Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a German abbess, writer, composer, mystic, and visionary. To anyone unacquainted with her writings, her description of the ‘cosmic egg’ cosmos in Book One Vision Three of her 1151 treatise Scivias (Know the Ways) would seem more fitting on the pages of Dante’s Divine Comedy as a description of a circle of hell than as a portrayal of the harmonious celestial orbits of the universe. She writes:
I saw a huge form, rounded and shadowy, and shaped like an egg… Its outer layer consisted of an atmosphere of bright fire with a kind of dark membrane beneath it… From the outer atmosphere of fire, a wind blew storms. And from the dark membrane beneath, another membrane raged with further storms which moved out in all directions of the globe.
For Hildegard, the cosmos appeared in her visions as a dynamic Manichean balancing act, a volatile mixture of destructive elemental forces: dark fire, whirlwinds, jagged stones, thunder, and lightning. Amidst this chaos, the only stability seems to be the ‘zone of watery air’ with its ‘pleasant and softly falling rain’. As an ambiguous blending of Christianity and Neoplatonism, Hildegard’s egg-shaped cosmos mimics that of the mandorla which iconographically symbolised the majesty of Christ but also drew on a rich Neoplatonic tradition stretching from the Roman philosopher Varro (B.C. 116–B.C. 27) to Martianus Capella and Peter Abelard. Far from being an ordered cosmos, Hildegard’s takes on the characteristics of a homeostatic organism, constantly requiring regulation of its internal conditions to avoid collapse. This cosmos would indeed be frightening to comprehend.
Fast-forward 865 years, and on 4 July 2016 the NASA spacecraft Juno reached the end of her five-year, 588 million kilometre journey from our familiar green and blue planet to Jupiter. In the same way our medieval counterparts sought to understand theological issues by peeling away the layers of integumentum (or ‘covering’) enveloping the truth, so Juno’s sensors peered through the thick layers of storm cloud obscuring the planet to catch a glimpse of its rocky surface. The data sent back surpassed even the wildest expectations of NASA scientists: the first ever images of Jupiter’s north pole have revealed storm systems and unusual weather activity, not unlike that described in Hildegard’s visionary writings, as massive auroras of energised particles encircle its poles and radiate throughout its atmosphere.
Cosmological Thinking in the High Middle Ages
But what does the Juno mission have in common with Hildegard, a German visionary and polymath? Despite being centuries apart, both Hildegard and NASA represent the cutting-edge of scientific discovery in their respective ages. While our scientists search for truth about the origins of the universe using precise sensory equipment such as telescopes, satellites, and spacecraft to measure quantifiable phenomena, for the medieval philosopher theology was the mainstream tool of choice to understand the cosmos.
That’s not to say that cosmology in the Middle Ages was ‘unscientific’. Hildegard was not alone in believing that, for postlapsarian man, an understanding of the natural world using the seven liberal arts (the quadrivium [arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music] and the trivium [grammar, rhetoric and logic]) – the handmaidens of theology – were the steps needed to reconstruct the ladder of virtues back to God. Whilst not personally affiliated with the (ambiguous and historically contentious) School of Chartres, Hildegard’s ideas share distinct similarities with the Chartrian agenda, and at the very least can be viewed as representative of the end of a long tradition of Neoplatonic thought that provided the most complete and coherent model of the universe until the arrival of the ‘new’ philosophy of Aristotle. Even fourteenth century philosophers such as Jean Buridan (c.1295–1363) and Nicole Oresme (1320–1382), who conducted more recognisably scientific thought experiments into void space and multiple worlds, still operated within the theological parameters of the hybrid Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmos of concentric spheres sponsored by the Church. Placed under the magnifying lens the two were indistinguishable: theology was science, and science was theology.
Consequently, what Hildegard and the data obtained by NASA represent are hypotheses or models concerning the development of the cosmos. Hildegard’s visions sought to unveil the mysteries of cosmos, and so too does NASA; the images sent back from spacecraft like Juno are slowly but surely are fracturing our world view of planet Earth as a lonely bastion of life amidst the vast expanse of dangerous, sterile, and uninhabitable space.
Divine Love in Medieval Cosmology
Herein, however, lies the main difference between Hildegard’s medieval and our modern Western world view. Rather than seeing mankind as a dot in the Milky Way among countless galaxies (and even multiple universes), Hildegard’s geocentric world view located man’s geographical and spiritual position at the centre of the cosmos. Instead of being isolated from the universe, her cosmology necessitated a human relationship with the stars, in which the heavenly macrocosm encompassing the movements of celestial bodies was intimately connected to the fabric of the earth and the human body, the microcosm. In her practical textbook Causes and Cures Hildegard sets out her cosmological position:
God also created the elements of the cosmos. All the elements are present in human beings and each human being is able to function through the elements, which are fire, air, water and earth. These four basic substances are interwoven and connected to such an extent that none of them can be separated from the others; and they are so closely interconnected that they are known as the firmament.
Since man is made out of the same elemental building blocks as the cosmos, Hildegard believes that ‘all our actions affect the elements and in turn are disturbed and influenced by the elements’. Not only is man constituted from the same elemental ‘stuff’ as the cosmos, but he also mirrors its shape. Hildegard goes on to say that just as the firmament’s circular shape is a metaphor for the divine, ‘the sphere of the human head indicates the roundness of the firmament’ and likewise ‘the right and balanced measurements of our head reflect the right and balanced measurements of the firmament.’
