Monday, September 8, 2014

O splendidissima gemma

Psalm antiphon for the Virgin (D 154r-v, R 466vb, Scivias III.13.1a) by Hildegard of Bingen
O splendidissima gemma
et serenum decus solis
qui tibi infusus est,
fons saliens
de corde Patris,
quod est unicum Verbum suum,
per quod creavit mundi
primam materiam,
quam Eva turbavit.

Hoc Verbum effabricavit
tibi Pater hominem,
et ob hoc es tu illa lucida materia
per quam hoc ipsum Verbum exspiravit
omnes virtutes, ut eduxit
in prima materia omnes creaturas.
O jewel resplendent
and bright and joyous beauty of the sun
that’s flooded into you—
the fountain leaping
from the Father’s heart.
This is his single Word
by which he did create the world’s
primordial matter,
a motherhood into confusion cast by Eve.

This Word the Father made
for you into a man—
and this is why you are that bright and shining matter,
through which that Word has breathed
forth every virtue, just as he brought forth
all creatures in a primal motherhood.
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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

This antiphon is the first piece of the heavenly symphony that Hildegard heard in the final vision of Scivias (III.13), addressed to the Virgin Queen of the celestial choirs. Its opening image, of the sunlight refracting through and reflecting off a gemstone, becomes quite literally a lens through which Hildegard glimpses the entire sway of salvation history, stretching from the prima materia, the primordial material at the beginning of creation, through the disturbance of that matter in the Fall, and finally to the Virgin’s integral role in renewing that material as she bore the Son of God. Two central images emerge: the interaction of sunlight with gemstone, and the polyvalency of materia as both matter and motherhood.

The image of the gemstone situates the Virgin within the complex web of salvation history by calling upon the twelve precious stones that adorned first the breastplate of the high priest of Israel (Exodus 28) and then the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem in John’s vision thereof (Apoc. 21). The manifestation of God’s presence among his people as his City is a classically patristic image (e.g. St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei), but Hildegard expands its symbolic limits by connecting the Heavenly Jerusalem to the Virgin’s own body as a tabernacle—from the architectural metaphors of the responsory, Ave Maria, O auctrix vite, to the Temple of God with its closed and re-opened door in the antiphon Hodie aperuit, invoking Ezekiel 44.

Scivias I.4: Emobdiment of Soul and Earthly Life.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 22r
The place of this antiphon within the opening of the symphony that closes Scivias also connects its image of the gemstone with the anthropological vision near the start of the work (Scivias I.4), in which Hildegard explored the relationship between soul and body struggling against the temptations of the material world. The vision itself, as well as the allegorical explication of it and the extensive narrative told by the representative “human form”, all identify it as the story of the life and ordeals of an “Everyperson.” It begins with the Everyperson’s conception, as their soul is quickened in the womb of their mother by the flow of divine energy from a golden quadrilateral allegorically identified as “the Knowledge of God.” The iconography of this image in the illustration Hildegard designed for it in the Rupertsberg manuscript draws from common tropes for illustrating the nativity of Christ, with the recumbent mother in the same pose commonly used for the Virgin Mary in childbirth. The use of gold overlaid with red-lacquer to illustrate the divine ensoulment further highlights the particular iconographical valences of the Rupertsberg image, for the manuscript intentionally used such red-gold to illustrate both the Father as one person of the Trinity and to mark the irruptions of his divine activity into creation in the form of one Hildegard’s favorite images, the dawn light.[1]

Hildegard’s design of the image helps the viewer-reader to make a typological connection between the Everyperson’s lament for the weight of their ordeals in life (illustrated to the right of their conception) in Scivias I.4 and their resolution in the opening lyric to the Virgin at the end of the work:
For I should have had a tabernacle adorned with five square gems more brilliant than the sun and stars, for the sun and stars that set would not have shone in it, but the glory of the angels; the topaz would have been its foundation and all the gems its structure, its staircases made of crystal and its courtyards paved with gold. For I should have been a companion of the angels, for I am a living breath, which God placed in dry mud; thus I should have known and felt God. But alas! When my tabernacle saw that it could turn its eyes into all the ways, it turned its attention toward the North; ach, ach! And there I was captured and robbed of my sight and the joy of knowledge, and my garment was torn.
Oh, who will console me, since even my mother has abandoned me when I strayed from the path of salvation? Who will help me but God? But when I remember you, O mother Zion, in whom I should have dwelt, I see the bitter slavery to which I am subjected. And when I have called to memory the music of all sorts that dwells in you, I feel my wounds. And when I remember the joy and gladness of your glory, I am horrified by the poisons that pollute them.
     —Scivias I.4.1[2]
Mother Zion and her bejewled tabernacle full of light and joyous music (which appears at the top of the right-hand column of images in the Rupertsberg illustration) is clearly a type or figure of the Virgin Mother Church, whose halls Hildegard herself filled with music. But as the collective Mother Zion transformed into the collective Mother Church, so the individual and archetypal—but fallen—Mother Eve transformed into the Virgin Mother Mary as temporal instantiations of the divine tabernacle. The first words addressed to Mary in Scivias III.14 praise her as precisely the “resplendent jewel” that was supposed to be the material of the human body, reflecting and refracting the divine light of which the sun and stars are but dim shadows. Her body—transparent and unpolluted—was the perfect chamber for God’s presence that all other human bodies, following the inheritance of Eve, had scorned and vitiated with the darkness and shadow of sin.

