Thursday, September 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Sara Salvadori, Hildegard von Bingen: A Journey into the Images (Skira, 2019)

Sara Salvadori. Hildegard von Bingen: A Journey into the Images. Trans. Sarah Elizabeth Cree and Susan Ann White. Milan: Skira, 2019. 224pp, 175 color illustrations. Available from the publisher and Amazon.

Two decades after Lieselotte Saurma-Jeltsch’s landmark study of Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias illustrations—the first volume to reproduce full-size, full-color plates from the modern replica of the lost manuscript[1] —English-language readers finally have access to a comparable edifice in Sara Salvadori’s new study. Whereas Saurma-Jeltsch approached the images as a professional art historian (and thus her volume is indispensable for setting the historical context for the manuscript), Salvadori has spent years trying to understand the images from the inside-out, as it were. Her meticulous analysis and exploration of their “grammar and rhetoric” has combined with the lavish editorial direction of arthouse publisher Skira to produce this remarkable and beautiful volume.

The book comprises three main sections. The first section is introductory, and includes two prefaces by renowned Italian scholars, Giorgio Mazzanti and Michela Pereira (the latter also provided the Italian translations of Hildegard’s texts), as well as a brief Introduction by Salvadori that sketches out the structure of the “journey.” Chapter I gives a “Portrait” of Hildegard’s life and times, with a peculiar eye towards her geographical landscape (more on that later). The second chapter then gives an overview of the content and structure of Scivias, Hildegard’s first major visionary treatise, along with a “general map” of the illustrations (pp. 24-25). Here, Salvadori articulates the main themes that will guide her rhetorical analysis of the images, including the essential choice between good and evil, as well as the work’s overarching Trinitarian framework and movement. In particular, she notes the structural features that turn the work into a “sapiential journey” that leads the reader through the story of salvation, at both cosmic and personal levels. Salvadori’s principal thesis is that the illustrations themselves both narrate the journey of the soul back to God and articulate the universal contact points between the triune God and the pilgrimage of his people.
Schematic of Scivias 1.3: The Firmament
(Salvadori, Hildegard von Bingen, p. 46)



This book’s most valuable feature is its second section (Chapter III), in which Salvadori lays out the “grammar” of the illustrations. It is essentially a catalogue of each of the manuscript’s 35 images, reproduced full-size, with explanatory text and thumbnails on the facing page annotated to explain every significant detail (see example at right). This is the first time that such a detailed catalogue has been made available in English, and it will serve particularly well to overcome the many erroneous interpretations that have arisen from the images’ inclusion in a variety of New Age materials, such as Matthew Fox’s popular but misleading work, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.[2] Salvadori’s volume will (and must) utterly eclipse Fox’s as the standard go-to work in English.

In the final section of the book (Chapter IV), Salvadori presents the fruits of her years-long rumination upon the images, through an analysis of their “rhetoric.” Here, she moves from what they are saying to how and why they are saying it, in order to trace “the golden sapiential thread that passes through the figures/symbols.” Individual visual elements, including figures, shapes, frames, and colors, become links that traverse the narrative order of the illustrations.
Reconstruction of the Edifice of Salvation
(Salvadori, Hildegard von Bingen, p. 182)
This shifts the reader from a horizontal into a vertical perspective, making it “possible to look at the entire landscape, savoring its most intimate history, bearer of the revelation of the ‘ways,’ of the path of Wisdom that recounts the unfolding of the relationship between man and God” (p. 111). The manifold manifestations of the Trinity headline this exploration, followed by examinations of the connections between Earth and Heaven; the visual representations of creation and the cosmos; the contrast between light and dark; the manifestations of Mary, the Church, and their prefiguration in Synagogue; the path of salvation and human journey along it back to the heavenly Jerusalem; the “army of virtues” that accompanies this journey; and the heavenly choirs of praise that cap it off. Particularly compelling here is Salvadori’s three-dimensional reconstruction of the Edifice of Salvation in Part Three of Scivias (pp. 174-213). Her models allow Hildegard’s great city literally to leap off the page and give us an idea of how a visual thinker like her might have mentally manipulated the space, as well as imagined the personified Virtues acting within it.
Scivias 2.2: Trinity.
(Salvadori, Hildegard von Bingen, p. 61)

