Monday, December 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Sara Salvadori, Hildegard von Bingen: In the Heart of God (Skira, 2021)

Sara Salvadori. Hildegard von Bingen: In the Heart of God. Trans. Oona Smith and Susan Ann White. Milan: Skira, 2021. 144pp, 120 color illustrations. Available from the publisher and Amazon.

Following the publication of her impressive and immersive study of the illustrations of Hildegard of Bingen’s first work, Scivias, (Hildegard von Bingen: A Journey into the Images [2019]—see my review here), Sara Salvadori was invited to apply her creative insights to the illustrations of the Lucca manuscript of Hildegard’s last great work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works; henceforth LDO). The result is this new book, which delivers the cosmological analysis that Salvadori had previewed at the end of her first volume, while also bringing the later manuscript into dialogue with the Scivias images. Once again, Salvadori’s capacious imagination has combined with the enthusiastic support of her collaborators (including Michaela Pereira and José C. Santos Paz, whose scholarly essays frame both ends of the study) and the lavish editorial direction of arthouse publisher Skira to produce another remarkable volume.

The book has two goals. First, it seeks to describe what the Lucca illustrations communicate individually (Ch. 3: Grammar) and how they articulate larger, interconnected themes of the work (Ch. 4: Rhetoric). Salvadori used this same structural approach of first cataloguing the visual grammar of the images and then analyzing their visual rhetoric in her earlier study of the illustrations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of Scivias. The visual catalogue in particular is, like its predecessor, a valuable tool for any person trying to understand the complex and often enigmatic illustrations (although some of the numbered references to the plates are confusing). Moreover, Salvadori has made several digital reconstructions of Hildegard’s visions to clarify points where the Lucca illustrations are misleading or silent.

Second, it puts the Lucca illustrations in dialogue with illustrations of the Scivias, designed under Hildegard’s guidance in the last decade of her life, when she also completed writing the LDO. Salvadori gives an overview of these connections in Ch. 1 (Prologue), and then uses the Scivias images throughout the “Rhetoric” chapter, to allow illustrations directly designed by Hildegard (from Scivias) to interpret illustrations she did not directly design (from the Lucca LDO). The contemporaneous execution of both the LDO’s text and the Scivias images rightly justifies Salvadori’s approach, because it “resulted in [the two works] being closely linked at a structural level” (pp 17-18).[1]

Salvadori’s central thesis is that the ten visions of the LDO are, in fact, “one great vision,” which moves cinematically, as it were, through different cosmological levels, to tell a single story (summarized schematically on pp. 26-27, with more elaborate reconstructions summarizing her rhetorical analysis on pp. 125-133). Beginning and ending with the figure of Divine Love (Caritas), the work “pivots on the relationship between God and man and on the contemplative dialogue of love” (p. 22). The cosmic Wheel of Part 1 sets humankind within their proper relationship to all of creation, as the work of God, made in his image and likeness. Part 2 then zooms in on the earth at the universe’s center and becomes the cross-roads for the entire volume, where we find “the ways through which man can purify himself” on the reintegrative journey back to his source in Divine Love, along the pathway of virginitas. Finally, the Building (the City of God) toward which that pathway leads takes center stage in Part 3, to showcase that journey’s destination. The “extreme synthesis” of this thematic journey is that, “Man is made according to the image and likeness of God and is kept in his heart” (p. 129).

Salvadori’s rhetorical analysis bears two essential fruits. The first is a complex reconstruction of the cosmological visions presented in Part 1 of the LDO. A frequent criticism of my published translation of the LDO has been that it did not include diagrams or schematics to help clarify Hildegard’s intricate descriptions of the cosmos.[2] Salvadori’s reconstructions fill that lacuna, with Hildegard’s own words providing the key to her interpretive approach. The visionary’s description of her experiences in a letter to Guibert of Gembloux demonstrates that Hildegard seeks “to reconcile multiple viewpoints and perspectives in a single great vision” (p. 61). Hildegard’s visions constantly shift their point of view, ranging from “an immense, unfathomable firmament seen from a distant perspective,” to movements within the cosmic space, to close-up, intimate examinations of the human body in its environment. Because of this, Salvadori recognizes that we must manipulate the illustrations and our perspectives on them if we are to fit them all together like puzzle pieces into a coherent whole.

Of particular value to readers of the LDO will be Salvadori’s schematics of the network of winds and celestial bodies (planets, sun, and moon) and their allegorical interpretations from LDO 1.2 (pp. 75-83); the cosmic movements of the winds and their relationship to the human body from LDO 1.3 (pp. 84-91); and the cosmic proportions of the human body and their allegorical interpretations from LDO 1.4 (pp. 92-104). Santos Paz’s essay at the end of the volume (pp. 134-140) also offers some tantalizing connections between otherwise inexplicable details of the LDO 1.2 illustration and the texts in the so-called “Berlin Fragment,” which open up a space for more research to be done on that strange collection.

Among Salvadori’s analyses, I was particularly struck by her ingenious solution to one of the more difficult stumbling blocks presented by the illustrations. As I have noted elsewhere, the illustration for LDO 1.2 appears to reverse the placement of north and south in relation to east and west.[3] If east is above the human figure and west as at his feet, then north must be to the viewer’s left and south to the viewer’s right. However, the Lucca illustration reverses this, with north to the viewer’s right (and thus the figure’s left hand) and south to the viewer’s left (and thus the figure’s right hand). Salvadori’s solution draws on the secondary description of the human figure in LDO 1.4.48, where the figure faces east, with west to his back, north to his left, and south to his right. In order to present the human figure frontally on the two-dimensional page, however, the east-west axis must be tilted up around the north-south axis, to place east above and west below (pp. 58-61). Salvadori’s hypothesis is elegant and compelling, as it allows us to preserve Hildegard’s allegorical connection between the north and the figure’s left side.
Reconstruction of the winged figures.
(Salvadori, p. 67)

The second fruit of Salvadori’s analysis is to connect the images of the LDO to the illuminated Scivias. These reconstructions work best when they are based on textual connections between the two works; but they also draw on visual connections between the two sets of illustrations. The resulting collages are certainly imaginative, but also perhaps a bit grotesque—as Salvadori herself admits, the reconstruction, “though accurate, is certainly far from poetic” (p. 61). As an example, Salvadori’s analysis of the opening figure of Divine Love in LDO 1.1 connects to no fewer than six different visions in Scivias (pp. 64-67—see the resulting composite at right). Some of these are textually obvious, but other connections are more subtle and rely especially on the interplay between text and illustration in Scivias.

Man in the middle of the wheel.
(Salvadori, p. 72)
Another ingenious comparison comes when Salvadori sets the illustration of the cosmic wheel in LDO 1.2 alongside the illustration for the Trinity in Scivias 2.2 (pp. 72-74—see at left). Salvadori uses the visual connection to correlate the creation of humankind with the Incarnation of Christ and thus to confirm her larger thesis of the intimate connection between the triune God and creation. For me as a historian, however, the precise correspondence of proportions between frame, circles, and human figure indicates close connections between the production of the two manuscripts. Perhaps Hildegard used the cosmic proportions of LDO 1.2 to design the Scivias Trinity image in the 1170’s. Likewise, we can propose that the Lucca illustrator (who was likely working in the Rupertsberg scriptorium) modeled the LDO 1.2 schematic on those Trinitarian circles. Salvadori demonstrates similar connections in compositional geometry between the purgatorial dissection of the Earth in LDO 2.1 and the Last Judgment illustrations for Scivias 3.12 (pp. 103-107); as well as between the Building conceits shared by the third parts of both works (pp. 113-123). As with her previous work on Scivias, she includes physical models created to compile the different vision elements into a single structure.

There are, however, limits to the rationalizations Salvadori attempts. For example, she assumes that the bright red line that runs horizontally across the illustration for LDO 1.2 must correspond to “the line of the sun” described in the vision text (p. 73). But no amount of reorienting or rotating the figure can magically take that line, which in the illustration must correspond to the North-South axis, and make it match with the East-West path of the sun. Here is a point where one must simply acknowledge that the illustrations are not always precision instruments. This also exemplifies the biggest drawback to this volume. For the sake of comprehensiveness, Salvadori sometimes forces an interpretation of smaller pieces of the illustrations that do not ultimately fit with the overall themes at the core of the study. As a result, there are several digressions and asides in the “Rhetoric” section that distract from the larger rhetorical movement and make it harder to discern the ductus, the path or journey, of the argument. Finally, one must note the occasional infelicity in the English translation of Salvadori’s Italian original (“extreme synthesis” from p. 129 would more idiomatically be rendered as, “final synthesis”), as well as places where cross-references do not match.

Nevertheless, Sara Salvadori has an expansive imagination for interpreting the images in Hildegard’s Book of Divine Works, and though some of her insights run beyond the bounds of scholarly inquiry, they certainly cannot outrun God’s eternity. Ultimately, Salvadori’s volume will be a welcome resource for anyone who wants to enter into Hildegard’s cosmological imagination, and its grace is that it tries to keep our attention focused throughout on the reason for those flights of vision: God’s love. It will also make a good companion piece to Margot Fassler’s recent volume, Cosmos, Liturgy, and the Arts in the Twelfth Century: Hildegard's Illuminated Scivias (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), which builds on Fassler’s own work into the cosmology of the Scivias illustrations, their connections to Hildegard’s musical compositions, and the theological results in the lives of Hildegard’s community.

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.


[1] I have used this same point of contact to use the text of the LDO to support analysis of the Scivias illustrations: see Nathaniel M. Campbell, “Picturing Hildegard of Bingen’s Sight: Illuminating Her Visions,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hildegard of Bingen, ed. Jennifer Bain (Cambridge University Press, 2021), pp. 257-279, at 270. 
[2] St. Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of Divine Works, trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018). 
[3] Under my hypothesis, this is because the illustrator worked directly from the vision text itself, which uses only spatial relationships and not cardinal directions without reference to the later commentary that specifies cardinal directions. See Campbell, “Picturing Hildegard of Bingen’s Sight: Illuminating Her Visions,” pp. 275-276. 

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