Friday, April 8, 2016

O speculum columbe

Psalm antiphon for St. John the Evangelist [Dec. 27] (D 161v, R 469vb) Back to Table of Contents
by Hildegard of Bingen
O speculum columbe
castissime forme,
qui inspexisti misticam largitatem
in purissimo fonte:

O mira floriditas
que numquam arescens cecidisti,
quia altissimus
plantator misit te:

O suavissima quies
amplexuum solis:
tu es specialis filius Agni
in electa amicicia
nove sobolis.
O mirror of the dove—
the chastest form—
you gazed upon the mystic bounty
within the clearest font:

O wondrous, flourished bloom
that never withered, never fell—
the Most High
Gardener has sent you forth:

O sweet repose
of sunshine’s warm embrace:
the Lamb’s especial son you are
within that privileged friendship of
a new posterity.
Latin collated from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman; translation by Nathaniel M. Campbell.

Commentary: Themes and Theology
by Nathaniel M. Campbell

St. John, the “beloved disciple” of Jesus in his eponymous Gospel (John 21:20-24), held a unique place not only among the Twelve but also in Hildegard’s understanding of their shared virginal and visionary charism. It was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages both that he was the same man as John of Patmos, the author of the Apocalypse; and that John’s particular gift was lifelong virginity, which marked him out for the special place “reclining nearest to Jesus” at the Last Supper (John 13:23) and as the Virgin Mary’s adoptive son beneath the beam of the Cross (John 19:26-7). In contrast to the bloody martyrdoms of the other eleven apostles, John’s martyrdom was the spiritual death of the desires of the flesh, marking him as the first representative of the monastic discipline of vowed virginity that came to receive the transferred crown of martyrdom in late antique and medieval Christianity.

The focus of this antiphon is Hildegard’s praise for her comrade in virginity, expressed in three particular symbolic images that articulate the special contemplative gift afforded “the new posterity” of the Order of Virgins within the Church. The first of these—the speculum columbe—expresses the idea that, in imitating the purity of the simple white Dove, the virgin contemplative receives from the Holy Spirit the gift of gazing upon divine mysteries at their font and source, unimpeded by the cloudiness and shadows that plague the person still wedded to the desires of the flesh. The absolute purity of the divine foreknowledge as the source of all being is only perfectly available through the chastest flesh of that divinity’s Incarnation, whose imitation the virgin contemplative seeks—Hildegard expresses similar ideas in her antiphon for the Virgin Mary, O splendidissima gemma. The music in this first part of the antiphon for St. John works to emphasize that the more chaste one is, the more pure the contemplation will be, by repeating the same motif on castissime and purissimo—a motif that itself reaches to the high C, the highest note in the piece.

For St. John, who lived with Jesus in the flesh, this gift of clearest contemplation came when he lay nearest to the Lord at the Last Supper. As he rested his head upon Christ’s breast, John drank from his heart—the fons sapientiae, the source of wisdom (Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 1:5)—in fulfillment of Christ’s words, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’,” (John 7:37-38).

This “living water” flows also to water the second symbolic image for John’s virginity, the flower. This was a common image in Hildegard’s pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary and her Son (see e.g. Hodie aperuit nobis or Ave generosa), but she gives it a unique treatment here by invoking, not just a flower, but very concept or idea of flowering (floriditas)—a state of perpetual, virginal flourishing that takes its root from its eternal planting by the arresting image of God the Gardener. This planting, however, is also the mission of a new and holy race.

Thus, the final image of John’s virginity triangulates the contemplative’s mirrored vision and the flower’s fertile blooming with the sunlight that embraces both. The warmth of this embrace echoes one of Hildegard’s frequent images to describe her own visionary experience of the Living Light (lux vivens) and its shadow, e.g. at the opening of Scivias: “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.”[1] This intimate embrace is that of the special friendship afforded to virgins as children of the Lamb, whose unblemished flesh they imitate so dearly.

