Scivias book 3 - synopsis
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
Book Three - The Virtues and the History of Salvation

1. God, Lucifer and humanity

This vision at first recapitulates the first vision of Book 1: Hildegard sees a figure of God enthroned in majesty and her calling is reaffirmed. The poignant novelty here is an image of newly created humanity: God "held to his breast what looked like black and filthy mire, as big as a human heart, surrounded with precious stones and pearls." The operative theological idea is an old, half-mythical opinion that humanity was created to replace a "tenth choir" of angels who fell with Lucifer. An eloquent miniature represents Hildegard's vision of these angels as shooting stars that are gradually extinguished as they fall, until only cinders remain. But their departing light is not quenched; it returns to the bosom of God, and since Satan fell "without an heir," God treasures his inheritance of light for a new creation. Unlike the angels, human beings are then fashioned with a "vile earthly nature" to preserve them from pride and consequent ruin.

The vision thus supplies one possible answer to a question that must arise among all theists who denigrate the body, namely, why a good God should have created such a "miserable form" in the first place. Despite the wretchedness of human nature, however, the Son of God has assumed it in the incarnation, so that no angel dares to despise it. Moreover, the filthy mire is held firmly to God's heart and adorned with the gems and pearls of sanctity. The vision is meant to inspire humility and gratitude as well as fear of God's justice; the commentary stresses that unlike the fallen angels, human beings can and therefore must repent of their misdeeds.

2. The edifice of salvation

This vision sets forth a blueprint of the symbolic building that will be expounded in detail through the remainder of the book. The miniature provides an indispensable diagram, although it depicts a square building where Hildegard describes a rectangular one. Built on the mountain of God, grounded in faith and fear of the Lord, the city or edifice of salvation has a double symbolism representing, on the one hand, the course of salvation history, and on the other, the doctrines and virtues every Christian must believe and acquire to he saved.

The most important wall links the East (represented on top, as is usual in medieval maps) with the North (shown to the left). In the East lies the figurative realm of Christ, in the North that of Satan, and the luminous wall between the two therefore signifies speculativa scientia, or the knowledge of good and evil. This is not "speculative knowledge" in the sense of abstract thought, but "reflective knowledge" in the sense of moral judgement (the adjective is from speculum, a mirror); this faculty is the cognitive aspect of free will. The remaining three walls are of masonry, which has several meanings: the joined stones denote human flesh and its labours, the Law and the works of justice. Thus moral knowledge must be conjoined with right action for the upbuilding of salvation.

Hildegard gives two interpretations for the points of the compass. In one reading, East and West signify the dawn of salvation and the sunset of the Law, while North and South represent the fall and restoration of Adam. Alternatively, the diagram may be read counterclockwise beginning at the right. The four cornerstones are successive covenants between God and humanity. At the South stands Adam, at the East Noah (the dawn of justice), at the North Abraham and Moses as representatives of the Law (the beginning of war against Satan), and at the West Christ (the revelation of the Trinity). The proportions of the building also receive numerological meanings.

This vision assigns further theological value to the despised body. Again human beings are contrasted with angels: The latter are purer and more luminous, but humans are more valiant and meritorious soldiers of God because they have to do battle against their own nature. In ascetic struggle "they conquer themselves, chastising their bodies, and so know themselves to be in [God's] army."

3. The tower of anticipation of God's will

From now on the exploration of the building proceeds anticlockwise, beginning with the northeast wall. Hildegard first examines the "tower of anticipation" of God's perfect will, which was manifested in the incarnation and first prefigured in the Abrahanic covenant of circumcision. Aside from foreshadowing baptism, this covenant is taken primarily as a sign of sexual discipline. The initial "cutting off" of unchastity leads by stages to the perfect virginity of Christ and Mary.

