Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 24

Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic as Found in

Scivias and Reflected in O splendidissima gemma

by Margot E. Fassler

Hildegard’s treatise Scivias, her play Ordo Virtutum, and many of the texts of
the chants associated with this treatise (the fourteen Scivias songs) are filled
with spiritual beings, angels, categories of saints, and allusions to their common
dwelling place, the Heavenly Jerusalem.1 Of all these, perhaps the most essential
to Hildegard’s early writings are entities called virtues. Defining virtues as
found in Scivias and related songs and the play is not a simple task, yet it is
crucial for understanding Hildegard’s theology of music.2
The first goal of this study is to explore the natures of the personifications of
goodness called virtues and contrast them with angels and especially with the
rank of angels called Virtues (using capital letters for this latter category to dis-
tinguish between the two) with focus on Scivias Books i and iii.3 Of importance

1 For references to Scivias in the discussion to follow, the volume and page of the Latin
citation (Hildegardis Scivias 1978) is given first, followed by the page of the Eng-
lish translation (Hildegardis Scivias 1990). References to the Ordo Virtutum are to
the 2007 edition (Hildegardis Ordo uirtutum 2007), and to the Symphonia also to
the 2007 edition (Hildegardis Symphonia 2007). This paper is dedicated to Profes-
sor Barbara Newman, Northeastern University, who once asked a question I have
tried to answer.
2 An excellent introduction to the personification of ideas and ideals through female
characters is found in Newman 2003, 1–50; see also Bogdanos 1977. Hildegard’s
sources are often difficult to trace, as her practice is not to acknowledge directly or to
use specific quotations (with the exception of scripture). The difficulties of fathoming
her sources are broached in Peter Dronke’s introduction to her third and last major
treatise: “A certain number of texts – not only standard ones, such as Hermas’
Shepherd and Augustine’s City of God, but some unusual ones, such as the Hermetic
Asclepius, Filastrius, and Aethicus Ister – would appear to have been familiar to her
already before the completion of Scivias (that is in around 1149)”, Hildegardis
LDO 1996, p. xxxiv. The date of the completion of Scivias is usually assumed to be
1151, although this is not certain. Hildegard says she received God’s command to
write when she was 43 (that is, in 1141), but that she did not begin until a long time
later. She does say that she brought it to a close – “though just barely” a decade after
she began to write (see Scivias i, preface, 61). Her nun Richardis was her helpmate
until it was finished, and Richardis left in around 1151, see Iversen 1997, Iversen
2000 and Iversen 2001.
3 Scivias ii is about the sacraments, and will be treated in great detail in my forthcom-
ing study on Hildegard as a liturgical commentator.
190 Margot Fassler

for contextualizing ideas found in Scivias are Hildegard’s Expositiones on the

Gospels, which have been edited, translated and studied by Beverly Kienzle,
and will be referenced in part ii of this study.4 Subsequently, I turn to the ways
in which Hildegard’s Scivias songs and her play embody the definitions of
virtues and of angels as found in the treatise, with an emphasis upon how
spiritual beings and divine ideas combine with their human counterparts to
create a unique, post-Incarnational theology of song. Although these themes
and subjects are found in many of Hildegard’s subsequent writings, the empha-
sis in this paper is on Scivias and on those texts incorporated into it that Hilde-
gard set to music (although not in the treatise). I will use the example of one
song, the first she presents among those chant texts listed in Scivias, “O splen-
didissima gemma,” an antiphon for the Virgin Mary; for study of the dramatic
works, I concentrate on Knowledge of God, the virtue that appears first in both
versions of her play. The triune cast of characters studied here – virtues, angels,
and humans – holds the key to Hildegard’s hermeneutic of music, a complex of
ideas broached in Hildegard’s exegetical exercises offered at the very end of the
treatise. Study of her final words on these subjects lead to others of her songs,
and to an understanding of singing praise, itself a salvific action as she defined it.

Virtues and Angels in Scivias i

The fundamental importance of the virtues and their counterparts among the
angelic hierarchies is established at the beginning of Scivias. After a preface, the
work begins with a description of the One Enthroned, the Godhead, attended
by the allegorical beatitudes Poor in Spirit and Fear of the Lord, both of which
are virtues.5 From the One Enthroned, however, “many living sparks go forth”
(“multae uiuentes scintillae”) (Scivias, i 1, 67–68). Hildegard explains in exegesis
on this passage that these living sparks are “exceedingly strong virtues” who
come forth to surround those who are humble and fear the Lord and to protect
them (the heading for i 1. 4 says: “Quod uirtutes a deo uenientes timentes deum
et pauperes spiritu custodiunt”: that the virtues coming from God watch over
those fearing God and poor in spirit). It is to be underscored that these sparks
are living. It would seem then that these Virtues are angels, and that they
protect the people inspired by the virtues Fear of the Lord and Poor in Spirit
standing near the throne of God.

4 Kienzle 2007, p. 36, says: “She assigns the virtues active roles (in the Expositiones)
similar to those they play in the Ordo Virtutum.”
5 Fear of the Lord appears in Isaiah 11 3 as one of the seven gifts of the spirit that
hovers above the root of Jesse; Poor in spirit is one of the Beatitudes (Mt 5 3). Both
are associated with the ladder of spiritual development in the Rule of St. Benedict;
Humility (compares with Poor in spirit) is the guide and substance of the ladder, and
Fear of the Lord is the first rung (Benedictus Regula 1981, 7 10).
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 191

In the vision after this, Hildegard again references the angelic hosts. These,
like the sparkling Virtues of Scivias i 1, are defined in terms of light. She says, in
a vision captured in Scivias i 2: “Then I saw a great multitude of living lights
having great brightness” (the good) and “a loathsome cloud” rising from “a pit
of great breadth and depth” (the bad). The first heading explaining the vision
refers to the good angels: “that the blessed angels cannot be cut off from the
love and the praise of God by any dividing impulse of injustice.” These are “the
vast army of heavenly spirits” that persisted in divine love “when Lucifer and
his followers attempted to rebel” and fell as a result. At this moment, “great
praise burst forth from these angelic spirits who persevered in rectitude with
God” (Scivias ii 3, 14–73). What divides the good angels from the bad at the
moment of Lucifer’s fall is praise of God in song. Singing praise is a sign of
fidelity and of “burning with worthy love.”
In Hildegard’s theology, the fall of the angels is directly tied to the creation
of human beings, which is more fully discussed in Book iii (see particularly
discussion below of Scivias iii 2, 19). In Book i, Vision 2, Hildegard explains
that a chaste human (Mary) was able to beget a Redeemer who was both divi-
nity and humanity (Jesus). Redeemed humanity thus is able to be restored by
“casting out anger, pride, wantonness, and other vices of that sort” (Scivias i 2.
31–85). In Scivias i 2, 31, Hildegard makes the point with light imagery again:
human beings who, as a class of beings, fell from grace shine “brighter in
Heaven than before.” “[…] When humankind was deceived by the wily serpent,
God was touched by true mercy and ordained that His Only-Begotten would
become incarnate in the most pure Virgin.” It was then, after the Fall, that
“many shining virtues were lifted up in Heaven, like humility. […] which lead
God’s elect to the heavenly places” (Scivias i 2, 87–88). The coming of Christ
into the fallen world at the Incarnation and his birth, and the mixing of human-
ity and divinity that he represents, means that fallen humankind has the potent-
ial for redemption: “therefore the choir of angels shone with great honor, for
the angels saw a human in Heaven” (Scivias i 2, 88). Humankind is like a pearl
that slipped into the mud, was found and purified, and “restored to its former
honor with even greater glory” (Scivias i 2, 89).6 Human beings, flesh and all,
have the potential to regain their place among the heavenly ranks. For this work
of restoration, all the virtues cooperate, together with humility and charity,
especially emphasized here.7
Scivias i 3 is Hildegard’s first complex description of the cosmos (others will
come in her later works). She depicts it as a vast egg-shaped sphere, with “a
sandy globe” at its center. Although it dwells on this sandy globe, humankind is