In Hildegard’s schema of the three orders of the Church (Scivias II.5), her own order of Virgins holds the highest and most honored place, above both laity and clergy. In both that vision itself and the illustration of it in the Rupertsberg manuscript, the figure standing at the very heart of the towering image of Ecclesia is Virginitas (Virginity), her arms outstretched in the orans position, echoing the oblation of prayer offered by Mother Church herself:
This is Virginity, innocent of all foulness of human lust. Her mind is unbound by any shackle of corruption (…). She is also, as is shown you in this hidden and supernal light, the noble daughter of the celestial Jerusalem, the glory and honor of those who have shed their blood for love of virginity or in radiant humility preserved their virginity for the sake of Christ and died sweetly in peace. For she was betrothed to the Son of Almighty God, the King of all, and bore Him a noble brood [nobilissimam prolem], the elect choir of virgins, when she was strengthened in the peace of the Church.
     —Scivias II.5.6
The highest and particular office of this elect and noble virgin progeny was, for Hildegard, their service of song, as she envisioned the musical offering of prayer each day in the Benedictine opus Dei (“work of God”) as practically sacramental in its mediation of divine power (virtus) through human voices that echo in the golden halls of the Church.[2] Moreover, it was St. John, in his role as revelator, who testified to this:
Hence, as you hear, all those who their desire keep their integrity for the sake of celestial love are called “daughters of Zion” in the celestial habitations; for in their love of virginity they imitated my Son, Who is the flower of virginity. Therefore the sounding echoes of the blessed spirits and the outpouring of voices and the winged decorations of happy minds and the golden vision of shining stones and jewels are all with them. How? Because the Son of God grants them this, that a sound goes forth from the Throne in which the whole choir of virgins joins in singing with great desire and harmonizing in the new song, as John, the beloved virgin, testifies, saying:

“And they sang, as it were, a new song before the throne, and before the four living creatures and the ancients,” (Revelation 14:3). What does this mean? In those faithful ones who embrace chastity for a good purpose and preserve their virginity unstained for love of God, good will bursts forth wonderfully in praise of their Creator. How? In the dawn-light of virginity, which always surrounds the Son of God, steadfast praise is hidden; no worldly office and no tie of the law can resist it, and it sings in the voice of exultation (Ps. 41:5) a celestial song to the glory of God. How?

That song, which was not heard before the Only-Begotten of God, the true flower of virginity [verus flos virginitatis], returned in the body from earth to Heaven and sat again on the right hand of the Father, has a swift course and makes itself heard wonderfully in new liberty. (…) This new and unheard-of mystery resounded in Heaven in honor of virginity, before the majesty of God (for God could do this) and before the four wheels that rolled into the four corners of the earth bearing the truth of justice and the humanity of the Savior like the living creatures in the new Law, and before those ancients who were imbued with the Holy Spirit and showed the path of righteousness to the people under the old Law.
     —Scivias II.5.7-8

Commentary: Music and Rhetoric
by Beverly Lomer

Mode: E
Range: G below the final to C a sixth above the final
Setting: neumatic, with some longer segments and selected melismas

This antiphon displays a somewhat unusual modal configuration. While it is in E mode, E is never used as a grammatical marker, as is common in Hildegard’s work. Rather, it begins with the pitch E and moves immediately to C as the primary outlining tone. G is used as a secondary outlining pitch, and the melody does not return to E until the final note.

The salutation, O speculum columbe, is rather long, and for ease of reading, is divided into two lines, with a tick barline at the end of line 2 of the transcription. Lines 5 and 6 are similarly structured. Phrases are otherwise self-contained on a single line, with two additional exceptions: lines 8 and 9 on page 1, and lines 10 (page 1) and 1 (page 2). O mira floriditas can be grouped with que numquam aresens cecidisti, and quia altissimus can be sung as one phrase with plantator misit te. The lines have been separated in the transcription, however, based on similarities in melodic units. O mira floriditas and quia altissumus contain almost identical melodies, and the melodic lines on que numquam... and plantatator... are also somewhat parallel structures. Singers should feel free to choose how much, if any, separation they wish to employ.

In this piece, Hildegard uses C a third below the final as the primary phrase marker. C an octave above appears on select key words, a strategy familiar in Hildegard’s works. The use of the high C and its characteristic motive serves to link certain ideas. It first appears on castissime (“most chaste”) and a few lines later on purissimo (“most pure”), linking the two key themes of human chastity and divine purity in Hildegard’s theology. Thus it is also sounded on filius (“son”) and agni (“Lamb”), directly connecting John’s pure chastity with that of Jesus. Finally, the C motive echoes multiple times to reinforce this link on electa amicicia (John’s “chosen friendship” with Jesus) and nove sobolis (the “new race” of virginity forged in that friendship).

Further Resources for O speculum columbe


[1] All quotations from Scivias are from the translation of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1994); Latin text in the edition of Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 
[2] See Nathaniel M. Campbell, “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,” Eikón / Imago 4 (2013, Vol. 2, No. 2), pp. 1-68, esp. pp. 57-61; available online here