Within each portion of the building Hildegard sees a group of feminine Virtues appropriate to that particular moment of salvation history. The Virtues occupy an important place in her theology; they are not exclusively human qualities but "brilliant stars given by God, which shine forth in human deeds." The Latin virtus means "energy" or "power" as well as "virtue," and Hildegard plays on both senses. In effect, a virtue is a divine quality that becomes an operative force in willing souls and fully incarnates itself in right action; it is a synthesis of grace and moral effort. As Hildegard puts it, the Virtues do not work of their own accord, but with the cooperation of the person who has received them from God. They appear in feminine form in keeping with a long tradition of virtue-vice allegory that goes back to Prudentius, but also because in Hildegard's symbolic theology the feminine represents the sphere of synergy in which divinity and humanity work together for salvation.

The first three Virtues in this tower represent the initial manifestations, of the ascetic life. Celestial Love, Discipline and Modesty. There follow two christological Virtues: Mercy (associated with the Virgin Mary and Christ's birth) and Victory (connected with his conquest of Satan). Standing somewhat to the side are Patience, who imitates Christ's passion, and Longing, who clings to a crucifix. Hildegard's allegorical technique further characterizes the Virtues by assigning intricate symbolism to their iconography - colours, garments and attributes. In addition, each Virtue utters a self-defining motto; similar formulas recur in the Ordo virtutum where they are set to music.

4. The pillar of the Word of God

Near the northern corner stands the pillar of the Word, signifying both the incarnate Word and the written word of Scripture. The latter has not two parts as one would expect, but three. Old Testament, New Testament and commentary, or "the profound and rich wisdom of the principal doctors." Such is the authority that Hildegard, in accord with monastic tradition, assigned to patristic exegesis. The first two sides of this triangular pillar display the saints of the old and new covenants: first, patriarchs and prophets, seen as precursors of Christ, and then apostles, martyrs and other Christian heroes. The third side, representing the exegetes, shows by its shape that wisdom arose from a small beginning, increased in the course of time, but will dwindle again in the last days. At the top of the pillar perches the dove of the Holy Spirit.

The Virtue in this vision is the Knowledge of God, more a divine than a human figure. More awesome in appearance than the other Virtues, she embodies the mystery of God's mercy and judgement in bringing sinners to grace through the scourge of calamity. Illness and other chastisements may redeem sinners by making them physically incapable of their former vices, which otherwise they would never voluntarily leave. These reluctant Christians are the wedding guests whom Christ has "compelled to come in" (Lk 14:23).

5. The jealousy of God

"The Lord is a jealous God and avenging, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; ... The Lord is slow to anger and of great might, and will by no means clear the guilty" (Na 1:2-3). This grim vision presents the vengeance of God against evil, symbolized by a wrathful crimson face and three silently beating wings. Naturally the head faces north, directing its vigilance against Satan and his kingdom.

In the face of God's jealousy no sin goes unpunished. If it is not avenged by voluntary penance it will exact its price either in earthly suffering or in the torments of purgatory or hell. Though vengeance may appear to strike without warning, God is always just, for human beings have been granted judgement to discern good from evil; ignorance of the Law is no excuse. Hildegard's ethical stance is one of uncompromising self-denial; the choice of good is associated with struggle and anxiety, and that of evil with self-will, desire and pleasure. Certain sins, such as desecration or robbery of a church, simony and withholding of tithes, are singled out as special objects of God's vengeance because they defile the honour of his house.

6. The stone wall of the old Law

The northwest wall of the building signifies the Old Testament Law, the period of history between Abraham and Christ, and the political order. Most of the commentary in this vision asserts and defends the principles on which Christian feudal society was based.

The human race, Hildegard maintains, is divided into two unequal orders, the spiritual and the secular, and each of these classes has its proper hierarchy. Among the secular people there are the higher and lower nobility, free men and women and serfs; among the spiritual there are "the excellent and the superior, the obeyers and the enforcers." Hildegard has no doubt that these distinctions were ordained by providence; they "were and are and always will be." Two ideological justifications for hierarchy are set forth. (a) it prevents anarchy, because without rulers people would "kill each other off and perish"; and (b) it teaches by the example of earthly authority how divine authority should be loved and feared. Though the spiritual power is more exalted than the secular, princes as well as prelates represent God's justice and mercy. The "greater" deserve to rule the "lesser" because God has chosen them for their superior abilities - intelligence, integrity, eloquence - just as he chose Jacob to rule over Esau. But usurpation of power, whether through bribery or simony, violence or black magic, is harshly condemned - despite the same Jacob's example! Subjects ought of course to he obedient; if they suffer persecution from rulers, they can imitate Christ's passion.

