. From Pseudo-Dionysius Hildegard takes the notion that the celestial hierarchy above mirrors the ecclesiastical hierarchy below. Her vision of the choirs as "armies arrayed like a crown" inspires the artist's brilliant mandala-like image of nine concentric circles ranged about a void to signify the ineffable Presence. The reason for placing the synagogue and the angels in this section of the Scivias is not immediately apparent. But Hildegard may have meant to show that while the synagogue prefigures the work of salvation and the angels assist in it, true redemption could not be accomplished until the advent of Christ and the church-the subject of Book II.

Book Two - The Redeemer and Redemption
Book Three - The Virtues and the History of Salvation