6 For discussion of the pearl that fell in the mud, see Anselmus Cantuariensis Cur
Deus Homo 1968, i xix, p. 85; the “pretiosa margarita” is part of a series of parables
found in Matthew 13 46.
7 Monastic reform during Hildegard’s lifetime in Germany in general is treated in
some detail in Beach 2007 and in Mews 2000a.
192 Margot Fassler

so “entangled with the strengths of the rest of creation” it can never be sepa-
rated from them (Scivias i 3, 98). Humans feel the little blasts that come from
the force of tumultuous struggles between good and evil going on throughout
the cosmos, and also get reports of the Creator’s miracles. At certain times the
wondrous miracles of creation come to humans “in a great thunder of words,”
inspire them, and also make them aware of their own weaknesses (Scivias i 3,
98). Humans from their special place at the center of the cosmos must always be
pondering the “great choice between devilish impiety and divine goodness”
(Scivias i 3, 99).
In the fourth vision of Scivias i, Hildegard describes the body and the soul,
and their ways of striving, which incorporate elements of the cosmic egg
encountered just before in Vision 3. In this microcosm, the winds that sustain
the cosmos, as they breathe, rage, and blow through it, are represented in the
whirlwinds affecting the soul and the body, its tabernacle, as the soul cries out
to Mother Zion, and to the inhabitants of heaven for help on its pilgrim jour-
ney. The pilgrim can only be successful through acknowledging the pain of the
flesh and asking for help through penance. A person who is adverse to penance,
“unwilling to look to the oil of mercy or seek the consolation of redemption,”
will die (Scivias i 4, 128). The fifth vision of Scivias i allegorizes the Synagogue,
making a contrast with the Church, a section containing Hildegard’s anti-
Jewish exegesis. The Synagogue marvels at the Church “for she knew herself
not to be adorned with those virtues she foresaw in her; for the Church is
surrounded by angelic guardians” (i 5, 134). This is the first time in Scivias that
angels and virtues are placed in such close parallel, and they have common tasks
of protection and promotion of the Church.
Taken together Hildegard’s many writings, music, and related art works form
a program for monastic education, and one that Hildegard surely hoped to
export beyond the walls of the monasteries she founded. The fundamental
model for Hildegard in the making of this program is Gregory the Great, who
was also a monastic, wrote a Pastoral Rule as well as homilies on the Gospels,
was a champion of St. Benedict, and was credited at Hildegard’s time with both
liturgical reforms and with the authorship of the church’s canonical chant reper-
tory.8 In a sense, Hildegard’s first treatise, Scivias, is a kind of commentary
upon Gregory’s homily 34, with its subject, Luke 15 1–10 (and with reference
throughout to the writings of Anselm of Canterbury). The parables of the lost
sheep and the woman with the ten coins occupying verses 1–9 are summed up
by a verse of great importance to Hildegard: “So I say to you, there shall be joy
before the angels of God upon one sinner doing penance” (Luke 15 10), an idea
that pervades Scivias, and that is the theme of the play Ordo Virtutum.

8 Fassler 2013 and Fassler 2004, on Hildegard and Gregory.

Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 193

Hildegard’s fullest explication of the angelic hosts is found in Scivias i 6:

“[God] destined some creatures to stay on earth, but others to inhabit the
celestial regions. He also set in place the blessed angels, both for human sal-
vation and for the honor of His name” (Scivias i 6) Hildegard continues “angels
pay attention to God’s will for humans, and show God human actions in them-
selves (Scivias i 6, 140). As the Virtues are described here in some detail, they
seem to be the one of the nine angelic ranks with the most interest for Hilde-
gard. As can be seen through comparison of the classic hierarchical listings of
the Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory the Great (listed below from the lowest
ranks to the highest) Hildegard followed Gregory the Great, as found in his
homily 34 on Luke 15. Hildegard’s division of the angels in groupings of 2 + 5 +
2 is modeled after this homily too, and is found also in her responsory for the
angels, “O vos angeli”.9 In this mode of division, the Virtues initiate a group of
five angelic ranks, which gives them further prominence.

Table i
Pseudo-Dionysius Gregory the Great Gregory the Great Hildegard
(Homily on Luke 15) Moralia Scivias i 6
Angels Angels Angels Angels
Archangels Archangels Archangels Archangels
Principalities Virtues Thrones Virtues
Powers Powers Dominations Powers
Virtues Principalities Virtues Principalities
Dominations Dominations Principalities Dominations
Thrones Thrones Powers Thrones
Cherubim Cherubim Cherubim Cherubim
Seraphim Seraphim Seraphim Seraphim

Gregory is concerned with the number of Angels that remain in heaven after
Satan’s fall, stating that this number is equal to the number of the elect that will
be added to their ranks: “The heavenly city is made up of angels and human
beings; we believe that as many of the human race ascend to there, as there were
chosen angels who happened to remain there.” (Homilies about Ezechiel).
Humans ascending to the homeland imitate some aspect of the angelic hosts
in their journey; neither Gregory or Hildegard follow the Dionysian model that
systematically links particular ecclesial orders one by one to each rank of

9 Flynn 2011, p. 218–224, points this out in his analysis of the responsory in the
context of Gregory the Great’s homily 34.
10 The jewels that Gregory associates with the angels are the broken collection that
once adorned Lucifer as the greatest of the host: see Ez 28 11–13.
194 Margot Fassler

Gregory’s descriptions of the individual ranks are modified greatly by Hilde-

gard in her own discussions, especially when it comes to her copious descrip-
tion of the Virtues. Gregory says only (of those people who are like unto the
Virtues in particular): “There are others who perform miracles and perform
powerful signs. Where do they fit in except among the portion and number of
the supernal Virtues.”11 According to Hildegard, the five ranks of angels that
begin with the Virtues show that humans with their five senses must purify
themselves through the five wounds of Christ (Scivias i 6, 140). Virtues seem as
if they have human forms that shine with great splendor from the shoulders
down (Scivias i 6, 140).
Scivias focuses upon the epic journey of each human being toward God, beset
with choices between good and evil. The angelic order of Virtues have a key
role to play in the journey as they spring up in the hearts of believers and help
them build a tower which is their works. The Virtues bring enlightenment of
the Creator’s Will, and so help the Elect to fight against the Devil; the Virtues
also demonstrate the struggles against the Devil to the Creator. As people
struggle against the Devil, they are beset by a question: “Is there God or not.”
The Holy Spirit will supply the answer, if people keep the question alive within
themselves. Hildegard says:
As long as this question and answer are in a person, the power of God will not be absent
from him/her, for this question and answer carries with it penitence. But when this
question is not in a person, neither is the answer of the Holy Spirit, for such a person
drives out God’s gift from him/herself and, without the question that leads to penitence,
throws him/herself upon death (Scivias i 6, 141).
Clearly, in a treatise about human choices between good and evil, and the
raging wars with the Devil that take place both in the cosmos and within indi-
viduals, the Virtues as Hildegard defines them will matter: “for they are the seal
that shows God the intention that worships or denies” (Scivias i 6, 141). The
Virtues are that rank of angels that most resonates with the way Hildegard sets
up the treatise, the songs and the play. They bring enlightenment, and so are
very like the virtues, small v, those understandings or ideas that come forth in
rich abundance from the divine mind, especially –– and with greatest strength ––
in the time after the Incarnation. The angels that remained in heaven after
Lucifer’s fall were marked by their praiseful song; so too are the humans won
back to their rightful place in heaven, determined by whether a person achieves
penitence (becomes filled with humility) and “worships or denies.” The Virtues
are alive and so can sing; the virtues are the ideas that inspire praiseful song.

11 See also Isidorus Hispalensis Etymologiae 1911, vii 5: “Virtutes angelica quaedam
ministeria perhibentur, per quae signa et miracula in mundo fiunt, propter quod et
virtutes dicuntur.”
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 195

The last part of Hildegard’s vision of the heavenly hosts in Scivias i 6 depicts
them, arrayed in order and singing: “all these armies, as you hear, are singing
with marvelous voices all kinds of music about the wonders that God works in
blessed souls, by which God is magnificently glorified” (Scivias i 6, 143). The
description helps explain the nature of Hildegard’s own compositions: “For
spirits blessed in the power of God make known in the heavenly places by
indescribable sounds their great joy in the works of wonder that God perfects
in his saints; by which the latter gloriously magnify God […]” (Scivias i 6, 143)
The “indescribable sounds” of these angels is about the working of the saints,
and by their works, the saints glorify God. It is the Virtues, Hildegard has said,
that “in ardent charity build in them a lofty tower that is their works” (Scivias
i 6, 141).

The Opening Visions of Scivias iii,

as related to the Virtues of Homily 4
The discussion of humans as the replacements for the fallen angels found in
Scivias i 2 is further expanded in Scivias ii 1, a book not discussed here in any
detail. The outbreak of song that was described in book i as characterizing the
action of the angels that elected to stay with God is heard again at the harrow-
ing of Hell: “[…] His redeeming touch brought them back to the inheritance
they had lost in Adam. As they were returning to their inheritance timbrels and
harps and all kinds of music burst forth […]” (Scivias ii 1, 154–155), this in
preparation for the fuller explication of the place of humans along with the
angelic hosts found in Scivias iii 1, the focus of discussion to follow.12
Hildegard designed Scivias iii as a deliberate parallel to Scivias i. As described
above, in the first book of the treatise, the reader encounters the One
Enthroned in the first vision and then witnesses visions concerning Creation
and the Fall, both of angels and of humans. Subsequent to this, Hildegard
introduces the various elements of God’s creation that are affected by these
actions, especially as they existed before the Incarnation, ending in i.vi with the
singing of the faithful angels who chose to remain with God after the Fall, the
beings comprising the heavenly hosts. In Scivias iii, the same topics are
broached, but with emphasis on the transforming force of the Redeemer, who is
building the Church, on earth and in heaven as a part of a second or new
creation. So it is that Scivas iii begins again with the Fall, both of Lucifer and of
humankind, but Hildegard describes these events and their consequences in
greater detail than earlier in Book i. And Book iii ends with a description of
singing, with some significant additions to the vision described in Scivias i 6.

12 The theme is argued through exegesis on Luke 15, in this case the parable of the
prodigal son, in Hildegard’s homily 27. Here, the angels who did not fall represent
the elder son and humankind the prodigal.
196 Margot Fassler

In Scivias iii 1, Hildegard explains that Lucifer was of purer light than the
other angels (iii 1, 320). When he fell, the brilliance of that light returned to the
Creator, and he saved it for his new creation, humankind. God “kept this splen-
dor for the mire that he formed into the human being, who arose covered with a
vile earthly nature that he might not exalt himself into the likeness of God”
(Scivias iii 1, 320). The redemption of this filthy flesh found on the breast of the
loving Father is made possible because Christ took it upon himself: “[…]. thus
neither angel nor any other creature may spurn a human being, since the incar-
nate Son of the Most High God has human form in himself. For the blessed
choir of angels would regard humankind as unworthy, for it stinks of vice and
sin, while those heavenly angels themselves are invulnerable […]” (Scivias i 3,
313). Among the humans God loves are “many surrounded by ornaments and
adorned pricelessly with virtue […] the martyrs, the virgins, the innocents, and
the penitents” (Scivias iii 1, 315). As to the rest, Christ “has stretched out His
hand to them” (Scivias iii 1, 314). And when the world comes to its end, “each
work of God […] will shine resplendent in God’s elect” (Scivias iii 1).
Scivias iii 2 and 3 are crucial for understanding both Hildegard’s Scivias
songs and her play Ordo Virtutum.13 But these two visions are also fundamental
for understanding the nature of the virtues, for they contain one of Hildegard’s
most thorough explanation of them and how they perform their work within
humans (the other is in Scivias iii 8, not discussed here). As Scivias iii is about
the new creation, it also contains a new edifice, one that is made of human
beings, and, like the temple described in Ezekiel 41 and in 1 Kings 6, is mea-
sured in cubits. As the temple is 100 cubits long, the number draws Hildegard
back to Luke 15 and the parable of the ten coins, crucial both for Gregory’s
sermon 34 discussed above and for Scivias as a whole. The ten coins in this
interpretation represent the ten orders of angels; one fell and was replaced by
humans, who subsequently fell, and then must be won back to the place among
the heavenly host that was designed for them.
This building is a hundred cubits long, which means that the mystical number ten was
diminished by humanity when it transgressed, but was restored by My Son and multip-
lied by ten to a hundred, as virtues were multiplied in the salvation of souls. And from
the hundred, again multiplied by the ten, there will come the perfect number of one
thousand, referring to the virtues that will completely destroy the thousand arts of the
Devil […]. (Scivias iii 2, 334).
Human beings were created to take the place of the fallen angels, and so they
must exercise all the virtues, thereby fulfilling “the function of praise among the
more glorious orders of angels” (Scivias iii 2, 335). Starting with Abel, humans
began to practice all the virtues, and the perfection of the virtues within human-
kind will continue until the “last just person” (ibidem). The virtues become
stronger and more numerous, especially so post Incarnation and among the

13 Discussed in Fassler 2014.

Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 197

early doctors of the church. Humans will join the angels, but are different from
them: “[…] an angel, lacking the hardships of an earthly body, is a soldier of
Heaven only in its harmonious, lucid and pure constancy in seeing God; while a
human, handicapped by the filth of the body, is a strong, glorious and holy
soldier in the work of restoration” (ibidem). The building made of living stones
(1 Peter) will be fifty cubits wide because of the five wounds of Christ; and five
cubits tall because humans learn the Scriptures through their five senses (Scivias
iii 2, 336). The building process involves the virtues. A person does not grow by
faith only, but must build virtues that “rise higher; and so a person grows, like a
flourishing palm tree, from virtue to virtue” (Scivias iii 2, 338). In this building
process, Christ, the agent of creation multiplies the number of virtues to equal
the number of vices; as virtues parallel the number of the angels remaining in
heaven; so the number of virtues also must equal the number of vices, which
parallel the angels that fell with Lucifer. The virtues and the angelic hosts are
drawn yet nearer to each other not only by function, also through the represen-
tative powers of number. As Lucifer is the leader of the vices, Humility is the
leader of the virtues.
Scivias iii 3 provides one of many examples of the ways in which lofty towers
of virtues are built, so a person may rise higher, climbing virtue to virtue. Of
course the model here in one sense is the Rule of St. Benedict, and the steps of
humility (RB 7). But the rising described here is for all human beings, although
each may require special sets of virtues depending on the challenges faced. The
tower of Scivias iii 3 is “an anticipation of God’s will” (Scivias iii 3, 345). Five
figures representing virtues stand in its arches and two more are at its base. In
her description of the first set of five, Hildegard provides crucial information
about the virtues: “[…] there are five strong virtues; not that any virtue is a
living form in itself, but a brilliant star given by God that shines forth in human
deeds. For humanity is perfected by virtues, which are the deeds of people
working in God.”14 We know that these virtues are not angels, for angels are
living spirits (Scivias i 2); and, as Hildegard says, virtues are not alive. So,
through the will of God, the virtues “do not work in a person by themselves,
for a person works with them and they with the person” (Scivias iii 3, 345–346).
At this point in the treatise Hildegard makes clear the powerful correspon-
dences between the Virtues, the third rank of the heavenly hosts, and the vir-
tues, the brilliant stars that “shine forth in human deeds.” Let us count the
parallels: 1) both relate to the mystical number 5; 2) both are especially con-
cerned with the struggles human beings have with the Devil, and these relate to
what the Devil would not be a part of, humility, penance, and praise of God; 3)
both rise up within human beings and help them build a tower of their works;
and 4) both show to the Creator the struggles of humankind. These parallels are

14 Newman 2003, p. 41, translates the phrase “luminous sphere from God gleaming in
human action.”
198 Margot Fassler

deliberate, and Virtues and virtues are related, although not the same thing. So,
Virtues are alive, they are beings; virtues although not living, are related to God,
and manifest the divine ideas that work within humans.15 Scivias iii 4 offers an
example that allows for further refinements of the similarities and differences
through one of Hildegard’s most important virtues, Knowledge of God (“scien-
tia Dei”), and its location near the pillar of the Word of God in the allegorical
edifice that controls all of Book iii. Hildegard creates the parallel to reveal the
close relationships between angelic ranks and virtues, in general, here following
Gregory, who says in sermon 34:
But what good does it do to speak briefly of these angelic spirits, if we are not zealous to
turn them to our profit by appropriate reflection on what we have said. The heavenly city
is made up of angels and human beings. We believe that as many of the human race
ascend to there, as there were chosen angels who happened to remain there. As Scripture
says, “He fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the angels of God”
(Dt 32 8). We must draw something from these distinctions among our fellow citizens of
heaven to apply to our own way of life, and rouse ourselves to increase in virtue by their
devotion. Since we believe that the multitude of humans that is going to ascend there is
equal to the multitude of angels that never left, it remains for those humans who are
returning to their heavenly homeland to imitate some of the characteristics of these bands
of angels, in the process of their return.
The pillar of the Word of God is part of the edifice fully described earlier in
Scivias iii 2. Christians are trying to become stones in the edifice through their
individual pilgrim journeys. In the Word of God, “all the justice of the New and
Old Testaments is fulfilled” (Scivias iii 4, 358), and so the pillar of the Word of
God has three sides, representing the old Law, the new Grace, and the expo-
sition of the faithful learned. Knowledge of God starts with the Law; after this
good work was started, it is confirmed in the Gospels; and thirdly the doctors,
operating through the office of the Holy Spirit, make known what is obscure in
the Law and the prophets, and show their fruition in the Gospels. So the
patriarchs and prophets sit on the edge that faces east. From this vantage point,
they marvel at the second edge that faces north, and speak among themselves of
the Incarnation. A “marvelously bright radiance” goes forth from this edge, for
it stands against the Devil: “for when the sun, which is my Son, stands forth in
the flesh, the light of the holy Gospel shines in his preaching, and pours itself
out from Him” (Scivias iii 4, 361). In this wide and diffused light Hildegard sees
the saints, which are categorized according the final groupings of her Scivias
songs: apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins. The third edge, facing the
south, is wide in the middle and thin at both top and bottom. This is so because

15 See Marrone 2011 on the Divine Illumination. Hildegard’s understanding is flexible,

as is Augustine’s. Marrone says of Augustine: “The wonderful thing about Augustine
is that in him can be found descriptions of divine illumination so lean and elastic as to
be applicable to the most diverse array of epistemological, noetic, moral, even purely
religious explanatory ends” (p. 276).
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 199

the wisdom of the saints grew in power until of greatest strength (apparently in
the late patristic period), and then diminished again until the end of time. In that
period of decline, “people will hide their knowledge and keep it for themselves,
as if they had no obligation to do good works” (Scivias iii 4, 362).
What is the relationship of angels and virtues to the Word of God? Hildegard
provides an answer by showing the virtue “Knowledge of God” at the foot of
the pillar of the Word of God, surrounded by angels on the one hand and
human beings on the other. In this small scene (Scivias iii 4, 15–19), a virtue is at
work, offering access to the many essential ideas found in the Pillar of the Word
of God. The text of Hildegard’s vision, found in the prologue to the vision, is as
Then I saw inside the building just as a certain image standing on the pavement facing this
pillar, looking sometimes at it and sometimes at the people who were going to and fro in
the building itself. And that image was so bright and glorious that I could not look at her
face or her garments for the splendor with which she shone; I saw only that, like the
other virtues, she appeared in human form.
And around her I saw a beautiful multitude, with the appearance and wings of angels,
standing in great veneration, for they both feared and loved her. And before her face I
saw another multitude, with the appearance of human beings, in dark clothes; and they
stood immobile with fear.
And the image looked upon the people who came in from the world and in the building
put on a new garment; and she said to each of them, ‘consider the garment you have put
on, and do not forget your Creator who made you.’
The location of Knowledge of God demonstrates that “a virtue shows itself
within the work of God the Father, declaring the mystery of the Word of God”
(Scivias iii 4, 400–463). For this virtue has revealed all justice in the city of the
Almighty to the people of the Old and New Testaments. The virtue looks from
the pillar of the Word of God to the people, and knows the mystery of the
Word, and which people are working in the goodness of the Father, and the
nature of their successes and failures. The power of this virtue cannot be com-
prehended, and so Hildegard cannot look into her face or at her garments in the
vision. She is both terrible and gentle and is “with everyone and in everyone,”
avenging, terrorizing, sustaining, sparing. Knowledge of God mediates between
angels and human beings.
It is at this point that the form of the image is discussed, for Knowledge of
God “appears in human form, like all the other virtues.” This is because God
created human beings with “reason, and knowledge, and intellect” (Scivias iii 4,
364). Humans have these things so they might dearly love God, worship God,
spurn the Devil’s “figments,” and adore the God that has given them such
things (ibidem). It is at this point that the virtues might be placed among the
philosophical categories called divine ideas, perhaps coming to Hildegard to
some degree via Anselm and his Monologion. As Hildegard construes them,
they spring from the mind of God, but in Hildegard’s summa, they are clothed
200 Margot Fassler

in the image of human forms with musical voices to allow human beings to
comprehend with their own powers of reason, in as much as is possible, the
ideas found in the divine intellect. Once again, then, human beings are like unto,
and yet separate from the heavenly hosts, and to make the point, Hildegard
introduces the angels here. For the hosts know God, but with their spirits alone,
whereas human beings are both spirit and flesh, like the Son of God, who
redeemed them, and whose body they may join. For the sake of human compre-
hension, the virtues come forth in Hildegard’s theology sounding and clothed
in flesh.
The virtue Knowledge of God is surrounded by angels in this appearance,
and the description is crucial for understanding the relationship of Virtues (a
rank of angels) to virtues (the images of divine ideas). It can be seen here that
angels worship the virtues, and that is because the virtues come forth from God,
and are part of God, because they are ideas formed in the divine intellect:
[…] all the blessed and excellent spirits in the heavenly ministry worship the Knowledge
of God with inexpressibly pure praise, as humans cannot worthily do while they are in
mortal bodies […] these spirits embrace God in their ardor, for they are living light; and
they are winged, not in the sense that they have wings like the flying creatures, but in the
sense that they circle burningly in their spheres through the power of God, as if they
were winged. (Scivias iii 4, 364).
But Knowledge of God is engaged with another multitude, and these appear
like human beings, immobile with fear. These are the “compulsae oves” (com-
pelled sheep), the people who “live in the Knowledge of God” (Scivias iii 4,
365). Hildegard defines these elect as follows:
[…] compelled sheep are those who are compelled by Me against their will, by many
tribulations and sorrows, to leave their iniquities. These they gladly embraced in the
desire of their flesh and the flower of their youth as long as they held to the world […]
but I forced them all in different ways, according to what I saw in them, to cease from
their sins (ibidem).
So it is that Knowledge of God watches those who have been baptized, and
warns against backsliding. Should they stray, it is she who also warns them to
return to the God that made them (Scivias iii 4, 368). Working within humans,
Knowledge of God helps them to know the truth more fully, illuminating the
divine ideas as they grow stronger in the faith within a person.
Hildegard wrote two homilies on John 6 1–14, the feeding of the 5,000. These
short exegetical works describe the virtues associated with people who follow
after Jesus. Jesus journeyed across the Sea of Tiberias, so human beings must
journey away from evil and take up goodness, sighing for heaven “where all the
virtues direct themselves” (Homily 4, p. 42). Jesus went up on the mountain and
sat down with his disciples: so human beings may be renewed by the virtues
and dwell with them, and reach the clarity where he/she confesses sin. When
Jesus saw a great multitude of people coming toward him, he sees a great mul-
titude of virtues “doing brilliant deeds in the human being through his grace”
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 201

(ibidem).16 Hildegard says that those who wish to “surpass humans in ascent of
virtue” should hold themselves with the virtue of discretion (ibidem), perhaps a
warning to monks who may have been “holier than thou.” The virtues are the
stewards of Jesus in this sermon, for they “embrace him everywhere,” and they
note down the good deeds of human beings. It is through the most powerful
virtues that the human beings “imitate him with total effort” (Homily 4, p. 45).
The consummation of goodness makes an ending, “such that praise and thanks-
giving are brought forth to God by human beings among people throughout the
ages” (ibidem).
Here too, then, the virtues are ideas that take root in human beings and cause
them to produce good deeds, to long for heaven, and to praise God among their
fellow creatures. Although Hildegard does not speak of angels in sermon 4, she
does in several others. In an Advent homily, she emphasizes the importance of
the deeds inspired by the virtues. These deeds are esteemed by angels in heaven,
who will welcome the human “into the heavenly and unfailing homeland”
which was lost because of Adam (Homily 1, p. 33).

Music in Heaven and on Earth

Hildegard’s musical œuvre and its mode of reception are part of a tradition
concerning liturgical music, and one that flourished within her own region. But
her work at contextualizing music within a larger program of theological study
exceeds anything known before her or after. In a letter written in 1176, Guibert
of Gembloux, Hildegard’s last secretary, described the ways in which Hildegard
received music as part of her visions, and what this meant for her subsequent
compositional work:
Moreover, returning to ordinary life from the melody of that internal concert, she fre-
quently takes delight in causing those sweet modes which she learns and remembers in
that spiritual harmony to reverberate with the sound of voices, and, remembering God,
making a festive day from what she remembers of that spiritual music, and often, de-
lighted to find those same melodies in their resounding to be more pleasing than those of
common human effort, makes words for them for the praise of God and in honor of the
saints, to be sung publicly in church […].17

16 In Hildegardis In Evangelia 2011, Kienzle suggests that this sermon was preached
to the community of monks at the Disibodenberg in 1170 when there was trouble
among them (note, p. 43).
17 “Inde est quod ad communem hominum conuersationem ab illa interni concentus
melodia regrediens, dulces in uocum etiam sono modos, quos in spirituali armonia
discit et retinet, memor Dei, et in reliquiis cogitationum huiusmodi diem festum
agens, sepius resultando delectatur, eosdem que modulos, communi humane musice
instrumento gratiores, prosis ad laudem Dei et sanctorum honorem compositis, in
ecclesia publice decantari facit […].” As found in Guibertus Gemblacensis Epi-
stolae 1988/1989, xviii, 231; cf. Hildegardis Epistolarium 1994–2004, ep. 104, 30.
202 Margot Fassler

There are several things that can be inferred from this provocative descrip-
tion. Hildegard heard music in her visions: they were not only concerned with
sight and spoken commentaries, but also with melodies.18 Just as she was able to
remember what she saw and was told in the visions, she was also able to remem-
ber the music she heard within them. Afterwards, then, the music from the
visions was put to use, and what was originally wordless in the visions was
given text. Guibert found her music “far more pleasing than ordinary human
music.” These words relate as well to that sense expressed by Odo of Soissons,
writing to Hildegard in 1148–1149, that Hildegard was doing something new in
her compositions.19 The music Hildegard received and wrote texts for was then
used as the basis for new compositions designed by her “to be sung publicly in
church.” Hildegard is the only Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church from
whom a large body of liturgical song survives.
Guibert asked Hildegard many questions about her visions and her experi-
ences of them, and not just out of curiosity; he was at work on her vita, and this
activity went forward with her collaboration. So this is information not only
that Hildegard doubtless provided herself, but also most likely includes those
things she wanted generally to be known about her music. What is described in
the quoted passage meshes well with Hildegard’s portrait associated with the
preface to Scivias. Here Hildegard is shown receiving her visions from the
Living Light, but in a posture that is mindful of medieval portraits of Gregory
the Great, who was given the gift of chant from the Holy Spirit. Represented by
a dove perched on his shoulder in the iconography, the Spirit produced melo-
dies that Gregory, in turn, intoned to a scribe.20
The idea that liturgical music has divine origins was fundamental to medieval
understandings of the canonicity of the chant repertory, beginning with the Gre-
gory legend developed by the Carolingians.21 New pieces of music often were
brought into the liturgy by medieval composers and liturgists along with some
sort of creation story to justify their inclusion. In addition, the belief that hu-
mans’ must of necessity have words set to the textless songs of the angels is of
major importance in the medieval Western tradition. So for Hildegard to hear
wordless spiritual songs within a divinely inspired set of visions, and then put texts
to these melismatic melodies, are compositional strategies with a strong history.

