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

This initial vision recapitulates important themes of Book 1 - Hildegard's prophetic call, the creation and the fall of man-but the emphasis has now shifted to the Second Person of the Trinity. Vision I.2 focused on Satan and Eve; this vision concentrates on Christ and Adam. Hildegard first sees an unquenchable fire that is "wholly living and wholly Life," with a sky-blue flame to represent the eternity of the Word. After creating the first human being, the triune God offers him "the sweet precept of obedience" in the shape of a fragrant flower, but Adam fails to pluck it and thereby falls into thick darkness. The forbidden fruit of Genesis is here transformed into a blossom that the man issued to pluck, so that his sin becomes one of omission; thus obedience is seen as a positive good and evil as a privation. This revisionist view expresses Hildegard's idea that the "knowledge of good and evil" is God's gift to humanity rather than the devil's temptation.

Redemption proceeds in gradual stages. First the night of sin is illumined by the shining stars of the patriarchs, then by the prophets, culminating in John the Baptist; finally Christ appears as the radiance of dawn. By his passion and resurrection he delivers Adam, whose fate is contrasted with that of the unrepentant Satan. In the miniature Adam is represented three times: as the creature fashioned from mud (adamah = "red earth"); as the young man who withholds his hand from the flower; and as the old man who has fallen into darkness and "returned to his earth." The artist's vision diverges significantly from the text. He or she has added a central medallion to represent the six days of creation, and the unity of Creator and Redeemer is brilliantly figured in symmetrical spheres of light at the top and bottom of the miniature. A "finger of God" stretches downward from the light to awaken the newly created Adam, while the radiance of the risen Christ flames upward to redeem the fallen Adam.

2. The Trinity

Somewhat illogically, this vision of the triune God follows that of the Redeemer, perhaps because the Trinity was first revealed to humankind through the incarnation. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are signified by a radiant light, a sapphire-hued figure and a glowing fire; the exposition stresses the unity and inseparability of the Persons. Hildegard, then introduces three similitudes from created things: a stone with its dampness, solidity and kindling power; a flame with its light, heat and color; and a word with its sound, breath and meaning. The analogies of the flame and the word are ancient, but they are developed here in original fashion. It is noteworthy that none of these analogues is gender-specific, and the naming of Father and Son is balanced by a reference to "the embrace of God's maternal love," which is charity.

From the rather abstract language of Hildegard's text the artist has conceived another mandala-image. "Light" and "fire" become concentric circles glimmering with gold and silver leaf, and quivering lines suggest the vitality and energy of the living God.

3. The church, bride of Christ and mother of the faithful

This is the first of four visions that centre around the figure of Ecclesia and the sacraments. Baptism, the sacrament of her maternity, is represented in striking imagery faithfully reproduced by the artist. Reading the miniature from top to bottom and from right to left, the four panels illustrate successive moments of Hildegard's vision. (a) Ecclesia, the bride of Christ, lovingly embraces his altar. (b) She prepares to give birth to God's children; festive angels prepare their places in heaven. (c) Baptism. Two ancient images, the womb of Mother Church and the net of Peter, are conflated here. Converts or catechumens, represented as "black children," race to enter their mother's womb to be reborn; she gives birth "through her mouth," that is, through the words of blessing and the breath of the Spirit. The luminous disk, familiar from the previous visions, represents invocation of the Trinity. As the newly baptized Christians emerge, they shed their dark skins and are clothed in the "pure white garments" of initiation. (d) Christ instructs the newly baptized in the Two Ways of sin and justice.

The teaching in this vision emphasizes the majestic and mysterious powers granted to the church as well as the grace of baptism. The church will never be conquered by hell; her secrets transcend comprehension; her crown is the teaching of the apostles, and her heart, the virginity of Mary. Following patristic doctrine Hildegard uses the symbol of Ecclesia's virginity to accentuate her pure faith, inviolate in the face of heresy and schism. But in her capacity as mother, Ecclesia grieves over the sins and rebellions of her children.

Baptism, Hildegard teaches, is analogous to circumcision under the old covenant, but is accessible to people of both sexes and all ages. It opens the kingdom of heaven to believers and remits the sin of Adam. Several brands of Donatism are rejected in passing; for example, baptism does not depend on the holiness of the priest, but on the invocation of the Trinity; infant baptism is acceptable to God; a layman may baptize in case of emergency. The symbolism of rebirth inspires an interesting digression on literal birth, which includes a surprising analogy between a man's motives in procreation and God's motives in creation. But the superior excellence of virginity is reiterated.

4. Confirmation

After the faithful are cleansed in baptism, they must receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of anointing with holy oil, which is reserved to the bishop. The vision depicts the power of the Spirit as a lofty tower that upholds and strengthens the woman Ecclesia. Her children appear in varying guises to indicate their spiritual and ecclesiastical status; thus, contemplatives are distinguished from lay Christians by the more glorious light on which they fix their gaze. But in each category some are more zealous in devotion, others more vigorous in justice. Hildegard teaches that while the sacraments are necessary for salvation, they are not sufficient; they must be accompanied by repentance and good works.

5. Three orders in the church

Ecclesia appears in her glory, clothed in radiant light of many colours: crystal clarity to signify the priesthood, the rosy glow of dawn for virginity, purple for monastic imitation of Christ's passion, and cloudy brightness for the secular life. This vision strongly affirms the principle of hierarchy in the church: spiritual people are to secular as day is to night, and monks rank as high above clergy as archangels do above angels. It is permissible to move from a lower order into a higher, but not to descend from a higher to a lower.