Eight Virtues inhabit this section of the building. The first group consists of Abstinence, Liberality and Piety.. self-denial is the prerequisite for generosity toward God and neighbour. In the second group Truth, Peace and Beatitude appear, representing three stages in the victory over evil. Slightly apart stand two Virtues embodying God's temporal and eternal gifts. Discretion, associated with secular justice, and Salvation of Souls. The latter manifests herself in two phases: In her "Jewish" period she has a swarthy complexion, dark curls and a multicoloured tunic, but after Christ's birth she takes on a luminous white aspect, stripping off all "diversity."

7. The pillar of the Trinity

In Scivias II.2 Hildegard presented the Trinity as an eternal living reality. Her focus in this vision is on the Trinity as a saying doctrine revealed by Christ at a particular moment of history. Hence the pillar appears at the west corner of the building, symbolizing the prophetic "end of the ages." It is triangular, like the pillar of the Word (III.4), and its three edges are sharp swords cutting off all infidels: heretics, Jews and pagans, symbolized respectively by chaff, broken wings and rotten wood. Hildegard adds a lengthy parable, which she then interprets as an allegory of the apostles' preaching, and supplies some rather cloudy similitudes for the Trinity. As if to defend their obscurity, she stresses that this divine mystery must he humbly accepted and not presumptuously scrutinized.

8. The pillar of the Saviour's humanity

This important vision depicts the incarnation as the primary locus of the Virtues, that is, the context in which humanity is enabled to collaborate with God. The pillar closely resembles Jacob's ladder, but in place of the angels seen by the patriarch, Hildegard perceives "all the virtues of God ascending and descending." Her imagery is indebted to that of an earlier visionary, Hermas (third century), who in The Shepherd had described a host of celestial maidens in the guise of stonemasons working to build up the church's Hildegard's maidens also carry stones, representing "the winged and shining deeds people do ... to win salvation." These Virtues descend to human beings through the humanity of Christ and return to heaven through his divinity.

The miniature shows the influence of a traditional pictorial motif, the ladder of salvation, whereby Christians climb up from earth to heaven on the rungs of virtue. Based on classic texts like the Benedictine Rule and John Climacus's Ladder of Perfection, the image was particularly favoured by monks and nuns. Many representations of it show demons on either side of the ladder, picking off unwary souls with their arrows; Hildegard's image is more positive and depicts supportive Virtues in their place. At the top of the ladder stands the Grace of God, clothed as a bishop to admonish and exhort the faithful.

The seven principal Virtues (proceeding from top to bottom) are Humility, Charity, Fear of God and Obedience on the right, and Faith, Hope and Chastity on the left. Humility is the queen of Virtues, as in the Ordo virtutum, but Charity is the most important and has the longest speech. She wears the sapphire blue associated with the Word of God and is assimilated to him as Chastity is to the Virgin Mary. The latter is overshadowed by the dove of the Holy Spirit and appears pregnant with a child named Innocence. In several places the text echoes earlier visions: for example, Fear of the Lord first appeared in I.i, and Hope with her crucifix is very similar to Longing in III.3.

A more perplexing cross-reference points back to I.4, for Hildegard observes that the pillar of the Saviour's humanity stands "in the same place" as the radiant diamond-shaped figure she had earlier seen. But that figure was independent of the allegorical building, so Hildegard must be implying that a consistent "inner geometry" persists through all her visions. In both contexts the figure in question signifies the incarnation, but in I.4 Hildegard was discussing the means by which every soul enters its body when it is formed in the womb, while here she stresses the uniqueness of Christ's birth from the Virgin.

