Friday, July 18, 2014

O virtus Sapientie

Antiphon for Divine Wisdom (R 466rb) by Hildegard of Bingen Back to Table of Contents
O virtus Sapientie,
que circuiens circuisti,
comprehendendo omnia
in una via que habet vitam,
tres alas habens,
quarum una in altum volat
et altera de terra sudat
et tercia undique volat.
Laus tibi sit, sicut te decet, O Sapientia.
O Wisdom’s energy!
Whirling, you encircle
and everything embrace
in the single way of life.
Three wings you have:
one soars above into the heights,
one from the earth exudes,
and all about now flies the third.
Praise be to you, as is your due, O Wisdom.
Latin collated from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman; translation by Nathaniel M. Campbell.


The figure of Sapientia (Divine Wisdom), personified at several points in some of the Old Testament’s more poetical books (e.g. Proverbs 8-9, Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 24, and Wisdom of Solomon 7-8), is one of Hildegard’s most constant visionary companions. Like Caritas (Divine Love), who appears in similar ways in others of Hildegard’s visions, she represents “the ultimate mystery of creation, the bond between Creator and creature” (Newman, Sister of Wisdom, p. 44). Hildegard’s thought often works within the platonizing mirror of emanation and return, the cycle at the center of which is the Incarnation. That cyclical process is, for Hildegard, the place in which the feminine side of God is most clearly revealed. The hallmark of both her theology and her poetic style is that the feminine is the place where God stoops to human weakness and human weakness can, in turn, reach out to touch the face of God.
Scivias III.5: The Zeal or Jealousy
of God. Rupertsberg MS, fol. 153r.

The triple-winged figure in this piece is often thought to recall an image that appears in the third part of the Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript, though in the context of that vision, the grotesque, “terrible” face affixed to the Edifice of Salvation signifies the Zeal or Jealousy of God, each wing representing the Holy Trinity’s “ineffable power”, beating like mighty wings against the Devil (Scivias III.5.14-15). The antiphon above is a much lighter image, full of wonder not terrifying, but elevating and edifying. It recalls the six-winged Seraph of Isaiah 6, together with the omnipresent Wisdom as the agent of creation in Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 24; as well as the two great wings of Caritas in the opening vision of the Liber Divinorum Operum, representing love of God and love of neighbor.

Fundamentally, however, it is the Trinitarian imagery that comes to the fore: the one wing soaring in the heavens like the Father, the second upon the earth like the Incarnate Son, the third sweeping everywhere, the vital force of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the “exuding” of the second wing from the earth grounds the Incarnation within a fertile, organic image: the verb sudat literally means “sweats”, but for Hildegard, it “has the associations not of the sweat of effort but of the distillation of a perfume, a heavenly quality, out of anything that is fertile or beautiful on earth” (Dronke, Poetic Individuality, p. 157). It thus latently evokes one of Hildegard’s favorite and expansive symbols of God’s fertile, creative goodness: viriditas, “viridity”, the overflowing, vibrant, fresh greenness of health and life. This Sapientia “creates the cosmos by existing within it, (...) an ambience enfolding it and quickening it from within” (Newman, Sister of Wisdom, pp. 64-5).

Moreover, in the movement of these trinitarian wings, Hildegard engages in one of her rare instances of clear musical word painting. The phrase quarum una in altum volat, et altera de terra sudat, contains a high point on G on altum (“high”). The lowest pitch of the piece, D, is found on et, which links the two segments of the phrase and leads to the word terra. The word painting would be more obvious here if the D appeared on terra, but it does not.

However, the musical architecture also serves to set those first two movements apart from Sapientia’s omnipresent third wing, because those first two segments are linked by the musical conjunction of the low D on et (since D is not a tonal focus in this mode, its function can be understood as connective). That leaves et tercia undique volat on its own, so to speak. Musically, it is outlined by neither of the two primary tones, but rather, begins on E and ends on B. If the third wing is understood as a representation of the Holy Spirit, perhaps the unique melodic and grammatical setting is intended to set it apart from the Father-and-Son relationship articulated by the high G and low D of the previous two phrases. Moreover, it flows directly into the next phrase of praise and thus has heightened significance as a blending of the Holy Spirit with Sapientia. Such an intent would be consistent with Hildegard’s allegorical representations of the divinity’s fertile creativity and interaction with creation with female figures like Sapientia and Caritas (cf. Karitas habundat).

The glory of this piece, which Peter Dronke describes as “an image of surrealist fantasy, but weighty with meaning,” (Poetic Individuality, p. 156), is that it is never bogged down by the complexity of these interactive images, but rather urged with a divine lightness of touch into the playful, joyous, and yet full-bodied twirling movement of God’s provident, creative, and life-giving Wisdom.

Transcription and Music Notes

E mode
Range: D below final to G an octave and a third above final
Setting: primarily syllabic, with some neumatic elements and one long melisma at the opening on O

E and B are the tonal markers in this antiphon. Most of the phrases are clearly outlined by one of these, or begin on E and end on B. The tonal marker of B is used especially to demarcate the fifth line (tres alas habens), thus giving musical weight to the imagery of the trinitarian three wings.

The first phrase (salutation) is a little unusual for Hildegard, in that one would expect a clear tonal demarcation of O virtus Sapientie. Although she does mark this phrase out, she then begins que circuiens circuisti on C, which musically links it to the previous phrase, perhaps to propel the urgent movement of Wisdom into creation with more force. A tick barline is placed after circuisti in the transcription, but one could also consider that que circuiens circuisti begins another segment of the text and can be phrased as such. It is possible that the C that begins this segment is an error and should be a B. That would make it consistent with the short phrases that follow.

At any rate, the use of B as a tonal focus and the conjunctive que after the salutation is similar to the construction of O vis eternitatis. It serves as a suspension of sorts, keeping the listener’s attention until the first pause on E on in una via que habet vitam.

The last two lines of the transcription, laus tibi sit sicut te decet o Sapientia, should be considered as one phrase.

—Commentary and Notes by Nathaniel M. Campbell and Beverly Lomer.

Further Resources for O virtus Sapientie
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia, ed. Barbara Newman (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988 / 1998), pp. 100 and 268.
  • Dronke, Peter. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages. New Departures in Poetry, 1000-1150 (Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 156-7.
  • Grant, Barbara. “Five Liturgical Songs by Hildegard von Bingen.” Signs 5 (1980), p. 564.
  • Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Univ. of California Press, 1987 / 1997), pp. 42-6 and 64-6.
  • For a discography of this piece, see the comprehensive list by Pierre-F. Roberge: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - A discography


  1. "Energy" is the worst possible translation for "virtus" in Hildegard's context.
    Virtus is a constant and well-know subject of medieval theological treatises and has, obviously and for the same reason, a catholic theological meaning.

    1. While I respect the sincerity of your conviction, it's simply not true that "virtus" only refers to the moral concept of virtue. Rather, the Latin term has a much broader range of meanings -- the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources lists 12 different shades of meaning, only one (or two) of which is specifically moral virtue (see The term (like its Greek counterpart, arete) originates in the physical world, meaning both physical strength and the courage and excellence shown by the strong in war. In philosophical contexts, it can also often mean "potency" or "power," in line with the Greek dynamis (the DMBLS quotes Ockham, Quodlibetal 597: "non minoris efficacie est potencia Dei absoluta super quamcumque creaturam quam virtus activa creata respectu sui effectus" -- "God's absolute power (potencia) over all creation is of no less efficacy than his active, creative power (virtus) with respect to its effect.")

      Moreover, one must translate the term within the full context of Hildegard's thought, in which virtus does indeed refer to emanations of God's power into the world. For her, the Virtues are not moral abstractions, but embodiments of that power streaming forth; rather than speaking of God's grace as that power, she speaks of his virtus.

    2. Thanks for the translation. I believe the friend above didn't actually refer to "virtus" as the moral concept but actually when mentioning theology, he was referring to the metaphysical meaning of "virtus". You did not translate virtus right, rather, you changed the word. Energy is not the appropriate translation of "virtus" from a catholic metaphysical perspective. Hildegard choses to use virtus for a reason. She uses virtus to refer to God's omnipotence and how that power acts according to His omnipresence. The most appropriate translation would be power, strength or even force.
      God's creation is a never-ending act of love. That is His absolute power that is acting upon creation through his Will. And we never call it "energy".From the Catholic theological perspective, it's actually pretty weird and it actually reminds of new age or pagan spirituality.

    3. Virtus belongs to Sapientie in that case. And it refers to God's Wisdom. God's Wisdom is the Word, the Word is the Logos, which is God's reason and inteligence. God acts by willing, willing is an act of the intellect. By willing, God acts upon His creation with His omnipotence or power. It's the omnipotent creative power of the Divine Wisdom. The manifestation of His power upon creatures is His grace. Power is the force itself that moves everything. Power works just fine in the context because it refers to the invisible force of God's Spirit. By referring to it as energy, it loses the focus on God's omnipotence and the image is more focused on the "flow". And to me, that doesn't make justice to the divine christian aspect of the song.

    4. Gabriel, I appreciate your thoughts on this, because I really wrestled with that first line for a long time. I agree with you that "power" is probably the better literal translation, and in my earlier drafts on this, I had the opening line as, "O Wisdom's pow'r" (you have to elide the second syllable of "power" to fit the meter). But ultimately I decided to go with "energy" because it allows us to see the potential connection (for us, if not for Hildegard in her own historical context) between Hildegard's ideas of virtus and Orthodox ideas about the divine energeia. (And frankly, I think the poetry is better, too.)

  2. She would have used vis otherwise because it has meaning for "energy" and virtus has no translation for "energy". It elevates the "power" to a degree of excellency worthy of God's omnipotent Divine Will that "vis" does not have when referring to power or force. Hildegard had already created the images to illustrate the emanation of His virtus (not his vis) on "que circuiens circuisti,
    comprehendendo omnia".

  3. It is wonderful to see so much teaching from so long ago come to support us in this journey towards the Divine, with the guidance of Hildegard de Bingen, since the sec. XII.