18 See also the more frequently cited passage in Hildegardis Epistolarium 1994–2004,
ep. 103r, 261–262/Letters ii, no. 103r, 23: “Whatever I see or learn in this vision I
retain for a long time, and store it away in my memory.”
19 Letter 40: “It is reported that, exalted, you see many things in the heavens and record
them in your writing, and that you bring forth the melody of a new song (“atque
modos novi carminis edas”).” Transl. p. 110.
20 For discussion of the Hildegard portrait found in the illuminated Scivias, a copy of
which was made by the nuns of the Abbey of Eibingen and now is preserved there,
see Fassler 2013.
21 Treitler 1974.
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 203

The understanding that angelic music was well represented by textless melis-
mas and that setting words to melismas signified human needs for texts was a
commonplace. This theme and/or its performative realization can be found in
liturgical commentaries, in the texts of liturgical songs and prayers themselves,
in various ways of performing, and in descriptions of saints receiving music
from on high or otherwise listening in on the music of paradise. Tropes,
sequences, and prosulae, all are additions to preexisting chants, each having
its own set of historical understandings. Sequences (also called prosae), for
example, are a genre born from the addition of texts to the long, jubilant melis-
mas at the end of the Mass alleluia, these jubilii known as a sequentiae. The
liturgical commentator Amalarius of Metz, who wrote in the first half of the
ninth century, was perhaps the most influential of all authors in the genre, his
works copied throughout the Middle Ages. In a passage describing the wordless
sequentia following the Alleluia of the Mass liturgy, he said:
This ‘iubilatio’ which the cantors call the ‘sequentia,’ brings that condition to our mind
when the speaking of words will not be necessary, but by thought alone mind will show
to mind what it holds within it.22
Amalar’s understanding here is of angelic speech, a mental expression of
meaning that allows one mind to be in spiritual conversation with another,
something humans usually cannot do. The addition of texts to originally textless
melodies made sequences (and other genres that featured such ways of com-
position) capable vehicles for exploring and celebrating the differences between
human and angelic modes of speech. Of course, as we known from Guibert’s
description, all of Hildegard’s music fell into this category. The alternation of
the two ways of singing, which was built into the performance practice, made
the interaction between human and angelic singers a constant part of medieval
understanding of liturgical music and its workings, one that Hildegard’s œuvre
embodies in ways special to her theological and visionary universe.23

22 Amalarius Metensis Liber Officialis 1948–1950, ii 16, p. 304: “Haec iubilatio, quam
cantores sequentiam vocant, illum statum ad mentem nostram ducit, quando non erit
necessaria locutio verborum, sed sola cogitatione mens menti monstrabit quod retinet
in se.” Discussion of this passage and several others that demonstrate the longevity
and development of this idea, along with discussion of the reasons for the unusual
vocabulary frequently found in sequence repertories, is found in Fassler 1993/2011,
p. 38–57. Kruckenberg 2006 is a study of the ways in which the vocalized “neuma”
and the words set to it in a variety of liturgical genres relate to feast, season, and
liturgical intentions in the later Middle Ages. Rosier-Catach 2009, demonstrates
the power of the idea of differences between angelic and human speech in the later
Middle Ages, especially as inherited from Augustine’s De Trinitate.
23 See Fassler 1993/2011, p. 40–43; Kruckenberg 2006; and Iversen 2001, p. 127–159
and 257.
204 Margot Fassler

In her sequence for Disibod, the patron saint of the monastery in which she
was raised as a child and a young woman, Hildegard describes the singing on
earth and the parallel song of the angels and saints and asks that the angels
praise those who imitate them on earth, a theme also advanced in Scivias.24
Medieval saints who were mystically transported could rhapsodize melodically,
often without words, or in language that could not be understood; saints or
their companions frequently had mystical visions of heavens, sometimes asso-
ciated with foreknowledge of death. We find one such description very close to
Hildegard’s own sphere. Bishop Otto of Bamberg (d. 1139), who officiated at
the ceremony in which Hildegard became a nun, was canonized in the late
twelfth century. A mid-twelfth-century vita by Ebo of Michaelsberg includes a
vision of paradise given to one of his monastic brethren in which music was set
to words that could not be comprehended.25
As has be shown at the end of Part i above, Hildegard believed that angels
praise saints for their deeds, but that they do so in indescribable music. It is
likely that this understanding relates to the music Hildegard heard in her
visions, and rather than describe it, she remembered it, and set it to words so
humans might then sing it in church. The music Hildegard composes, then, is
the song of angels, but fitted out with words for human understanding, in the
same way that her exegesis on the visions explains them so that they can be
comprehended. The texts are for the humans and made by a human; the music
is remembered directly from visionary experience. This is true then of virtues,
for they are divine ideas, but personified so they can be understood.

Angels and Virtues as Embodied within Scivias iii 13

and in Hildegard’s Music
Scivias iii 13, the final vision of the treatise, is unlike any of the others both in
its structure and in its contents. In this extraordinary vision, Hildegard draws in
texts from both her songs and her play, Ordo Virtutum, in the latter case to
form the dramatic scene, the Exhortatio Virtutum. I have argued elsewhere that
by the time she penned this magnificent closing scene, Hildegard had already
composed many chants and also the neumed version play Ordo Virtutum, and
that indeed she was working on these elements of her œuvre interactively.
Accordingly she meant the treatise and the liturgical aspects of her efforts to be
mutually sustaining within community. It is repeatedly the case that the com-
pressed imagery of Hildegard’s chants resound in new ways when replaced
within the context of Scivias. In discussion to follow, I will discuss the final

24 Hildegardis Symphonia 2007, “O presul civitatis,” pp. 186–189, especially strophes

4b and 6b.
25 Vita Ottonis 1856, iii xxv. For an English translation, see Vita Ottonis 1920.
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 205

vision of Scivias, mention her dramatic Exhortatio Virtutum, and finally

describe the workings of the chant “O splendidissima gemma” as a manifesta-
tion of the many ideas about music and its importance as encountered in Scivias,
and most importantly in the final vision of the treatise.

