Thursday, November 5, 2015

What Mary Does

As I noted in class, one of the main features in Hildegard is the recurring depiction of Mary as the “solution” to the problem of Eve.  This is best exemplified in number 9, Responsory for the Virgin; “Radiant mother of sacred healing!  You poured salve on the sobbing wounds that Eve sculpted to torment out souls.”  In these lines, it is not insignificant to note the lack of any details about these two women as humans.  This is a notable contrast to the reported visions of Mary in Elisabeth of Shönau in which almost every time Mary appears, details about her clothing and aesthetic overall.  In Responsory for the Virgin No. 9, however, the only thing really even connecting these two key figures in the medieval monastic context was simply the inclusion of their names.  This writing is a piece of art as well as a theological proclamation, exalting Mary, as she so deserves. On line 6 of the same responsory, the writer continues to depict Mary, only with regard to her theological function.  In these words, we see a Mary who becomes a new iconic symbol for the way in which God continues to work in and through the world. 

Line 6: “For your salve is your son and you wrecked death forever, sculpturing life.” 
In light of my previous comment about the depiction of Mary by terms of her “function”, line 6 surprised me.  The theology being implied by proclaiming that Mary is the one who wrecked death forever and is the sculptor of life could be interpreted in one of two (or both) ways.  Firstly, one could interpret this stanza by considering the humanely aspect of Mary’s character.  As a human, more specifically, as a woman, Mary has the power to create life. Mary the mother of God, the giver of life on earth, emphasizes her humanely existence as one who has the ability to reproduce.  However, it is also unusual that the title “life sculptor” or “life builder” is given to any other figure than God.  If this is a linguistic issue, I must confess I do not have enough information to substantiate why or why not my question may be mute, but nonetheless, this kind of writing seems incongruous with the other writings on Mary we have read from the same period. The same ambiguity about what is implied theologically becomes stronger with the line just above in 5, “you destroyed death.”  While I would imagine some would interpret this as stating that Mary is the “destroyer of death” because she gave birth to the “destroyer of death,” this answer still does not satisfy me.  It appears that Mary is being regarded as one who has power to build life and to destroy death itself.  While I can make a case for why “builder of life” can be associated with Mary’s humanness, it is harder to find an explanation for one who has the power to “destroy death.”  I wonder if there would have been ambiguity about what this meant in its original context?  It would appear than that in either the case of emphasizing Mary’s divinity or humanity in this stanza, a comparison between women and God is being drawn, leaving its words rather ambiguous, at least on the surface.

A continual theme of functionalizing Mary in number 12, the Antiphon for the Virgin, as the “shining girl” dears down the house for death.  In this case her name isn’t even mentioned, and it is unclear who exactly the woman who built a house for death is.  It would probably not be overly presumptuous to assume that is was Eve, but it remains ambiguous, which is an important factor in this antiphon not to be under-looked.

The last work in Hildegard which I will use to demonstrate my point that Mary is describes only with regards to her theological relationship to Christ is in number 17, Hymn to the Virgin.  In the fifth stanza, it says, “And your womb held joy when heaven’s harmonies rang from you, a maiden with child by God…”  What is particularly interesting to me in about this hymn and this stanza is the way in which Hildegard describes Mary’s divine involvement but tells the story unapologetically with humanely body parts and imagery.  The idea of a womb holding joy is a beautiful image of the power given to Mary, a woman, and yet also, something capable of containing the divine within her.



  1. You've selected some very interesting passages here, and I think they tell us a good bit about Hildegard's thought, but it would have been great to get a little more depth of analysis of these. What's the consequence of Mary being described in the terms you've described? Is something lost? Something gained? and why might Hildegard continually resort to this sort of description?

  2. There is a sketch here of a very interesting meditation, but I agree with dyingst, it needed more development. I think you are right that Hildegard seems to think more in terms of Mary's theological function than she does in terms of her personality (as I note in my comment on NYT's post, below). This is worth teasing out more substantively, likewise the connection between Hildegard's theology and her understanding of art. For example, "life builder" is a very architectural image, not the kind of imagery we tend now to associate with giving birth. Why use this image rather than something more organic or nurturing? RLFB

  3. In regard to your comments on line 6 of stanza 9, I strongly doubt Mary is ever intended through any metaphor to be thought of as the final source of salvation, even if the language toes the line. In my interpretation of this line, Mary sculptures life only indirectly by pouring the salve of Christ onto the malignant wounds incurred by Original Sin, thus allowing for life to grow and consequently for death to die. Interesting to note: we see that she pours the salve but does not actually do the saving; in the following lines, she is the star of the sea but is not autonomously bright. Hildegard is not implying Mary in her essence has the power to give life and destroy death, especially when we keep reading in stanza 9 and realize that while she gives great praise to Mary, she only gives glory to the Holy Trinity. A more controversial line is in stanza 20 when Hildegard regards Mary as savior. No defense of Hildegard’s work may be linguistically clever enough to be fully satisfying, but we can give her the benefit of the doubt by recognizing that the truth of what Mary does cannot conflict with the truth of what God does.