Monday, 15 July 2013

Monstrosity within the Church in Hildegard of Bingen’s Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript

The allegorical figure of Ecclesia, the virgin Holy Mother Church, was one of Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) most frequent visionary images. She appears no less than five times in her first visionary work, Scivias, for which Hildegard later supervised the creation of a deluxe illuminated manuscript, the Rupertsberg Codex. Though the original has been lost since its evacuation to Dresden in 1945, it survives in black-and-white photographs and a hand-executed facsimile crafted by the nuns at the Abbey of St. Hildegard in the 1920’s, from which the images that accompany today’s post come.[1] The visual images of Ecclesia in this manuscript are vast, powerful, and often extraordinarily hybridized, with a variety of non-human elements grafted on, each with its own allegorical significance. Sometimes, as in the image for Scivias II.5 (Fig. 1), of the virginal orders of her mystical body, the monumental quality of flaming gold wings rising from Ecclesia’s shoulders and of the silver mountains comprising her lower body inspires awesome wonder.

Figure 1
There is another image of Ecclesia, however, that is gruesome and disturbing—her rape by the Antichrist in Scivias III.11 (Fig. 2). Hildegard describes her (e)sc(h)atological vision of the last days:

And I saw again the figure of a woman whom I had previously seen in front of the altar that stands before the eyes of God; she stood in the same place, but now I saw her from the waist down. And from her waist to the place that denotes the female, she had various scaly blemishes; and in that latter place was a black and monstrous head. It had fiery eyes, and ears like an ass’, and nostrils and mouth like a lion’s; it opened wide its jowls and terribly clashed its horrible iron-colored teeth. (…) And behold! That monstrous head moved from its place with such a great shock that the figure of the woman was shaken through all her limbs. And a great mass of excrement adhered to the head; and it raised itself up upon a mountain and tried to ascend the height of Heaven. And behold, there came suddenly a thunderbolt, which struck that head with such great force that it fell from the mountain and yielded up its spirit in death. And a reeking cloud enveloped the whole mountain, which wrapped the head in such filth that the people who stood by were thrown into the greatest terror.[2]

Figure 2

Appearing in the lower register of the image, Ecclesia’s upper body is the golden orans figure familiar from earlier in the manuscript. Her lower body, however, has been replaced with a brutal assortment of bruising reds and scaly browns, capped with the monstrous and grotesque head of the Antichrist leering out from her genitals, his phallic ear erect for penetration. Such grotesque hybrids become common in the marginal art of gothic manuscripts, where the gryllus, for example, in the lower margin of Psalm 101 in the Ormesby Psalter (Fig. 3) might seem to echo the genital mask in Hildegard’s image. Indeed, the little prayer-book of Marguerite that Michael Camille examined in his seminal Image on the Edge offers a telling comparison: a woman’s book whose pages “are pregnant in the sense that they teem with gynaecological promise even within the detritus of fallen, decomposing life.”[3] There is, however, a crucial difference between Marguerite’s prayer-book and Hildegard’s Scivias: far from being on the margins, Hildegard’s Antichrist is found at the very center of the Church, inside her, taking over her womb and thus corrupting her mission: “I must conceive and give birth!” (as she announces in Hildegard’s vision of the Church and Baptism in Scivias II.3).

Figure 3

Hildegard describes this violent hybridized rape as the consequence of “fornication and murder and rapine” committed by Ecclesia’s own ministers, their “vile lust and shameful blasphemy (…) infused” in them by the Antichrist’s “voracious and gaping jaws” (Scivias III.11.12-13). Madeline Caviness has suggested that Hildegard’s radical alteration of “existing iconographic codes” in this image was so threatening as to render it obsolete from successive periods of medieval art, yet provocatively resonant “with numerous self-images of contemporary feminist artists, who fragment and mask their bodies to repel the male gaze.”[4] Richard Emerson, likewise, finds the visual image to be far more radical and disturbing than the mostly conventional account of the Antichrist offered in the vision’s commentary (Scivias III.11.25-40), whose innovations can be understood as the product of the conventionally symbolic exegetical imagination of twelfth-century monastics.[5] One of Hildegard’s extraordinary contributions to the Antichrist tradition is to portray the fiend as a sexual subversive and criminal—and to move that subversion from the margins into the very heart and womb of Mother Church herself.

-Contributed by Nathaniel Campbell

[1] I have elsewhere argued in favor of Hildegard’s hand in the design of the manuscript’s images, based on their theological content: Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript.
[2] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990).
[3] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 54.
[4] Madeline Caviness, “Artist: ‘To See, Hear, and Know All at Once’,” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, ed. Barbara Newman (University of California Press, 1998), pp. 110-124, at 117-8.
[5] Richard K. Emmerson, “The Representation of Antichrist in Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias: Image, Word, Commentary, and Visionary Experience,” Gesta 41:2 (2002), pp. 95-110.

Fig. 1: Scivias II.5: The Orders of the Church (Ecclesia). Facs. of Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 1 (Rupertsberg Codex, lost), fol. 66r. Source: Abbey of St. Hildegard
Fig. 2: Scivias III.11: The Five Ages and the Antichrist born of the Church. Facs. of Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 1 (Rupertsberg Codex, lost), fol. 214v. Source: Abbey of St. Hildegard
Fig. 3: Gryllus, in detail from lower margin of Ormesby Psalter, Ps. 101: Bodleian Library, MS Douce 366, fol. 131r. Source: Bodleian Library

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