Wednesday, December 9, 2020

O virgo Ecclesia

Votive Antiphon for the Dedication of a Church (D 170r, R 472rb-va) Back to Table of Contents
by Hildegard of Bingen
O virgo Ecclesia,
plangendum est,
quod sevissimus lupus filios tuos
de latere tuo abstraxit.
O ve callido serpenti!
Sed o quam preciosus est sanguis Salvatoris,
qui in vexillo regis
Ecclesiam ipsi desponsavit, unde filios
illius requirit.
O Virgin Church,
lament and mourn!
A savage wolf has snatched
your children from your side.
O woe to serpent’s trickery!
But O, how precious is the Savior’s blood
that with the royal banner sealed
his bridegroom’s promise to the Church,
whose children he is seeking.
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

The rubric for this antiphon in the Risenkodex (fol. 472rb) indicates that it was written for the dedication of a church, and it forms a natural pair with the antiphon that follows it, Nunc gaudeant (see that antiphon's commentary for a discussion of their musical links). Together, they showcase the dichotomy that defines Hildegard’s grand visions of the Virgin Mother Church: she is at once a powerful feminine force, birthing God’s children as the spouse of God’s Son; and again, she is a woman battered, attacked, and abused. The Church’s power is rooted in her divine dispensation and its consummation in eternity, while her pain must be endured in history while ministering to a fallen world.

Those two realms—eternal glory and temporal pain—meet on the Cross, and so with the explicit echo of Venantius Fortunatus’ hymn, Vexilla regis, this antiphon finds the Virgin Mother Church standing together with the Virgin Mother Mary beneath its beam, each a mater dolorosa grieving the schisms that have rent the body of Christ.[1] But in this antiphon, that lament is countered by the promise that Christ made on the Cross, his marriage vow to the Church (Ecclesia):
Scivias II.6: The Crucifixion.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86r

And after these things I saw the Son of God hanging on the cross, and the aforementioned image of a woman coming forth like a bright radiance from the ancient counsel. By divine power she was led to Him, and raised herself upward so that she was sprinkled by the blood from His side; and thus, by the will of the Heavenly Father, she was joined with Him in happy betrothal and nobly dowered with His body and blood.

And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to Him: “May she, O Son, be your Bride for the restoration of My people; may she be a mother to them, regenerating souls through the salvation of the Spirit and water.”
     —Scivias II.6, Vision[2]

Upon the Cross, therefore, Hildegard links the Church’s two most important sacraments, the vehicles by which she administers Christ’s power to the children they bear together: in the illustration of this vision from the Rupertsberg manuscript, the blood pours from his side into Ecclesia’s chalice—the Eucharist—but also onto her head, baptizing her in his blood as he will then regenerate their children “through the salvation of the Spirit and water.”

Scivias II.3: The Church and Baptism.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 51r (detail)
In the first appearance of this figure of Ecclesia in Scivias (II.3), Hildegard sees her:
…the image of a woman as large as a great city, with a wonderful crown on her head and arms from which a splendor hung like sleeves, shining from Heaven to earth. (…) And that image spreads out its splendor like a garment, saying, “I must conceive and give birth!”
As her children then enter into her womb, she “draws them upward to her head, and they go out by her mouth.” Stripped of the black garments of original sin, each is now “clothed in a pure white garment.” Yet, despite the glory that surrounds these reborn children, Ecclesia knows that dark days lie ahead of them on their pilgrimage in the world:
And she, benignly gazing on them, said in a sad voice, “These children of mine will return again to dust. I conceive and bear many who oppress me, their mother, by heretical, schismatic, and useless battles, by robberies and murderers, by adultery and fornication, and by many such errors. Many of these rise again in true penitence to eternal life, but many fall in false obduracy to eternal death.”
     —Scivias II.3, Vision
This is the dark journey that lies ahead for Ecclesia, whose true consolation awaits the end of time:
All things that are on earth hasten to their end, and the world droops toward its end, oppressed by the weakening of its forces and its many tribulations and calamities. But the Bride of My Son, very troubled for her children both by the forerunners of the son of perdition and by the destroyer himself, will never be crushed, no matter how much they attack her. But at the end of time she will rise up stronger than ever, and become more beautiful and more glorious; and so she will move sweetly and delightfully to the embraces of her Beloved.
     —Scivias III.11.1
Hildegard’s writings are full of recriminations against the abuses that the Church would suffer throughout history—it was a signature of her prophetic voice, denouncing corruption and promoting reform in visions, preaching tours, and fiery letters.[3] The hallmark of her way of thinking was to always connect particular crises in the Church with the universal movements of salvation history. As each of her children is joined through her to their head, Jesus Christ, so each of the wolves that attacks her is joined to their head, the serpentine Devil.

Barbara Newman has made the persuasive argument that this antiphon’s universalized image of Church in crisis marks Hildegard’s symbolic response to a specific crisis of the Church in the 1150’s, the revolt of Arnold of Brescia.[4] Arnold had long been a troublemaker in the twelfth-century church, in ways not dissimilar to Hildegard on occasion. He was deeply disturbed by the corruption that ecclesiastical wealth seemed to breed in those of the Church’s ministers who were entangled in political affairs, and began to preach poverty against the luxury of the bishops and possessions of the monasteries. But whereas Hildegard only prophesied the radical disendowment of church property as the punishment awaiting such corruption,[5] Arnold tried to actively effect it through his support of popular insurrections in Italy in the 1130’s, which earned him repeated condemnations, exiles, and penances.

As part of the penance enjoined on him by Pope Eugenius III in his reconciliation to the church in 1145, Arnold made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he fell in with those powers who agitated for the establishment of the Roman Republic and secular rule over the city—tensions that broke into a full-fledged rebellion against the papacy that forced Eugenius to flee the city from 1146 to 1149 while it was ruled as a republican commune, with Arnold as one of its greatest supporters. Excommunicated in 1148, Arnold’s rhetoric did not abate: he condemned the entire hierarchy from Pope on down for not acceding to his demands that they relinquish temporal power. Eventually, Eugenius’ successor, Pope Adrian IV, went so far as to the place the entire city of Rome under interdict during Holy Week of 1155, a measure that finally compelled the populace to hand over Arnold and receive back the Pope. It may thus have been the liturgical context of Arnold’s final defeat—a ban on the public performance of any liturgy during the highest week of the liturgical calendar—that prompted Hildegard to situate this antiphon within the drama of the Crucifixion.

It is clear why Hildegard would hold Arnold for censure as “a savage wolf”—he broke with the Church and went too far, rending her garments with his schismatic zeal. Yet, she also shared in some ways his quite valid concerns over the corruption of the Church—simoniacs were among her most frequent targets for censure. At the same time, she made no apologies for certain uses of finery and wealth, as she makes clear in her letter responding to Tengswich of Andernach’s criticism of her abbey’s classism and use of fine jewelry and silk veils.[6] The key is to understand the place of that wealth within the Church’s service of God—the opus Dei, the especially musical liturgical worship that Pope Adrian’s interdict would have silenced during that Holy Week of 1155 in the city of Rome. We know from Hildegard’s own response to such an interdict near the end of her life how grave such a situation was for her, for it would let loose the Devil from the symphonic fetters that kept him at bay.[7] As the companion antiphon Nunc gaudeant indicates, it is “in the heavens’ symphony” that the Church’s motherly office is restored after suffering the abuse of schism.

Transcription and Music Notes
by Beverly Lomer

E mode
Range: C below the final to E an octave above
Setting: syllabic and pneumatic

In this antiphon, Hildegard primarily outlines her phrases with the final, E. There are some exceptions. Notably, the piece begins on F, and several phrases also start this way—examples include lines 4 and 6 of the transcription. The phrase ecclesiam ipsi desponsavit unde filios concludes with B, a typical use of the secondary modal focus.

Lines 7 and 8 can be regarded as a single phrase, and a tick barline has been included at the end of line 8 to signify this.

While it might be possible to read the phrasing differently according to the lyrics, I have chosen to follow the musical structure, especially where the opening notes of a line repeat.

Further Resources for O virgo Ecclesia


[1] See Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Univ. of California Press, 1987 / 1997), p. 236. 
[2] All quotes from Scivias are from the trans. of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990); Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 and 43a (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). 
[3] See Nathaniel M. Campbell, “The prophetess and the pope: St. Hildegard of Bingen, Pope Benedict XVI, and prophetic visions of church reform,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 10:1 (2019), 22-35; online here
[4] Newman, Symphonia, p. 315; and eadem, Sister of Wisdom, pp. 237-8. 
[5] Cf. Letter 149r to Werner of Kirchheim in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. 2, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 92-4; and The Book of Divine Works 3.5.16, trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell (Catholic University of America Press, 2018), pp. 447-450. 
[6] See Letters 52 and 52r in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. 1, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 127-30. 
[7] See Letter 23 in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. 1, pp. 76-80. 

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