The central teaching of the vision concerns synergy, or cooperation with God. Hildegard teaches that God's grace will not forsake even the most hardened sinner, but it is not irresistible; the human will always retains the freedom to choose or reject salvation. To the sinner grace brings first self-knowledge, then repentance, finally hope and amendment of life. The discourse of this Virtue should he compared with earlier teaching on the Knowledge and the Jealousy of God. In a lengthy digression Hildegard draws an analogy between the seven Virtues and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit resting on Christ [Is II:2], thus reinforcing the centrality of the God-man.

9. The tower of the church

This tower stands at the southern corner of the building and represents the whole history of the church; it is therefore unfinished. But somewhat inconsistently, the seven turrets at its summit, standing for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are already built. This detail clearly indicates how allegorical significance prevails over the logical coherence of the image. The motifs of the heavenly ladder and the cooperation of Virtues are continued from the previous vision.

Wisdom, God's feminine co-worker in creation, stands atop the "house of seven pillars" described in Proverbs 9:1. As the first of the cardinal virtues, she precedes justice, Fortitude and temperance. The last of the four, however, is given not her classical name but the more impressive title of Sanctity - an index of the importance Hildegard ascribed to sobriety and self-denial. Unique among the Virtues, Sanctity has three heads. Two are sexless, but the left one, labelled Self-Sacrifice, is significantly female.

Hildegard's doctrine of the church stresses the role of the apostles and doctors. The faithful, as always, are divided into various categories: some cherish and preserve their baptismal garment, others feel constrained by it but keep on struggling, while still others throw off the garment and return from the church into the world. Worst of all are the simoniacs with their filthy lucre. Continuing her polemic, Hildegard claims that they purchase offices "by means of [their] spiritual father, money - for in that transaction money becomes [their] bishop." But the attack on unjust authority is balanced once again by a call for obedience to the powers that be; they will perish horribly in God's judgement, but the time is not yet.

10. The Son of Man

This vision completes the circuit of the building, returning to the eastern corner where the Son of Man is seated on a throne beneath that of the Shining One (God the Father). He exhorts the people of God on self-knowledge, obedience and sexual discipline, reminding the married that coupling is only permissible out of desire for children, and the celibate that mere outer virginity does not suffice for their salvation. True continence is the gift of God and should not be promised hastily or presumptuously. A consecrated virgin should rely on divine strength alone and prepare for a lifetime of ascetic struggle.

Five more Virtues fill up the complement of the city. They are Constancy, Celestial Desire (symbolized by the thirsty hart of Psalm 41), Compunction, Contempt of the World (safely ensconced within the wheel of God's mercy) and Concord (winged like an angel because she prefigures the life of heaven). Christ appears in his human aspect in a rather understated form. Like Ecclesia, he is visible only from the navel upward because his lower parts represent ages of history yet to unfold. Some of these mysteries will he disclosed in the apocalyptic visions that follow.

11. The last days and the fall of Antichrist

This is the vision that won Hildegard her greatest celebrity as a prophet. Although she draws on earlier apocalyptic scenarios, notably that of the tenth-century monk Adso, the seer adds powerful imagery of her own. Her three principal themes are (a) the "five ferocious epochs" to come; (b) the career of Antichrist; and (c) the rape and recovery of the church.

The upper left panel of the miniature depicts five beasts that symbolize future epochs of world history: a fiery dog, a yellow lion, a pale horse, a black pig and a grey wolf. Each of these animals suggests the temperament of villainous rulers to come. In the Liber divinorum operum, vision III.10, the description of these eras is considerably expanded, and ages of justice and reformation are posited in between the ages of misrule. All the beasts appear in the North, since they belong to Satan's kingdom; but no term is set to their rule. Hildegard says only that the world is now in its seventh age, "approaching the end of time." This is a conventional view, however, which has nothing to do with her symbolism of the beasts. In the sixth age of the world Christ was incarnate, just as on the sixth day Adam was created. The seventh age is a "sabbath," which may be indefinitely prolonged. One apocalyptic sign, however, is the fact that Hildegard herself prophesies. God has called her because his duly appointed authorities now languish in idleness, and the world order is showing signs of decrepitude.