Table ii
Outline of Scivias iii 13
Visionary Statement (A) and 14 Scivias Songs 1–7
Visionary Statement (B) and the Laments 8
Visionary Statement (C) and Exhortatio Virtutum followed by Statement (D) 9
Exegesis on Visionary Statement A and the Scivias Songs 10–12
Exegesis on Visionary Statements B and C (with a bit of A) 13
Exegesis on Visionary Statement D 14
Exegesis on Praise and on Psalm 150 15–16

Hildegard tied up the threads of her many statements about the nature of
angels, saints, and virtues in the very final section of the treatise, iii 13, and by
employing texts that she elsewhere provided with neumes, moved them into the
realm of the performative. According to Hildegard’s theological argument,
angels, virtues, and humans are joined in a common quest to inspire redemp-
tion, and each has a role to play in the venture. The parallels Hildegard makes
between Virtues and virtues are of major importance in this regard, for both
groups work on the same aspects of the quest for salvation, the angels, for the
most part, remaining in heaven, praising the ideas that the virtues represent to
human minds and their manifestations in actual humans. The virtues, while not
alive like angels and humans, are, nonetheless, capable purveyors of the ideas
that flow from the Godhead, and that have been, in historical time, most
directly and vibrantly expressed through and after the coming of the Word into
human flesh. There is not time nor space to discuss all the sections of this
summary chapter here, but the way the idea of music works in it generally is
fundamental to the whole.
Following the texts of the songs and of a version of the play, Hildegard offers
exegetical commentary, as listed in Table ii. In exegesis A, Hildegard speaks of
three kinds of music, that, she says, marvellously embody all that she has been
envisioning in the treatise up to this time. The first vision (Exegesis A) ends as
follows: “Et sonus ille, ut vox multitudinis in laudibus de supernis gradibus in
harmonia symphonizans, sic dicebat” (and that sound, like the voice of the
multitude, symphonizing in harmony through praises concerning the heavenly
hosts, thus spoke), and the fourteen song texts then begin. It seems that “ille
sonus” is the first of the three kinds of music (“the former”), and so the Scivias
songs are rendered by the multitude, praising the heavenly ranks. It is clear
from their texts that they are indeed songs about categories of humans, from the
Old and New Testaments, and saints from more recent times, and that they
206 Margot Fassler

praise the angels as well. In these songs angels and humans from various periods
of history are mixed together as objects of praise, and the songs delight in the
lofty characteristics that makes both kinds of creatures citizens of heaven.
Hildegard’s exegesis on the first section refers to all three types of music, and
she says of them that praises must be offered to God unceasingly, for God
enthrones not only those “who stand erect” but also “those who bend and fall.”
Hildegard returns us yet again to Luke 15, and with Christ sitting down with
publicans and sinners, and with her description, referenced earlier, of the com-
pelled sheep. Song is like the air that “encloses and sustains everything under
the heavens.” Here too, Hildegard explains yet again how the virtues work: “for
the virtues in the minds of the faithful resist the vices by which the Devil
wearies them, and redeem them.” In all this exegesis on song and the impor-
tance of song Hildegard emphasizes human intellect, and the importance of
understanding the ideas represented by the virtues:
And as the power of God is everywhere and encompasses all things, and no obstacle can
stand against it, so too the human intellect has great power to resound in living voices,
and arouse sluggish souls to vigilance by the song (Scivias iii 13, 533).
The music offered by enlightened humans takes what is in the mind, and embo-
dies it, bringing it forth with an incarnational power. For “the words symbolize
the body, and the jubilant music indicates the spirit; and the celestial harmony
shows the Divinity, and the words the Humanity of the Son of God” (Scivias
iii 13, 533). Sounding music makes the ideas of the human intellect come forth;
as the virtues represent ideas in the mind of God. The angelic hosts number
nine, and gaze unsatiated on the divine eyes, making a contrast with Satan’s
fallen tribe; the fourteen Scivias songs embody categories of living beings.
Through these songs, God is praised through the actions of angels and of saints.
The patriarch and prophets knew that Christ would come, their faith sustained
by shades of truths not completely understood. The apostles are pillars of the
church, those who wash Satan’s captives in the waters of baptism. The martyrs
imitate the Lamb that was slain, bleeding roses that stream from His heart. The
confessors share the offices of the heavenly hosts, for passing between temple
and altar, they stand in the midst of those who sing praises. The virgins, eyes
fixed on God, imitate all the joys of heaven within their beings.
Analysis of one of Hildegard’s Scivias songs, the first of the fourteen of them:
“O splendidissima gemma,” an antiphon for the Blessed Virgin Mary, suggests
ways in which the ideas explored above inform the chants, each a particular
microcosm of the larger whole. Because they are actual praise (or can be when
sung) each chant, in turn, refines Hildegard’s complicated understandings of
virtues and angelic and human beings. In this chant Mary is addressed as a pure
jewel filled with the light of the sun; the green stem from which the flower of
Christ blooms, the matter of a new creation.
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 207

A plan of the text is provided below, but as parsed out by Hildegard’s music,
especially with attention to large-scale repetitions of musical material. Some of
the cellular repetitions, however, are not charted and only can be seen on the
score, where particular shorter phrases are marked. The opening lines are
excessively reiterative, created out of small cells of music repeated several times,
this another feature of her musical style.

Table iii
O splendidissima gemma (with reiterative elements) a
et se/renum/ decus solis b1
qui tibi in/fusus est b2
fons saliens de cor de patris qui est unicum c1
verbum suum per quod creauit mundi primum materiam quam eua turbauit c2
hoc uerbum effabricauit tibi pater d1
hominem et ob hoc es tu illa lucida d2
materia per quam hoc ipsum uerbum expirauit omnes e1
uirtutes et eduxit in prima material omnes creaturas. e2

[O most splendid jewel and clear beauty of the sun, that fills you, a fountain
leaping from the heart of the Father, who is his only Word, through which He
created the first matter of the world, which Eve confused; for you the Father
fashioned this Word as a human being, and by this action you are the light-filled
matter through which this Word breathes out all virtues, just as he brought
forth all creatures from the primal matter.]
Hildegard’s chant texts are imagistic restatements of her theological exegesis.
This poem, the first in the group, parallels the openings of Scivias i and iii
through a lyrical miniature. It concerns the old and new creations, as do Scivias
i and iii at their beginnings. The Word, as the second person of the Trinity,
created the first material. Humans threw it into confusion, engendering strife
that is found in Hildegard’s depiction of the cosmic egg in Scivias iii 3. The first
matter was the primal stuff of all creation. But the second matter, made possible
by and through the body of the Virgin and her humble spirit, engenders the
new strong virtues, ideas not fully expressed for the human intellect until after
this re-creation through Christ. Of course this is another way of saying what
Hildegard expressed in Scivias iii 2 (see above). The humility necessary to com-
bat prideful Satan is encouraged by that virtue, whose power of expression is
strengthened greatly through the actions of Virgin Mary, and the stooping of
her Son to take up human flesh. Without such actions, the virtue Humility
could not be fully understood by human intellect, making it able to fight
strongly against prideful snares. It can be readily observed that the idea of the
recapturing of light from the fallen Lucifer, and the transferal of that light to the
redeemed members of the human tribe, is represented in this poem describing
the greatest of saints. The light that fills Mary is pure, clear, directly bestowed
208 Margot Fassler

