by Hildegard von Bingen
(ca. 1151)
   The Scivias (a contraction, presumably, of Sci vias Domini, or “Know the ways of the Lord”) is the best-known work of the 12th-century abbess,mystic visionary, composer, prophetess, and preacher Hildegard von Bingen.Written in Latin over a 10-year period, the Scivias records a series of Hildegard’s visions concerning God and Creation, the Fall of man and his Redemption, and the end of the world. It is a lengthy text of some 150,000 words, divided into three main sections or books, the first containing six visions, the second (twice the length of the first) containing seven, and the last (as long as the first and second combined) containing 13 visions. For each revelation, Hildegard first describes what she has seen, and then explains the vision in words that she portrays as coming to her through a voice from heaven. These explanations may be only a few chapters long, but may extend to more than a hundred for the more complicated visions, and are often supported by direct references to Scripture. Both the vision and its explanation are concluded with a kind of formulaic sentence that is different for each of the three books and acts as a kind of refrain. In a preface to the Scivias, Hildegard describes a vision she had at the age of 42, in which she is commanded by heaven to write down the instruction she has received through her many visionary experiences, to share it with others—both her own nuns and the wider church—so that they, too, could experience the understanding she has gained. At first she balks at the thought, believing herself to be unworthy, but when she is struck down by illness, she obeys the divine directive and spends the next 10 years composing her Scivias.
   In general, book 1 of the Scivias is concerned with the Creation of the world, the fall of Lucifer and mankind, and the subsequent breaking of the perfection of God’s cosmos; book 2 describes the redemption of humankind, particularly through the church; and book 3 is concerned with salvation and the coming end of the world. More specifically, book 1 opens with a vision of the perfect kingdom of God. This is followed by Lucifer’s introduction of sin into Creation and his subsequent fall, followed by the fall of Adam and Eve. The fifth vision depicts Synogoga, the blind personification of the Jewish faith, in contrast with Ecclesia, the Christian Church, figuring the redemption that will come through Christ. The first book ends with a catalogue of the orders of angels in heaven.
   Book 2 opens with a vision of Christ’s incarnation, followed by a vision of the Holy Trinity. The remainder of book 2 comprises interconnected visions of the church, focusing on the redemption of humanity through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, communion, holy orders, and penance. The focus is on God’s plan to redeem his fallen world through the church. The lengthier and more complex book 3 traces again Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, deals with the importance of the virtues for the salvation of the individual human soul, and gives, in the 11th and 12th visions, a description of the apocalypse, the Antichrist, and the last judgment. The final vision is in fact a musical play called Ordo virtutum (Order of virtue), an original composition of Hildegard’s, perhaps figuring the blessed harmony of heaven.
   In her own time,Hildegard was best known for her apocalyptic visions, in particular the 11th vision of book 3 of the Scivias, on the last days and the fall of Antichrist. This vision first depicts five beasts (a dog, wolf, lion, pig, and horse) symbolizing five evil ages to come. The beasts come from the north, the realm of Satan. These are followed by the coming of Antichrist, pictured as a parodic mirror image of Christ: the Antichrist is born of a whore who pretends to be a virgin, and is possessed by the devil from his birth.He preaches and converts many through false miracles, and he disseminates false scriptures. Opposed by God’s two “witnesses,” Enoch and Elijah, the Antichrist ultimately succeeds in destroying them. He rejects all forms of continence and indulges his own lusts until, in Hildegard’s most striking image, he rapes Ecclesia, the female personification of the church itself, who is ultimately redeemed by her true bridegroom, Christ, as Antichrist is struck down by God’s thunderbolt.
   It is chiefly for memorable visions like these that Hildegard is remembered. The Scivias is not intended to be a logical presentation of theological arguments, like those of Hildegard’s contemporaries St. ANSELM and Peter ABELARD, although she does weigh in on some important questions. Concerned with the problem of why God would allow Satan to cause the fall of humanity, Hildegard asserts a version of the “paradox of the fortunate fall”: God permitted the loss of Eden, Hildegard says, in order that he could provide human beings with the infinitely better dwelling in heaven. But in general, Hildegard presents pictorial ALLEGORIES that suggest truths, but she implies that God’s purposes cannot be fully understood in this world. Her book is intended more as a prophetic text: she describes her call at the beginning of the Scivias in a manner reminiscent of the biblical calls of Isaiah or Ezekiel, and like the prophets her main purpose seems to be to castigate her society and advocate for God’s laws. Against the Catharists of her own day (who rejected the physical world as evil), she extols the sanctity of the flesh when limited to God’s plan of marriage. But she also condemns all forms of sexual vices, and prescribes remedies like special diets, fasting, mortification of the flesh, and even beatings for lustful thoughts.
   Concerned at all times with orthodoxy, Hildegard submitted an unfinished copy of her manuscript for scrutiny by St. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX and Pope Eugenius III, who after reading the manuscript at the council of Trier in the period 1147–48 sent her a command that she was to continue to write down whatever visions God sent her. She was thus recognized as a seer in her own lifetime, and validated by the pope himself. It was from this recognition that Hildegard went on to become a major public figure throughout Europe, sought out by political and ecclesiastical figures and the luminary of four major preaching tours before her death in 1179 at the age of 82.
   ■ Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 10981179: A Visionary Life. London: Routledge, 1989.
   ■ Hildegard von Bingen. Scivias. Translated by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop.New York: Paulist Press, 1990.
   ■ Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
   ■ Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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