Hildegard treats the priesthood briefly, stressing clerical celibacy and commending the life of regular canons. Her vision of virginity is more lyrical, characterized by imagery of music, flowers and feminine beauty. Virgins, she says, imitate the example of Christ and John the Baptist; they alone are entitled to sing the new song in paradise [Rev 14:3-4]; they go beyond the letter of the Law to fulfill the counsels of perfection. On the subject of monasticism Hildegard addresses several points of contemporary controversy. Although monks rank higher than priests, they may be ordained and preach if the church has need of them. Since God considers the intention rather than the outward habit of the monk, children should not be offered as oblates without their consent. Renegade monks, on the other hand, must be brought back to the monasteries they have fled. Married couples cannot separate to take monastic vows unless both partners consent.

Although Hildegard's position on oblates and her emphasis on intention are in keeping with the spirit of twelfth-century monastic reform, she expresses a highly critical view of new orders. Praising St. Benedict as a "second Moses," she inveighs against diversity, novelty and singularity and proclaims that God will judge innovators. The faithful monk ought to be "humble and content with what his predecessors instituted for him." This kind of humility is equivalent to conservatism; in her view innovation can spring only from pride.

The last part of the vision elaborates on the unforgivable sin of "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit," which Hildegard defines as despair of God's mercy in the form of either final impenitence or suicide.

6. Christ's sacrifice and the church

This vision, by far the longest in the Scivias, deals with subjects of burning interest to twelfth-century theologians. the nature of the eucharist and of the priesthood. In the vision proper Hildegard draws on a patristic typology that enjoyed wide diffusion in medieval art. The crucifixion is represented as the wedding of Christ and the church: As Christ hangs on the cross his predestined bride, Ecclesia, descends from heaven and is united with him, receiving his body and blood as her dowry. Whenever Mass is celebrated, Ecclesia, as heavenly archetype of the celebrant, devoutly offers this dowry to the Father and renews her marriage union with the Son.

The numerous doctrinal points in this section can he grouped under six headings. eucharistic theology, liturgical practice, communion, requirements for the priesthood, sexual ethics and penance. Under the first heading Hildegard offers a commentary on the Mass, focusing particularly on the consecration of the gifts. Although she does not use the word transubstantiation and its related Aristotelian vocabulary, her teaching is in essence identical with the doctrine later defined by Fourth Lateran and elaborated by Thomas Aquinas. A surprising emphasis falls on the role of the Virgin Birth. The Virgin Annunciate becomes a model for priests, who bring Christ's body into the world by uttering the words of consecration just as Mary did by uttering her fiat; and the wheat of the eucharistic bread is made to symbolize the purity of Christ's virginal flesh. Since original sin is transmitted through the taint of lust, the Redeemer's body and blood must be free from every hint of sexuality in order to cleanse the sinful flesh of mortals.

After treating various points of ritual - fasting before communion, reception in both kinds, the use of traditional words and vestments - Hildegard presents a typology of communicants. The second miniature for this vision illustrates the five types: faithful believers, doubters, the unchaste and lustful, the malicious and envious, the warlike and oppressive. According to the quality of their faith and repentance, Christians may communicate either unto salvation or unto judgement

In the section on priesthood Hildegard condemns simony (the purchase and sale of ecclesiastical office) and pluralism (the holding of multiple benefices by a single cleric). She also reiterates traditional criteria for the priesthood: a candidate must be adult, male and sound in body. (Women, she says, are "an infirm and weak habitation appointed to bear children," but as virgins they can possess the priesthood vicariously through their bridegroom, Christ.) The bulk of this section is devoted to clerical celibacy. Priests must have no wife except for the church and the justice of God; a married priest is an adulterer and serves the devil. Hildegard answers the objection that priests were married in apostolic times by arguing that God formerly permitted this aberration "because there were so few priests," just as he permitted the patriarchs to marry their female kin because there were so few people. "But now the church is adult and strong, and her ministers are many," so a higher standard of celibacy can he enforced.

The polemic against clerical marriage leads into a long catalogue of sexual sins: cross-dressing, fornication, homosexuality, "unnatural" intercourse, masturbation, bestiality and "nocturnal pollution." This list of prohibitions in turn raises the subject of confession and penance, which is treated more briefly. Confession resurrects sinners from death; it may he beard by a layman in case of emergency; and it is strengthened by almsgiving - especially if the recipients are among the "deserving poor." Hildegard urges priests to use their power of binding and loosing effectively and condemns those who abuse this authority through anger or negligence.

7. The devil

Hildegard's placing of this vision at this point is pivotal. The threat of satanic temptation ends this book as the promise of angelic assistance ended Book I, but the vision of the devil bound anticipates the dramatic victory that closes Book III.

The hideous multicoloured "worm" or dragon symbolizes the many kinds of vice and temptation with which the Evil One assaults people. As in Hildegard's previous visions of the church, Christians are divided into categories according to their degrees of faith and justice. Satan assails the "spiritual people" (priests and monastics) in one manner, the secular people in another, while heretics are represented as wholly in his power. Some features of the heresy Hildegard attacks suggest the Cathars; for example, they revile the sacraments and the clergy, feign Catholicism out of fear and lay claim to a pretended sanctity. Other accusations, for instance of devil-worship and obscene sacrifices of human seed, are ancient slanders earlier hurled at Christians and gnostics of the subapostolic age. Satan's power appears to be formidable, even though he is bound firmly by a chain and in the end the saints trample on him.

An interesting feature of the vision is the image of Vanity Fair, possibly inspired by Revelation 13:17 and 18:11-17. This scene is illustrated in the lower panel of the second miniature, where the artist has depicted the sinister merchants in the hats worn by medieval Jews.

Book Three - The Virtues and the History of Salvation