The zeal of the poetry highly exalts the Virgin Mary. Although the sun itself is the divine fountain, the source of all, Mary is the sun’s serenum decus, the “bright and joyous beauty” of the sunlight that her lucid body refracts and reflects. Furthermore, in the second half of the antiphon, it is for Mary herself (tibi) that the Father made his Word into a human being—she is the first and singular benefactor of this extraordinary gift, as only the purity of her body and soul were sufficient to receive it. This is the virtue of her gem-like lucidity, the lucida materia that sparkles with the divine presence and allows it to shine forth.

The music, however, mediates this exaltation by establishing different registers for Mary’s creaturliness and God’s divinity. The lower range up to the C above the final (E) is used through most of the piece for the earthly creatures of Mary and Eve, while reserving the range above that C for references to the divine—the Sun itself leaping from the Father’s heart, with saliens the first to leap from the final to the highest note of the piece an octave above, with that high E repeated again always in reference to Father and Word—on quod, the latter two appearances of Verbum, and both Pater and hominem.

The last line of the piece, however, unites the two ranges as materia soars to that top note of E: at last the primordial material of creation returns to its divine source along the same path by which the divine virtutes—the virtues and powers of divine activity—came forth, creating and sustaining, into the world, refracted through the gem-like transparency of Mary’s pure material body. This brings us to the second crucial image with which Hildegard plays in this piece—the polyvalency of materia as not only material but also motherhood. The vitiation of the “primordial matter” came through the chaos provoked by Eve’s fall, punished by the pangs of childbirth and human mortality. The music reinforces this connection, for Eva is set to the same musical phrase but two tones lower as the first half of primam materiam, while turbavit then echoes directly the final phrase of materiam. But the motherhood that Eve’s fallenness cast into confusion, shadow, and darkness was rescued and restored by the Virgin's miraculous bearing of the Son of God.

For Hildegard, the fecundity and fertility of motherhood is a fundamental property of material creation. At one level, this is a consequence of her neoplatonic metaphysics—because all being exists out of the overflow of fecund being from its divine source, all being thus shares in that fundamental property of wanting to overflow, to be creative and recreative and procreative. But in Hildegard’s poetic symbolisms, it is often the more concrete images drawn from the natural world around her that relate this material fecundity with startling and refreshing vitality. In the explicatory chapters of the aforementioned Scivias I.4, she often draws upon such verdant metaphors to explain the relationship between body and soul, thus literally rooting the human person in the creative vitality of the material world. The infant is quickened in the mother’s womb, for example, “just as the earth opens and brings forth the flowers of its use when the dew falls on it” (Scivias I.4.16)[3]—the imagery, of course, parallels Hildegard’s descriptions of Mary’s fecund virginity in, e.g., Ave generosa. Thereafter, the soul and its powers (vires) “give vitality and viridity to the marrow and veins and members of the whole body, as the tree from its root gives sap and viridity to all the branches” (Scivias I.4.16).[4]

It might seem odd, then, that in this antiphon, Hildegard represents this fecund materiality with the image, not of a living organism, but of a gemstone—a piece of rock that would seem to most of us the antithesis of life. In part, this reflects the fact that in Latin, the root meaning of the term gemma is a flower bud—the “gem” of a plant; and Hildegard plays on this polyvalency in other places, e.g. in strophe 1b of her sequence for St. Maximin, Columba aspexit. But the connection goes deeper than that, because for Hildegard, all materiality has a vitality to it, precisely because all materiality participates in its vital creator and source. Thus, she even goes so far as to use a stone as an analogy for the Trinity—in Scivias II.2.5, a stone’s damp viridity (umida viriditas), solidity to the touch (palpabilis comprehensio), and red-sparking fire (rutilans ignis) represent Father, Son, and Spirit, respectively. In that same vision, Hildegard had already seen the Son represented as “a human being the color of sapphire”, and the sapphire returns in the vision of the Eucharist in Scivias II.6 as Hildegard describes the union of Christ’s divinity with the sacramental wine as the physical action of dropping a sapphire into the cup (ch. 13—see the commentary for O clarissima)—thus invoking the use of gemstones as medicinal cures found in the fourth book of her work on natural medicine, Physica. As she notes in the Preface of that fourth book, all stones are born of fire and water, and all are despised by the Devil because they both remind him of his former glory (adorned as he was by their lucid splendor) and, “because it is the nature of certain precious stones to seek those things that are honorable and useful and to reject those that are depraved and evil for humankind, just as the virtues reject the vices and the vices cannot cooperate with the virtues.”[5] Precious stones have their own powers (vires) to choose between good and evil—and it is in their nature to choose the good, for the good is the source of their beauty and light.

The resplendent lucidity of Mary’s jewel-like body is thus a property of her glorious virginal motherhood, which allows the Word to be made flesh in her womb without ever being overtaken by the darkness.

