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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 5.1 (2002) 41-61

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Christian Cosmology in Hildegard of Bingen's Illuminations

Marsha Newman


HILDEGARD'S RICHLY ORGANIC iconography reflects a high degree of originality in its design. The illuminations are especially powerful expressions of a personal vision that reflects nonetheless the earth-centered and human-centered cosmology of the Middle Ages. What especially distinguishes her work is that it reflects a Christian universe radiating with the divine energy of original creation, and reiterating through its cycles and seasons the foremost purpose of existence, the fulfillment of divine love. As both scientist and seer, Hildegard constructs a cosmology that supports her theology--that unites the realms of first and secondary cause, spirit and matter, heaven and earth, body and soul, rational and inspired thought. She achieves this balance through an imagistic orientation of all creation to its own immanent source.

Although Hildegard may not have manually created the many illuminations that characterize and shape much of her work, most scholars credit her with their inspiration and conception. Madeline Caviness in her study of Hildegard's art acknowledges Hildegard as the originator of the designs. She also points out the nontraditional [End Page 41] style of the illuminations: "Whereas clarity and orderliness are period features, the pictures in the Scivias have irregular frames, with immense figures too large to fit juxtaposed with clusters of tiny ones, some turned sideways or even upside down along with their architectural settings." 1 To better understand these original images, we might remember that Hildegard claims they are antecedent to the text, not illustrations to the written word. They are a reflection of her visions, and her commentaries are derived from her illuminations. The vision precedes its own interpretation. The word follows the spirit.

Hildegard's was a very visual and visceral experience of the spirit, prompting her to create an intricate symbolic expression of nature and the universe. What some have thought to be the feminine aspects of Hildegard's art emerge in images of womb-like enclosures, and images of fertility, like the world egg and the mandala; and of pregnancy, with the child fully depicted within its mother's translucent womb. She sees evidence of the spirit in the life-giving universe: the begetting of children, the blossoming of plants. These are for her symbols of the pregnancy of matter with spirit, and therefore of the holiness of the material universe. True to the cosmology of her time, this material universe is frequently depicted in circular form, surrounded, even embraced, by the heavenly sphere of the Creator. But in Hildegard's illuminations, the order of the medieval cosmos is superseded by another principle, easily visible in her work, and that is the interpenetration of divine and mundane spheres.

One strikingly original kind of circular art form that appears throughout Hildegard's illuminated writings is the mandala--a symmetrical image framed, and generally enclosed by a circular boundary. They are not unusual within the context of medieval art, for illuminated manuscripts of many kinds contain illustrations enclosed by circular frames. Twelfth-century German Bibles contained circular images embedded in intricate geometric patterns. According to Ernst Kitzinger, there was a growing taste for abstraction and ornament [End Page 42] in early medieval art, freeing illustrations from any suggestion of naturalistic representation by intertwining geometric and organic forms. By the twelfth century, the fusion of image and letter, or image and frame had been transformed to separately enclosed figures, free, and more substantially human. In the twelfth-century development of Christian iconography, Kitzinger explains, the intent of this richer and more varied imagery is "first and foremost a desire to represent Christ and His plan of redemption. Subjects are chosen for their symbolic significance rather than for their intrinsic interest." 2

While Hildegard's circular illuminations may be seen to fit within this tradition, there seem to be several differences between her visionary images and other encircled images she may have had occasion to see in psalters, lexicons, bestiaries, and other illustrated...