Friday, April 27, 2012

The Mirror

If you've ever read a book on the 12th century renaissance (and who hasn't?) you've almost certainly encountered the famous lines of Alain of Lille from his poem Rhythmus de Incarnatione Christi,” which are taken to be paradigmatic of the approach taken by 12th century thinkers to Creation:

Omnis mundi creatura
quasi liber et pictura
nobis est, et speculum

All the creatures of the world
are like a book and a picture
and a mirror to us1

Much like Eriugena, and to some extent because of Eriugena, these thinkers viewed the world as a sphere of continuous and infinite divine revelation.2 Nature acted, to use the memorable phrasing of Eriugena in his commentary on the Gospel of John, as one of the two vestments of Christ, simultaneously covering and revealing the figure of God.3 Through reading the Book of Nature, through meditation, contemplation, and prayer, the devout could hope to receive the illumination which would enable them to see the divinity reflected in nature.

In both Hildegard and Frauenlob, we find Mary depicted as a mirror of the divine. With the (very brief) sketch above in mind I think we can unpack these images to understand better how Mary functions in their texts, especially in relation to the divine, and I believe we can see some real similarities to the prayers of Anselm, which at the outset appear quite different than the work of our Benedictine abbess and wandering minstrel.

Hildegard tells us:

O how great
in its powers is the side of man
from which God brought forth the form of woman,
which he made the mirror
of all his beauty
and the embrace
of his whole creation.4

Over a century later, Frauenlob, writing in the voice of Mary:

I am the mirror of great purity
in which God gazed before all time.
I was with him when he formed creation,
he gazed at me with desire unceasing.5

This, we have Mary as a mirror, a mirror gazed at by the divine. This of course raises the question: what does this mirror reflect? The answer, I think, lies in one of the most dominant images in both texts: light. Mary reflects the light of the divine, through which all creation is illuminated.

and your womb
illumined all creatures6

Light metaphors, configuring God as the sun, as illuminator, as supreme source of light, are quite common, especially within the neoplatonic tradition. Notable I the metaphor, used often in the Greek tradition but present in the Latin West as well,7 of union with God as analogous to the relation between the light of the Sun and the air. In sunlight, the air is wholly infused with light, in a very real way it can be said to be light. Yet there remains a distinction. They are not wholly identical even as every square inch of air is permeated by the light from above. Thus also the human soul in union with God. We can conceive of Mary-Mirror in similar terms. The overpowering divine light shies out from the mirror, when we look to Mary it is this divine light that we see. The ability to distinguish between the mirror and what if reflects is lost. Frauenlob strikingly collapses this distinction, Mary speaks: “I God, they God, he God, this I will never hide.”8

Light pours forth from Mary, both in the form of her Son, Himself a sun,9 and from his reflection, infinitely emitting from the mirror-vial of her womb:

he wrought by art a mirror-vial
and sat down in its midst awhile
to stake his skill against ill will.
The mirror-vial contained him
in his greatness, framed him
until he burst from it, unquenched
and blossomed like a flowering branch –
whole the vial, intact, untouched.10

I think we can see clear similarities here to the Mary of Anselm's prayers,. She too was an illuminator, driving away the darkness, and making the divine visible within Creation. Like Anselm, both Frauenlob and Hildegard also play with Mary's relation to time.


You are the shining white lily
on which God gazed
before all creation.11


I was with him when he formed creation,
he gazed at me with desire unceasing.12

We can see that Mary's place in salvation history was ordained from the beginning. In the neoplatonic understanding of creation as the unfolding of the eternal ideas of God within temporal reality, Mary shone, she illuminated, as an object of God's contemplation (His gaze) before she appeared within history. Again the eternity of God, His distinction from the temporal, collapses and expands time around the central moment of the Incarnation, the in-breaking of the absolute into Creation. I think we can thus see real continuity between the prayers of Anselm, Hildegard, and Frauenlob, despite their apparent differences. They stand within the same stream, although perhaps at different places along its path.


1The subject of the book and picture, what the mirror is reflecting, is of course the Divine. I think there is a lot of room to unpack this image, especially given that mirrors in the 12th century didn't necessarily give a reflection of the quality that we are used to today, but instead one necessarily distorted by the materials they used. This, however, is a topic for another day.
2See my last post, for more on Eriguena's understanding of creation.
3This phrasing is taken up by, Honorius in his Liber Duodecim Questiones, and the idea behind it persists throughout the period.
4St. Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia. trans. Barbara Newman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) 131
5Frauenlob. Frauenlob's Song of Songs trans. Barbara Newman (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 2006) 25
6Hildegard 125
7Here, as in my last post, I'm unable to give a proper citation due to the fact that all of my books currently sit in precarious stacks of boxes, apologies again. Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and Eriugena all, as far as I can remember use this image.
8Frauenlob 25. A similar union, of Christ and Mary's will also seems to occur in Anselm's prayers, particularly his second and third prayers to Mary.
9“But O dawn/from your womb/a new sun has come forth” Hildegard 131
10Frauenlob 29. I was unable to discover exactly what a “mirror-vial” was, but I imagine a mirrored container infinitely reflecting the divine light within, as two mirrors facing each other project our reflections into infinity.
11Hildegard 123
12Frauenlob 25


  1. I have to say that initially I did not expect you to write that light was reflected in the mirror of Mary, thinking that it was a much more straightforward metaphor, i.e., that Mary reflected all of creation because she provided the body to the Maker of all (as discussed in a previous post and comments). However, I think that you are not only correct, but that you elucidate (pun intended?) this points from the reading very convincingly.

    Mary is not the original Source of light, but does reflect this Light, permitting us to see all the things that we see. In fact, as David Grandy points out in his several books on the philosophy of light (which I recommend), light has omnipresent characteristics as far as our visual apprehension goes, because it is necessarily previous to our seeing anything. However, if it were dense or opaque, its omnipresence would only serve to obscure or block our view of creation. Through the Source of light, and by its reflection, we see all things, but we need to be specially aware to realize that the creation is not simply, of itself visible and knowable to us.

    I also think that your explanation of Mary at the creation is well done, and the temporal considerations are helpful for those who may be troubled by the possible implications of Mary “in the beginning.”

    One question: In the “seeing/apprehending” process, do the Source of light and the mirror really become indistinguishable (ontologically), or are you making an epistemological point instead?

    Very nice job.

  2. Wonderful meditation on the image of Mary as mirror! I think that you capture its purpose beautifully, by the by cutting through the difficulties that some readers have had with the idea of Mary as somehow participating in divinity. I think that you are right: she is the perfect reflection in which God gazes upon Himself. This does not make her divine as such even if, in gazing upon her, we might see divinity in her. I particularly like the image of light in air as an image of Mary's soul shining with the light of the Sun. Very nice job, indeed!