To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

The Comeback of a Medieval Nun


In August over 60,000 people visited the travelling exhibition Shades of the Living Light - about Hildegard and her Time in Rundetårn in Copenhagen. Only the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1986 attracted a greater crowd than the 'Sibyl of the Rhine' or 'Profetissa teutonica', as the medieval mystic and nun, Hildegard of Bingen, was also known. In today's Europe she is as well-known as she was in the 12th century, when the Pope proclaimed her a prophet and thousands of believers undertook pilgrimages to Bingen.

Although the Middle Ages have become a household word and the current interest in the period is growing, it is still unusual that the interest in a single woman and her work has extended beyond scholarly circles, as is the case with Hildegard. In Denmark alone, four books have been published by or about Hildegard in the last few years. Among them is Hildegard of Bingen. The Trumpet of God (1995) by Kirsten Kjærulff, who is one of the originators of the exhibition, which celebrates the 900th anniversary of Hildegard's birth.

The exhibition provides rather good answers to the following two questions: Why Hildegard? And why in our time?

As to the former question, the exhibition presents good examples of Hildegard's extraordinary visionary talent as it is expressed in both her prophetic-theological works, her papers on physics and medicine, and her unique musical compositions. And it becomes clear that Hildegard's art, as with all great art, is influenced - but not bound - by its own time.

The focal point of the exhibition is the giant photostats of the miniatures that illustrate Hildegard's visions, mainly those found in one of her main literary works, Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord, 1141-1151). However, the audience's attention could well have been drawn to the fact that it is still unclear whether the original paintings are by Hildegard. However, since they were most likely made in accordance with her instructions, this is not a serious sin of omission.

The pictures are captivating works of art with their rich symbolism and occasional sense of humour. On both sides of the photostats the exhibition features small rooms in which workshops demonstrate different kinds of medieval crafts, and here light is also shed on other subjects related to the Middle Ages and Hildegard.

If one were not already aware of it, then the exhibition provides ample evidence that there are plenty of good reasons for people still to be fascinated by the foundress of the convent at Bingen - and her time.

However, there is a single, and not entirely unimportant, point where the exhibition fails Hildegard and - perhaps - also its audience. This is related to the problems that are bound to arise when one uncritically presents a historical person within the context of one's own time. This often leads to some degree of historical distortion, as is the case with Hildegard.

The answer to the question "Why Hildegard in our time?" is formulated in the programme accompanying the various Hildegard events - including the exhibition - in the following way: "..Today, when the separation of spirit and matter has been shown to have catastrophical consequences, for example in environmental matters, we can revert to the inspiration in Hildegard's humanity and comprehensive thinking, where everything is holy, and everything - God - the cosmos - nature - man - is related through an internal connection [My italics, MT]."

It is appropriate and important to emphasize Hildegard's comprehensive thinking. Yet it is also a sin against Hildegard's 'own' wholeness when a presentation of Hildegard skates over her own perception of this internal connection. To her, the internal connection between God and man, as she describes it in her work and visions, is solely based on the faith in Christ and the Christian sacraments as they were preached and administered by the Roman Church.

For Hildegard the Roman Church played the same role in the relationship between the Heavenly Kingdom and the earthly kingdoms as Christ played in the relationship between God and man. This is why she, for example, unilaterally sided with the papal power against the imperial power during the Investiture Contest, which was the dispute over whether the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor should have the final say in appointments to the highest ecclesiastical offices. This was an exceedingly realpolitical power struggle that differed greatly from any kind of romantic spiritualism.

Her unqualified acknowledgment of the sovreignty of the Roman Church in all earthly matters, both political and religious, is evident in her volumous correspondence. Here one can also read her stinging criticism of a contemporary heretical movement, the Cathars. The Cathars preached an intrasigent dualism and regarded any kind of attachment to the material world as a sin. As a consequence, they rejected the faith in Christ as a true human and the validity of the Church and the Eucharist. Hildegard inveighed equally relentlessly against the dualistic and the anticlerical heresies of the Cathars.

It is therefore a paradoxical dichotomisation of the wholeness of Hildegard if one attempts to interpret her as the head of a pantheistic "New Age" spiritualism - which one would have every reason to believe she would have severely condemned.

This strictly conservative and traditional side of Hildegard is toned down in the current exhibition. And this is a pity. It is true that this aspect is not as spectacular as the rest, and it is ill-suited for the spiritual trend of our time, which has more in common with the medieval Cathars than Hildegard's comprehensive thinking. However, a certain degree of familiarity with her letters is unavoidable if one wishes to see the whole picture - also in the portrayal of Hildegard herself.

It can in no way be contested that everyone has the right to focus on the aspects of Hildegard's work that are of greatest interest to themselves. Yet it is rather disappointing that this well-organised exhibition's introduction to her comprehensive visions does not show us the whole of Hildegard.

Concurrent with the exhibition is Ulla Ryum's medieval play about Hildegard's 8 Little Miracles - A Musical-dramatic Chamber Play in 8 Acts accompanied by the music of Irene Becker. However, here one does not come to terms with the wholeness of Hildegard either, and, what is worse in a dramatic sense, she is never really brought to life. It is as if the playwright has stepped out of the shadow of the living light and has been blinded by it, such that the actress Annika Hoydal's portrayal of Hildegard's authoritative-yet-loving motherliness borders on a nauseating cliché.

The attempts to portray a contemporary scepticism about Hildegard, which could have created a much-needed inner tension in the play, backfires due to the playwright's fervent resistance to acknowledging the validity of both medieval and contemporary scepticism. The portrayal of Hildegard's internal and external struggle thereby appears dramatically unbelievable and especially the "happy end" in Paradise in the last act - with the superimposed folk dancing and sheet-clothed angels - is painful to watch.

In fairness, the play has occasional inspired moments, felicitous lines, and decent acting - and Irene Becker's music works well under the given premises. Yet this unfortunately does not deter one from wishing that Ulla Ryum had remembered her Brechtian schooling. A bit of "verfremdung" might not have performed miracles, but it could have prevented the play about Hildegard from coming dangerously close to a dilettante comedy. And one whose fawning heroine worship borders on the tedious.

Shades of the Living Light will be shown until the 19th of September in the Catholic Church, Ryesgade in Århus, after which it will tour Denmark for the remainder of 1998 and 1999.

Malene Thorborg is cand. mag. in Classical Philology.
Translation: Britt Keson

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: