Hildegard: A Saint Eight Centuries in the Making

hildegard & volmar

The visionary abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) has long been regarded as a saint, with her feast day of September 17, yet she was only officially canonized in May 2012. Why did it take the Vatican over eight centuries to canonize this great polymath, composer, and theologian?

The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over fifty years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric. Even the authorship of her own work was disputed as pundits began to suggest her books had been written by a man.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, Germany. In 1956 Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation.

hildegard judy chicago dinner party setting

Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical theologian Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th-century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically it was his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, expelled Matthew Fox from the Dominican Order where Fox had served for thirty-four years—finally gave Hildegard her due. Reportedly Joseph Ratzinger, a German, had long admired Hildegard. He not only canonized her but elevated her to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title given to only the most distinguished theologians.

But I believe the true credit for Hildegard’s triumph is due to the Benedictine Sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey for keeping Hildegard’s flame burning.


This is drawn from Ann K. Gebuhr’s book, Hildegard!

Take some time to listen to and contemplate Hildegard’s beautiful musical meditation on the Holy Spirit, O ignis spiritus paracliti:

O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort,

Life of the life of every creature,

You are holy, anointing those perilously broken;

You are holy, cleansing festering wounds.

O breath of loveliness,

O fire of love,

O sweet savour in our breasts,

Infusing heart with the scent of virtue.

O clearest fountain,

In which we see

How God gathers the alienated

And finds the lost.

O breastplate of life

And hope of the whole human body,

O belt of honour, save the fortunate.

Guard those imprisoned by the enemy

And free those who are bound,

Whom the divine power wishes to save.

O mightiest course

That has penetrated all things

In the heavens and on earth

And in every abyss–

You reconcile and draw all humanity together.

From you clouds flow, wind flies,

Stones produce moisture,

Water flows in streams,

And the earth exudes living greenness.

You are always teaching the learned,

Who, through wisdom’s inspiration,

Are made joyful.

Thence praise be to you who are the sound of praise,

And joy of life,

And hope and greatest honour,

Granting the gift of light.

(This is Susan Hellauer’s translation from the insert booklet of Anonymous 4’s CD, The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen.)

Read Hildegard’s poem slowly as a prayer, contemplating how the Sacred Flame, however you envision it in your own spiritual tradition, relates to your life.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the Nautilus Gold Award and was a 2012 Kirkus Book of the Year. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com.

Author: Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history and is the author of eight acclaimed novels, including ILLUMINATIONS, drawn from the life of Hildegard von Bingen, and REVELATIONS, which delves into the intersecting lives of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, two mystics and female literary pioneers who changed history. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com

23 thoughts on “Hildegard: A Saint Eight Centuries in the Making”

  1. Always great to see Chicago’s DINNER PARTY, in any of its incarnations, thanks Mary!!!!

    When Hildegard’s music surfaced in the 1980’s and ’90s, those CDs moved people deeply, because her compositions were so incredibly, profoundly beautiful, like no medieval choral music anyone had ever heard before. It also inspired the recovery of compostions by many other cloistered women who originally wrote music only for their convent communities. For example, a fabulous CD titled: Codex Las Huelgas: Music from the Royal Convent of Las Huelgas de Burgos, 13-14th c.


    1. Music also brought me to Hildegard. I created the first “Women and Music” course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (in 1979), and I fell in love with Hildegard. Her music was revolutionary for its time (maybe that’s why it fell out of favor, although I believe it was the fact that she was a woman). She wrote the first morality play over a century before others came to be, and — my favorite part — in it every character sings, EXCEPT THE DEVIL. I’m with Hildegard on this one: music and spirit are intimately intertwined.


      1. Yes, I love Ordo Virtutum! The Devil can’t sing because singing is holy, the highest form of prayer. Late in her life, Hildegard and her nuns were the subject of an interdict or collective excommunication for refusing to exhume a supposed apostate buried in their churchyard. Her archbishop forbade Hildegard and her daughters to sing the Divine Office which to Hildegard was an even greater affront than being denied the Eucharist. She wrote an ominous letter to her archbishop warning him that by denying God her and her daughter’s sung praises, the archbishop himself might end up in an afterlife destination where there was no music, ie hell. Don’t mess with Hildegard!