For the fullest exposition of Hildegard’s cosmological thought we should turn to the Liber divinorum operum or Book of Divine Works, her magnum opus composed between 1163 and 1173 in which she espoused her finalised Neoplatonic cosmology and theological vision for human history. The work memorably opens with a vision of the goddess Caritas or ‘Divine Love’ triumphantly exclaiming:
I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life, and I emit nothing that is deadly… With wisdom I have rightly put the universe in order. I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars.
Exemplifying the twelfth century tradition to allegorise gods as ‘Mittelsmächte’ (or ‘middle powers’) in the act of creating and sustaining the cosmos, Hildegard’s own goddess, Caritas, personifying the ‘fiery life of divine essence’, is the force Hildegard states ‘signifies the Love of our heavenly father’. As a mediator, Caritas is an ambiguous blurring of the biblical goddess Sapientia (Wisdom) or Holy Spirit and the Platonic World-Soul responsible for binding the earth, planets, and stars in cosmic harmony. That is to say the universe is literally born from love, a tradition of thought stretching back to Plato and Boethius. While this ‘revised’ cosmos is still an elemental one abounding in fires and winds, it’s clear that divine love imposes chains of harmony that contrast with the more confused and chaotic image we saw earlier in Hildegard’s Scivias. Here, Caritas or Love functions as the opus dei (the work of God), binding the macrocosm to the microcosm, so that the universe ‘cannot be dissolved by the uproar of the upper elements nor by the force of the winds nor even by the might of the falling waters’.
Hildegard’s Symphony of the Senses
The problem for medieval writers such as Hildegard was how to convey the power of an ultimately unknowable and ineffable being such as God. As man is a sensory being, the only way this is possible is through human ways of ‘seeing’. In other words, the senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Far from our popular perception of the universe as an ’empty’ or ‘desensitised’ space, medieval people saw the cosmos as one that was full and knowable, albeit on human terms. Hildegard herself states that Caritas is an allegory ‘so that we can know in faith what we cannot see with our outward eyes’, and often ‘saw’ God as ‘the Living Light’ in her visions. For the connection between sight and the divine, one is reminded of Dante’s constant bedazzling and even temporary blindness from the reflected light of God the closer he gets to the Empyrean heaven in the Paradiso.
The sense of hearing – especially in relation to music – was also important to Hildegard. For Neoplatonists, musical harmonies expressed through mathematical ratios as described by Pythagoras and Plato’s Timaeus were believed to bind the soul to the universe. The so-called ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ (musica mundana) is clearly expressed in Hildegard’s Causes and Cures as she states that ‘the revolving of the firmament emits marvellous sounds because of its great height and expanse’. Perhaps the greatest exponent of this doctrine was the virtually contemporaneous Hermann of Carinthia (1100–1160), who in his 1143 treatise De essentiis (‘On the Essences’) described the macrocosm and microcosm as indivisibly tied together through musical harmony:
If, therefore – as musicians claim – every vigorous movement gives forth a sound… the sounds responding to the distance of the intervals, the single changes varying with harmonic modulation according the ascent and descent of the planets. This is the one bond holding everything in an indissoluble knot… a strength of love exists between the kinds of music belonging to the Different, so that when one thing vibrates, the other follows it promptly, being brought into the same vibrations.
For Hermann, everything could be expressed as a mathematical ratio; just as plucking the strings on a lyre can evoke a response in the human instrument (musica humana), so the musical symphony of the planets could engender a response in the sublunary world as everything in the cosmos was tuned to the same vibrations. Hildegard too, like Hermann and the Pythagoreans, saw all forms of music as connected to the cosmos. She writes in the Scivias that ‘words symbolise the body and jubilant music indicates the spirit; and celestial harmony shows the Divinity’. Therefore, all three forms of music in Hildegard’s view are united as an upward pathway to the divine: the instrumental music (musica instrumentalis) sympathetically stimulates vibrations in the music of the body (musica humana), which in turn are tuned to the celestial harmonies of the cosmos (musica mundana).
Whilst the musical harmonies of Hildegard might seem far removed from our own conception of the universe, on the day Juno launched NASA released this accompanying video:
As the viewer looks through Galileo’s telescope they see a computer-rendered image of Juno approaching Jupiter as the four Galilean moons encircle planet in a perfect celestial motion. Accompanied by the tagline ‘for humanity, our first glimpse of celestial harmonic motion’, and the triumphant ‘Titans’ soundtrack (part of the score for the 2004 movie Alexander), never could a reference be so poignant. Just as Alexander the Great sought to conquer the sky after conquering the known world, so Juno too seeks to uncover the mysteries still surrounding the greatest celestial orb in our sky.
As renaissance philosophers, Hildegard and her contemporaries stood on the cusp of the shift from a Neoplatonic to an Aristotelian world-view. For us, our Aristotle will be the paradigm-shifting research into string theory, black holes, quantum mechanics, and dark matter that is revolutionising the way we think of our place in the universe. Whilst we possess radically different cosmologies (divine love vs the big bang), fragments connect our two alien cultures together. Eight hundred years may have changed the way we think, but not the emotions we experience; the NASA video is so powerful and resonant today because it stimulates the same feelings of awe and grandeur medieval contemporaries had for their universe. Whilst our cosmos may no longer be regulated by the goddess Caritas and musical harmonies, we still gaze up into the stars like Hildegard and her medieval contemporaries and probe their inner mysteries with hope and wonder.
- C. Burnett & P. Dronke (eds), Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art (London, 1998).
- B. Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St Hildegard of Bingen’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley, 1997).
- B. Newman (ed.), Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (Berkeley, 1998).
- S. Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life (London, 1989).
- P. Dronke, Fabula: Explorations Into the Uses of Myth In Medieval Platonism (Leiden, 1985).
- A. Minnis & R. Voaden (eds), Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition c.1100–1500 (Belgium, 2010).