Salvadori is also acutely aware of the manuscript’s use of color as its own rhetorical language, which is an area that has often been neglected by art historical analyses of the images. For example, she analyzes background and border colors to persuasively articulate an overarching movement from the green of the earth, through the blue of the sky, and into the silver and gold of heavenly glory (pp. 132-137). Unfortunately, there is one crucial color scheme in the manuscript that she seems to have misread: the colors spun from the central vision of the Trinity (Scivias 2.2—see pp. 60-61 and 115). While accurately reading the sapphire blue as the Son, she reverses the colors that Hildegard uses to signify Father and Spirit: the Father is represented in gold, not silver; and the Spirit is represented in silver, not gold.[3] There are moments when the overriding pictorial logic almost forces Salvadori into the correct order, as for example when she identifies the grey or silver “pole” descending into Creation in Scivias 2.1 as the Spirit (p. 129). But Salvadori’s fertile mind would have been able to produce much richer fruit had she carried through with that observation and emphasized the vital spaces that Hildegard opens up for the movement of the Holy Spirit through the extensive use of silver in the manuscript.

Even if some of Salvadori’s speculations seem far-fetched (such as mapping precise groundplans of the city of Jerusalem onto Hildegard’s illustration of the Edifice of Salvation on p. 178), the mode in which she labors to think about the images and their rhetorical strategies is closely akin to Hildegard’s own “symbolist” approach. The hallmark of the Visionary Doctor’s way of thinking is her constant awareness of the connections between the concrete and individual, on the one hand; and the universal and divine, on the other. Salvadori’s intense meditation upon the images has attuned her to just those same connections. Similarly, her account of Hildegard’s life and times at the beginning of the book (pp. 11-21) may seem to stray some considerable distance from a standard history, because Salvadori looks not only to situate Hildegard in her physical landscape (dominated by the rivers that allowed for communication and travel), but also to connect that landscape into the cosmic and spiritual perspectives of salvation history. Again, her mapping of the Scivias illustration of the embodiment of the soul onto the physical geography of the Rhineland and southern Europe may be far-fetched (p. 19), but it is precisely the kind of imaginative mapping that Hildegard herself would have engaged in.

One of the most significant drawbacks of the volume are infelicities in its English translation (Salvadori wrote originally in Italian). Michela Pereira provided all of the Italian translations from Hildegard’s Latin text of Scivias, and the English translator has rendered those directly, often with an overriding preference for cognates (e.g. “orient” and “occident” instead of east and west). The editors would have been much better served referencing the standard English translation of Scivias by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), and any reader of Salvadori’s book in English will want to have that volume at hand. One phrase where the preference for cognates is particularly detrimental is in the term, “candid cloud.” As Salvadori brilliantly elucidates (pp. 142-43), Hildegard uses the image of the cloud to connect and transform the figures of Eve, Mary, and Wisdom across the three parts of Scivias. Hildegard’s Latin phrase is candida nubes—but candida means “shining bright white,” and this crucial detail is lost with the cognate “candid.” (The English term derives its primary meaning from the toga candida, the bright-white toga worn by ancient Roman politicians to signify their supposed honesty and integrity, i.e. that they have nothing to hide.)

Salvadori plans a second volume for release next year, titled Scivias. A Journey beyond the Images, in which she intends to give a unified cosmological reconstruction of the illustrations’ visual universe. Hopefully, some of the translation missteps can be avoided in this future volume. If so, I eagerly await its application of the remainder of the liberal arts (dialectic and the quadrivium) to Salvadori’s ambitious interpretative project. Though they have worked entirely independently, there seems to be significant overlap between Salvadori’s work and the digital reconstructions pursued by Margot Fassler in the United States (see here). Both are giving Hildegard’s illustrations a new life for our time, grounded in Hildegard’s world but speaking to ours.

About the Author: Nathaniel M. Campbell is an adjunct instructor in the humanities at Union College (Kentucky, USA). His translation of Hildegard's The Book of Divine Works appeared from the Catholic University of America Press in 2018. He also co-edits this Society's online edition of Hildegard's Symphonia.
Footnotes

[1] Lieselotte Saurma-Jeltsch, Die Miniaturen im „Liber Scivias“ der Hildegard von Bingen: die Wucht der Vision und die Ordnung der Bilder (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1998). 
[2] Fox’s work forces many bizarre and baseless interpretations onto the images, in large part because of the way he appropriates medieval texts and images to suit his own, twentieth-century viewpoint—see the nuanced analysis of Barbara Newman, “Romancing the Past: A Critical Look at Matthew Fox and the Medieval ‘Creation Mystics’,” Touchstone 5 (1992), pp. 5-10: accessible online here
[3] See Nathaniel M. Campbell, “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,” Eik√≥n / Imago 4 (2013, Vol. 2, No. 2), 1-68, at pp. 37-40 and 46-61; accessible online here

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