        I would have loved to attend your Women and Music class. Please let me know if you ever come and teach in the UK. If you’re ever in the Twin Cities, Wisdom Ways in Saint Paul might be interested in hosting a workshop with you on women and sacred music.


  2. Blessed be. I wonder if Ratzinger beatified her because she was German as he was.

    The Dinner Party is on permanent display in the Brooklyn Museum.

    Mary, how do you “read” the painting at the top of the post.


    1. I think Ratzinger’s being German had a huge influence on his canonizing her. Hildegard has long had an iconic status in Germany and her saint day was celebrated there long before her official canonization.

      I would love to visit Brooklyn Museum and see the Dinner Party one day.

      Re the illumination: Hildegard is sitting in her cloister with her secretary Volmar looking in at her. He is taking dictation as she reads what she’s written on the wax tablet she’s holding. Pentecostal flames are descending on her head and filling her with divine vision. (I love how Volmar appears to levitate.) :)


      1. I am puzzled that she had a male secretary. Was that common? Could she write herself? Where did the wax tablet come from?


      2. Hi Carol. The wax tablet was for writing. Hildegard could, of course, read and write in German and Latin. Everyday writing was done on a wax tablet which could be erased and reused. Parchment and vellum were very expensive. Volmar took dictation from Hildegard before copying her works down on parchment and vellum for posterity. It was common for high ranking abbesses and abbots, and other high ranking clerics, to have secretaries. In this era, most secretaries were male.


  3. Thank you, Mary, for this marvelous post. I occasionally sing some of Hildegard’s chants at Unitarian Universalist services here in Madison. They’re beautiful. I’m glad to hear that Hildegard finally got her due. I’m sure you’re right when you say it’s because of the unrelenting work of the Benedictine nuns at her abbey.


  4. Thanks for your post, Mary! I always love to see Hildegard mentioned. My undergrad and part of my grad background was in music, and I loved studying Hildegard’s works. Although I’ve moved to gender, feminist, and religious studies now, HIldegard’s music is still very special to me. (Not to shamelessly self-promote too much, I recently wrote a short post for my blog on Hildegard’s “O Euchari” – https://claire.skriletz.net/2014/09/01/monday-music-o-euchari-by-hildegard-von-bingen/)

    Speaking of Anonymous 4, I just heard them in concert – it’s their last season touring, then the group is disbanding in 2016. I’m so grateful I was able to hear them live once! Their recordings of Hildegard’s music, and that of many other composers, are gorgeous.

    I recently discovered that another group, Sequentia, made a decade-long project of recording all of Hildegard’s music (including Ordo Virtutum). They’ve recorded many other CDs of chant work, too, and I find it to be an interesting alternative to Anonymous 4’s interpretation of the period(s) and style(s).


    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Claire. I would love to be able to see Anonymous 4 before they disband. I also have and cherish the Sequentia recordings of Hildegard. One of the wonderful people who attended one of my readings of my novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen was a friend of one of the Sequentia singers. That was really special.

      Off to read your blog post now1 :)


  5. Reblogged this on Lead Me On and commented:
    I would consider Hildegard von Bingen a real leader. She changed the face of faith, creatively, persuasively — through art, prayer, song — a woman who inspired other women over the centuries, from a faith that still celebrates, ritually and organizationally, the power of men over women. Thanks for the great blog, and link to her music and poetry!


  6. Mary, I love your scholarship and I love Hildegard. The only good thing John Paul did was help free Poland, the main good thing Benedict was canonize a German woman. Some of the popes were interested in men in their home states, but totally uninterested in women. Good for Benedict! Thanks for giving us all this information about Saint Hildegard, here and in your books.


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