The approaching Antichrist is represented as a parodic inversion of Christ. Born of a harlot who feigns that she is a virgin, he will be wholly possessed by the devil from his mother's womb and trained by her in the magical arts. Through preaching and false miracles, even the feigned resurrection of the dead, he will make many converts; finally he himself will simulate death and resurrection and promulgate his own scriptures. As Hildegard emphasizes Christ's virginity throughout the Scivias, she also stresses the Antichrist's lawless sexuality. Not only is he a child of fornication, but he himself will reject continence and all other forms of self-denial. For a time he will he opposed by the "two witnesses," Enoch and Elijah, whom God is reserving in heaven for the last times, but eventually they will suffer martyrdom for the faith.

The most daring part of the vision concerns the Antichrist's rape and bloody violation of the church, depicted in the lower panel of the miniature. Her private parts now become visible, with the monstrous head of the Antichrist appearing in place of her genitals, for he is both her son and her seducer. As Satan corrupted Eve, so will the son of perdition attempt to corrupt the virgin Ecclesia. But Christ's bride will emerge triumphant, though bruised, bloodied and in large part deceived by his wiles. After enduring persecution and martyrdom, she will be vindicated by her heavenly Bridegroom (upper right panel) and united to him in marriage. Scatology and eschatology merge as the Antichrist, self-exalted on a mountain of excrement, is struck down by a thunderbolt from on high.

12. The last judgement, the new heaven and the new earth

At an unspecified time after the fall of Antichrist, the last judgement with its terrors will come to pass and history will have ended. In Hildegard's vision there are no surprises in the judgement: Good and evil are plainly manifest in the forms of the newly awakened dead. Sentence is passed on the reprobate without appeal, and unbelievers are not even allowed to stand trial, for they are damned in advance. The saints, on the other hand, receive bliss and glory from Christ, who comes in majesty on the clouds of heaven, yet with his wounds still open from the cross.

As the Son of Man sits in judgement, all creation is "shaken by dire convulsions" in which the elements are purged of mortality. Hildegard sees a "black skin" peeled away from them, recalling her image of the newly baptized in II.3. There follows a chillingly Platonic vision of permanence: In the new heaven sun, moon and stars will stand motionless, and on the new earth shall he fire without heat, air without density, a sea without waves. The vision ends on a note of everlasting stasis: "And so there was no night, but day. And it was finished."

13. Symphony of praise

This magnificent coda is not really a vision but a concert. The songs Hildegard records in this section do indeed, as she claims, marvellously summarize all the meanings she has presented before. In the first fourteen pieces she offers praise to the Virgin Mary, the choirs of angels and five categories of saints.. prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins. Each rank of the celestial hierarchy is honoured with an antiphon and a responsory, although the liturgical genres of these pieces are not specified here as they are in the Symphonia manuscripts.

Heaven is not populated only with saints, but also with repentant sinners. The second part of this section is a lament and prayer of intercession for the fallen. In the final portion a penitent soul's pilgrimage to heaven (earlier presented mythically in I.4) is set forth in dramatic form. The soul slips from well-meaning innocence to impatience when she asks the Virtues for a "kiss of the heart," and they warn instead that she must do battle by their side. At this point the devil intervenes and easily leads her into sin. In contrast to later morality plays, Hildegard is not interested in dramatizing the soul's adventures in evil; instead she presents a verbal contest between the devil and the Virtues to fill the time until the soul's repentance. In the end the Virtues receive the weeping penitent, and led by their queen Humility and celestial Victory, they conquer and bind the devil.

The play is followed by a brief commentary and a tribute to the power of music, anticipating the apologia Hildegard was to write at the end of her life. In liturgical song "words symbolize the body" and the humanity of Christ, she writes, "and the jubilant music indicates the spirit" and the Godhead. An allegorical reading of Psalm 150, in which the different instruments are made to symbolize the varieties of saints, leads into a final affirmation of the prophet's mission and brings the Scivias to a close.