O splendissima gemma
Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 209

by God; it is the light that God held back when Lucifer fell, saving it for the
new creatures that would take the place of the fallen one (see Part ii above), and
transferred to them through the Incarnation.
Hildegard is, we have seen, concerned with the chants she brings forth as
incarnational works of art, related to the combination of humanity and divinity.
The words, she says, symbolize the body, and the music, the spirit. This idea,
prominent in Scivias iii 13 and set off in its own short section, is reminiscent as
well of the ways that Hildegard received her chants: the music remembered
from the vision (divine); the words were added by Hildegard for singing in the
liturgy (human). It is then, of particular importance that Hildegard’s chants
often look as if they were prosulae, that is words set to pre-existing melismas.
This feature of her chants can help explain how she was composing, and how
she thought about the nature of the works that she brought forth. Words are the
clothing for the spirit, much in the way that virtues are representations for the
human mind of the ideas found in the divine intellect. In this way, the chants,
which by definition consist of music and texts, are like the virtues, which con-
sist of ideas and their allegorical manifestations.
O Splendidissima gemma is an excellent example of the formal structure of
many of Hildegard’s chants. It, like so many of them, it is created out of re-
peating phrases of music that fall on a spectrum from tightly paralleled all the
way to generally reflective one of the other. Like so many of her works, this
antiphon begins with a singleton, a line of music that is neither repeated or
paraphrased in what comes later. But it is followed by a variety of paired lines
of music, as can be seen in the score, the markings indicating sections as found
210 Margot Fassler

in Table 1. The first group (b1 and b2) provides several examples of the same
short phrase in several guises. The c, d, and e phrases, on the other hand, are
made of loosely paralleled very long phrases, the words cutting into the melis-
mas in a variety of ways.
The pair of e phrases is emblematic of this way of composing. It can be seen
in Example 1 that Hildegard stretches and contracts the music depending on the
needs of the text she has written for the pre-existent melodic material she tells
us was heard during her visionary experiences. Hildegard’s music, is, therefore
alleluiatic; and set to texts, it is all sequencelike. This is the genre, of course, that
she would have understood as words set to the music of heaven. The repetition
in the pairs of textual lines created by the music also often provides opportu-
nities to put particular words in parallel: here it can be seen that materia and
virtutes are linked as both begin a line. This underscores the meaning of the
text: primal material and the virtues coming forth after the incarnation through
Mary are the creative forces used by Christ to make the first and the second
creation, respectively.
Hildegard’s sounding vision as described in Scivias iii 13 also includes the
dramatic scene, the Exhortatio Virtutum, a work that I believe was drawn from
out of the larger Ordo Virtutum.26 In both versions of Hildegard’s cosmic
drama, the first virtue to be encountered is Knowledge of God. This favored
position is given to this particular virtue because she helps the reader under-
stand what her sister virtues are: they are ideas that exist in the divine intellect,
and so come forth to live within humans and of course, have lived within the
angels since the time of their creation. So too can their counterparts, represented
by the vices, live within human beings, as they are inspired by Satan, who is
Lucifer, the fallen light-bearer, who dwells in darkness with the angels who fell
with him. Human minds are given choices constantly between a parade of ideas
and theme, both good and ill. When Knowledge of God appears, Hildegard
emphasizes that God has given humans “reason, and knowledge, and intellect”
(Scivias iii 4, 364); this virtue is then described for several sections of the treatise
(the opening of this description and Knowledge of God’s relationship to the
angelic hosts has been described above in part ii). Knowledge of God stands by
the Pillar of the Word of God, in mode of a preacher, explaining the truths of
Scripture and the doctors of the church, the miracles of the saints, and the lofty
work of the angels, to the compelled sheep. These are the people who have
abandoned God and yet who are inspired by God’s will working within in
them. Knowledge of God, her face shining with light, offers a stern warning:
“Consider the garment you have put on, and do not forget your Creator who
made you” (Scivias iii 4, preface). When anima gives up on the journey to God
and looks toward the world, Knowledge of God warns: “You do not know or
taste or see Him who created you.” The failure is one of understanding.

26 See Fassler 2014 for the evidence.

Angels and Ideas – Hildegard’s Musical Hermeneutic 211

The ideas about music that Hildegard brings forth at the end of Scivias are
echoed in a letter she wrote near the end of her life, and this has become her
best-known and most studied statement about the importance of music to
Christian life. Hildegard wrote this famous document in 1178–1179 in response
to an interdict forbidding the sacraments and singing of the office to her com-
munity.27 It has very much to do with the act of recovery that is the subject of
Scivias, that is the ways that human beings regain the voices they lost at the fall,
voices that are emblematic of their rightful place among the ranks of the angels.
Before he fell, Adam’s voice “blended fully with the angels in their praise of
God.”28 Hildegard continues explaining that the angels have voices by dint of
their spiritual natures. Humankind “fell asleep” to the knowledge possessed
before sin. It is the recovery of the “light of truth” that restores humans to
pristine blessedness.29 The prophets of old began the process of musical resto-
ration through the composition of psalms and canticles, and by the invention of
musical instruments. The canticle of praise is rooted in the church through the
Holy Spirit; and the human body has a living voice that sounds in harmony
with the soul. To deny song is to deny the fundamental act of salvation. Hilde-
gard warns in the letter: “those who, without just case, impose silence on a
church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth
unjustly despoiled God of honor and glory will lose their place among the
chorus of angels […].”30
Hildegard’s long exposition of music in Scivias, and in the songs themselves
and in her play Ordo Virtutum, encourage the restoration of humankind
through the action of praise, sung praise. It is for this reason that the allegorical
virtues represent goodness through both their bodies and clothing, as well as
through the music they sing in Hildegard’s play; it is for this reason too that the
songs Hildegard created are both melody and text, spirit and flesh, incarnational
manifestations of the Christ who is Himself the ultimate music, the song of the
church and of the angels. In Hildegard’s view, the praise of God through music
in church is an action of major theological importance, not only representative
of the incarnational truths of restoration through Christ, but also a kind of
actual incarnation, a joining of flesh and spirit in a way that brings the redeemed
to new life.31

27 The circumstances are well known, and hardly need reviewing here in any detail.
Hildegard had refused to exhume the corpse of a once excommunicated man who
had been buried on the grounds of the Rupertsberg. For an introduction, see notes to
Hildegardis Epistolarium 1994–2004, ep. 23, 24, and 24r, pp. 76–83.
28 Hildegardis Epistolarium 1994–2004, ep. 23, p. 77.
29 Hildegardis Epistolarium 1994–2004, ep. 23, p. 78.
30 Hildegardis Epistolarium 1994–2004, ep. 23, p. 79.
31 See also D’Evelyn 2007, and Flynn 2011.
212 Margot Fassler

Two of Hildegard’s compositions allow for the particular singing of these

ideas with special power, and sum up what is meant by singing as the embo-
diment of salvific understanding. In Ave generosa, a hymn for the Virgin Mary,
Hildegard says that the entire heavenly “symphonia” sounded from the womb
of the Virgin; here the music of the cosmos is the Son.32 The sequence for the
Virgin O virga ac diadema, closes with the charge to those who sing: “Unde, o
Salvatrix, que novum lumen humano generi protulisti: collige membra Filii tui
ad celestem armonium” (and so, O Salvatrix, who brought forth new light to
humankind, gather the limbs of your Son into celestial harmony).33 So Mary,
model of the church, gathers those who praise into the ranks of the angels
through the action of purposeful and knowledgeable song, the song that then
becomes the Son.
Singing rightly, praisefully, is an incarnational act, one that both redeems and
that represents the meanings of redemption.

32 See Hildegardis Symphonia 2007, no. 17, p. 392–393, at lines 19–20: “Venter enim
tuus gaudium habuit cum omnis celestis symphonia de te sonuit […].”
33 Hildegardis Symphonia 2007, no. 20, p. 397–399, at lines 51–55: “Vnde, o Saluatrix,
que nouum lumen humano generi protulisti: collige membra Filii tui ad celeste armo-