Commentary: Music and Rhetoric
by Beverly Lomer

E mode
Range: A below final to E an octave above the final.
Setting: neumatic with short melismas

In the E mode, E and B are the typical grammatical demarcators, but in this work, Hildegard also uses D. The musical strategy is subtle and highlights the key theme, Mary’s radiance and partnership with the Father in salvation.

The salutation, O splendidissima gemma, is outlined by the modal final, E. The next phrase, et serenum decus solis, which elaborates on the first, is broken into two musical parts. The conjunction et, which serves to connect the imagery of the resplendent gem and the bright beauty of the sun, is set to D. Serenum and decus share an opening melodic motive, and solis rises to the C above the final, one of the two signature high points in the piece. Reading the lyrics alone, Mary is described as the resplendent gem, the serene beauty of the sun that was poured into her, referring to the Word, by which the Father created all things and which he gave flesh in the Incarnation. The musical phrasing, however, breaks up this imagery a bit. O splendidissima gemma et serenum decus solis is outlined by the modal final, and the E on which solis concludes offers a definitive cadence. While the use of the final to punctuate a phrase or idea is typical, what Hildegard does next is less usual. She begins the second part of the statement on D with a conjoined neumatic leap to A that identifies it as an opening gesture. The pitch D used in this way is atypical in this mode. Here it serves to create the sense of a new theme, as the second part of the narrative begins. Thus, the musical subtlety presents Mary, radiant with the light of primary divinity, for a fleeting moment as a stand-alone image. The antiphon further emphasizes this singular place of the Virgin when it says that the Father created his Word as man for Mary herself (tibi). A similar image also appears in the repetendum of O tu suavissima virga: “when the father observed the brightness of the virgin, as he wished his word to be incarnated in her.”

After the leap from D to A to begin statement, qui tibi infusus est (“which was poured into you”), the following phrases, fons saliens (“a fountain leaping”) and de corde Patris (“from the Father’s heart”) are conventionally outlined by the modal final, E. The next phrase, quod est unicum Verbum suum (“which is his only Word”), which serves as a textual conclusion of the initial imagery of Mary as the gem and beauty of the sun, also begins on D. Again, we see the image of independent radiance extended musically until this final statement.

Although quod est unicum Verbum suum concludes the first thought, it can also be considered as the beginning of a new segment or idea. It ends on B, and the next phrase, per quod creavit mundi, begins on B. The theme changes to the creation of the world and the images of matter/mother (materia) are introduced. The melody ascends to the E an octave above the final on quod. The high E melody also appears in the unusual phrases, hoc Verbum effabricavit and tibi Pater hominem (“this Word the Father made for you into a man”); the former hoc begins on B, and the latter is outlined by B. This treatment sets the themes apart, thus adding additional musical emphasis.

For Hildegard, Mary not only overturns the damage done by Eve, she recovers the original glory of Woman. The text of the sequence, O virga ac diadema, describes the “form of Woman,” which God made “the mirror of all his beauty and the embrace of his whole creation.” Thus, Mary serves as the model of the original sacrality and beauty of the feminine for the female community. And that model encompasses the notion that Woman/Mary is not a mere passive vessel but rather an active participant in the salvation scheme.

Further Resources for O splendidissima gemma
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia, ed. Barbara Newman (Cornell Univ. Press, 1988 / 1998), pp. 114 and 272.
  • Lomer, Beverly R. “Rhetoric and the Creation of Feminist Consciousness in the Marian Songs of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Ph.D. diss., Florida Atlantic University, 2006.
  • Lomer, Beverly. Music, Rhetoric and the Sacred Feminine. Saarbrücken, Germany: Verlag Dr. Müller, 2009.
  • For a discography of this piece, see the comprehensive list by Pierre-F. Roberge: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - A discography


[1] 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. p. 55; accessible online here
[2] Adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 109-110; Latin text from the edition of Adelgundis Führkötter and Angela Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 62-3. 
[3] Trans. Hart and Bishop, p. 119; ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, p. 78: “velut terra se aperit et flores fructus sui profert cum ros super eam ceciderit.” 
[4] Adapted from Hart and Bishop, p. 120; ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, p. 78: “quonium viriditatem medullarum ac venarum et omnium membrorurm toti corpori tribuit, velut arbor ex sua radice sucum et viriditatem omnibus ramis dat.” 
[5] Hildegard von Bingen, Physica: Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum, ed. Reiner Hildebrandt and Thomas Gloning (Walter de Gruyter, 2010), p. 229 (Liber IV, Prefatio): “Et sic pretiosi lapides ab igne et ab aqua gignuntur; unde etiam ignem et humiditatem in se habent, et etiam multas vires et multos effectus operum tenent, ita quod plurime operationes cum eis fieri possunt, ea tamen opera que bona et honesta ac utilia homini sunt (...), quoniam natura eorundem pretiosorum lapidum queque honesta et utilia querit, et prava et mala homini respuit, quemadmodum virtutes vitia abiciunt, et ut vitia cum virtutibus operari non possunt.” 

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