Hildegard of Bingen: A Medieval Mystic Superstar

A human being is a vessel that God has built for himself and filled with his inspiration so that his works are perfected in it. ~ Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Elisabeth of Schönau, c. 1152

Eleventh-century Europe usually is a topic of interest only to scholars, medievalists, and the occasional church geek, but somehow, Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098 to 1179, has managed to achieve an unusual degree of visibility in our time. Others from her age, like Bernard of Clairvaux or Peter Abelard, may have a more prominent place in history, theology, or philosophy, but Hildegard has won people’s hearts in a much more down-to-earth way: as an artist, composer, and playwright, as a proto-feminist and medieval herbalist, and as a mystic whose writings recount her detailed, intricate visions.

Perhaps the Hildegard craze began in 1982, when an early music group named Gothic Voices released an album of Hildegard’s compositions called A Feather on the Breath of God. The ensemble featured the sterling voice of soprano Emma Kirkby, whose melodious reading of Hildegard’s sequences, hymns, and chants were simply angelic. The recording was a sensation, winning a slew of awards and showing up on “Best Classical Albums of All Time” lists. It also spawned dozens more Hildegard recordings, ranging from painstakingly authentic period recordings to a variety of “new age” interpretations. Hildegard of Bingen became a medieval superstar. And soon the interest in this 11th-century abbess spread beyond her lovely music. Scholars examined Hildegard’s contribution to medicine; collections of her idiosyncratic artwork (inspired by her visions) have been published; and historians have noted that Hildegard, who corresponded with the pope and leading figures of her day like Bernard, wielded an impressive measure of political influence for a woman of her time.

Almost 40 years have passed since Gothic Voices released their masterpiece, but Hildegard remains a singular icon of creativity, spirituality, and the ability to break out of convention. In 2009 German feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta released a biopic on Hildegard’s early life called Vision. Balanced in its consideration of the nun’s life and her dealings with a not-always-supportive church hierarchy, the movie considers the relationship between faith, mystical experience, devotion, and artistic vocation, without making either Hildegard or the priests she dealt with into caricatures.

Eight years ago today (on May 10, 2012), Hildegard’s star shone brighter than ever. Andrea Tornielli at the Vatican Insider reported in December 2011 that Pope Benedict XVI intended to canonize Hildegard the following spring, making her a saint over 830 years after her death, which in itself is noteworthy; but even more remarkable was the hint that Benedict intended to bestow on her the title of “Doctor of the Church”—a mark of respect and authority that usually only is given to theological heavyweights like Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo, who are renowned for their singular contribution to church teaching. Indeed, on October 7, 2012, Hildegard became only the 34th Doctor of the Church, and only the fourth women to be so named.

Why would this matter? The three women Doctors of the Church before Hildegard—Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Thérèse of Lisieux—are actually the most recent recipients of this honor (in 1970, 1970, and 1997, respectively). Some might see this as the Catholic Church’s efforts to be a bit more inclusive, naming a few token women to this male-dominated list. But the Vatican hardly seems motivated by any desire to appear nonsexist. Teresa, Catherine, Thérèse, and (presumably) Hildegard are all not just women, they are also mystics. And while other mystics appear among the Doctors (Francis de Sales, John of the Cross), I think the case could be made that, in our time, the Vatican is subtly acknowledging the importance of mystical spirituality to the heart of Christian faith. “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist,” warned the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. Affirming mystics as exemplary teachers of the faith is one small way the Vatican acknowledges the power of Rahner’s words.

“I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” snorted Dorothy Day when she was asked if she hoped to be recognized by the Church as a saint. Likewise, if the rumors are true and Hildegard is canonized and named a Doctor of the Church, on one level nothing really changes. But perhaps those of us who love Hildegard for her musical and artistic creativity, her poetry, her ability to wield political power in a time when most women had none, and her commitment to the authenticity of her own inner experience, can celebrate that a stamp of approval, even from as unlikely a source as the Vatican, means that Hildegard will be around to inspire future artists and visionaries for years to come.


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