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Step Into the (Virtual and Very Real) World of St. Hildegard
Advent Week 2: The Peace of Art
Hildegard of Bingen
So I’m a 7 on the Enneagram, an Enthusiast, but I don’t hold a candle to St. Hildegard of Bingen who 100% HAD to be a 7. A 12th-century Benedictine nun who received extraordinary visions, Hildegard wrote about these visions through theological reflection, poetry and used them as inspiration for musical compositions, which she didn’t start creating until she was 38. In addition, this medieval woman founded her own abbey, created her own language, practiced medicine and wrote one of the first musical plays! She is the first composer to be sainted and one of the only named medieval composers we have.
Oh, and she was also a visual artist…
Entering the monastery around the age of 8, she lived in a small cell for decades where she ate little, prayed often and was tutored by Jutta of Sponheim, a young girl not much older than Hildegard. When Jutta died Hildegard became Abbess.
St. Hildegard might not have been a feminist the way we understand that word, but she allowed the women under her leadership freedoms that up until that point would have been deemed heretical such as wearing their hair long, uncovered and even adorned with flowers. After she started writing music at 38, four years later at 42 she began to share her visions. She spent ten years writing down all she had seen and learned through her contemplative and mystical life.
We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.
Hildegard of Bingen
She’s astonishing. I point out Hildegard now in the second week of Advent during the theme of Peace as I find Hildegard’s life inspiring and her music incredibly centering and contemplative. This album by British composer, sound artist and improviser, Stevie Wishart, and her ensemble Sinfonye, is particularly transporting.
The album, aptly titled Hildegard, from 2012 was a commission from Decca Records to create a ‘Vespers for Hildegard’ to celebrate her canonization. Decca wanted something that would “reach beyond the early music audience.”
I read in an online review, “Early music specialists, Monk mystics, feminists and plain lovers of remarkable music all gravitate towards this remarkable figure, and justifiably so. Hildegard von Bingen’s eloquent melodic shapes evoke an open sky of inspiration and ecstasy, simultaneously inhabiting and breaking out of the idioms and stylistic constraints of medieval religious composition.”
O beata infantia of track 8 could be a mash-up titled, “Peter Gabriel, Enya and Bjork walk into a monastery.” Totally my jam.
The drums and bass in Azeruz make it clear this is not your grandma’s Gregorian chants. While you never feel like we’ve completely left medieval music, it feels modernly reimagined. Lovers of Sigur Rós can find a comfortable home in this album.
“Wishart and her Sinfonye ensemble employ both solo vocal and choral performances suffused with cavernous, cathedral-like reverb, and period instruments allied to modern studio technology by Guy Sigsworth. [Bjørk] “O Beata Infantia” combines a reverb-drenched vocal line with sub-bass drone and damped harp, while the climactic “Magnificat” is more notable for its exquisite monodic harmonies. An intriguing and mellifluous experiment.”
- The Independant
Love abounds in all things, excels from the depths to beyond the stars, is lovingly disposed to all things. She has given the king on high the kiss of peace.
Hildegard of Bingen
For a deep dive into a contemplative art experience of Hildegard I suggest you check out The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration. It’s a visual VR contemplative feast.
Michaël Samyn, has been a web and game designer but now creates Virtual Reality Iconography that one can “step right into.” It’s pretty cool. You don’t need to own a VR headset to check out the online artwork. Stevie Wishart provides Hildegard’s music.
“The structure of The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration is based on Hildegard’s visions of the cosmos. In these she would see a geocentric universe embraced by the love of God and animated by the winds of faith and trust. In the Viriditas Chapel this embrace is performed by the Holy Virgin. We find the sphere of fire in the two outer columns and the sphere of water in the inner columns. The central altar piece represents the earth.
The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration expresses how I feel when I pray. I feel a warmth in my heart, especially when adoring the Most Holy Eucharist, a trembling sensation, an intense feeling of deep joy. I find it difficult to suppress the tears each and every time I close my eyes to pray. As such, my Viriditas Chapel is a tribute, an expression of gratitude for the beauty that God has brought into my life. I hope that those who experience the VR program can get a sense of what this means to me or perhaps recognize their own sentiments.” - Michaël Samyn
The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.
I am the fiery life of the essence of God; I am the flame above the beauty in the fields; I shine in the waters; I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars. And with the airy wind, I quicken all things vitally by an unseen, all-sustaining life.
Hildegard of Bingen
So not only are there numerous recordings of Hildegard’s music, there’s also music written about Hildegard. One piece that I’ve got to say I’m particularly fond of is the musical Hildegard co-written by my former student David Reddyk, who I always knew would be another Sondheim. ;) David performed in and created music for the play we did in 2007, And Carl Laughed about the Oblate priest Fr. Carl Kabat.
Prayer to the Holy Spirit
by Saint Hildegard of Bingen
Fire of the Spirit, life of the lives of creatures,
spiral of sanctity, bond of all natures,
glow of charity, lights of clarity, taste
of sweetness to sinners, be with us and hear us.
Composer of all things, light of all the risen,
key of salvation, release from the dark prison,
hope of all unions, scope of chastities, joy
in the glory, strong honour, be with us and hear us.
Revisit Advent Week 1: Hope and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
Also check out a few other Advent offerings!