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Hildegard’s egg

· Macrocosm and microcosm in the ecological vision of the prophetess of the Rhine ·

Hildergard of Bingen (1098-1179), the German Benedictine nun, is one of the most outstanding figures in medieval history. Indeed she played an important role not only in religious life but also in the politics of her time, in her relations with bishops and popes, with St Bernard of Clairvaux and with Emperor Frederic I Barbarossa, and in taking an active part in the disputes between the Church and the [Holy Roman] Empire, as well as in the fight against the Cathar heresy.

Together with a mystical and visionary temperament that earned her the nickname “Prophetess of the Rhine”, she was endowed with an encyclopaedic culture that ranged from theology to music, from botany to anatomy and physiology, and even to the treatment of the body and nutrition, so that today her rediscovery by the wider public is often due precisely to this skill of hers which today we would define in modern terms as that of a nutrionist.

Hildegard and the seasons, CodeX Latinus 1942, c. 38r (Lucca, Biblioteca statale)

There is no need to smile: there is a logic in this. In fact, in Hildegard attention to the human being – male and female, also in their bodily dimension, including sexuality and reproduction – derives from a profound philosophical and religious reflection that is rooted in ancient culture but in her assumes new and original cadences.

The starting point is the classical one; everything is one, this cosmos is divine. This is a concept that reinforces, so to speak, the biblical-Christian idea that the world is good since it was created by God. Indeed Christianity keeps God clearly distinct from the world and has always seen pantheism as a mortal enemy, to the extent of defending with a drawn sword that creation which establishes the ontological difference between Creator and creature.

Indeed it is commonly said that Christianity, unlike paganism, has desacralized nature: those woods, those waters, those mountains themselves imagined by the ancients to have been inhabited by deities, in fact every sacred feature. Thus religious contemplation comes to an end and the ground is prepared for that neutral observation from which the modern science of nature stems. Nature, however, at the same time deprived of all intrinsic religious meaning, becomes mainly an object for the use of man (considered as the centre of creation and thus destined to have dominion over the inanimate world. Hence it is not surprising that the contemporary ecological conscience should think of respect for the environment for an essentially utilitarian reason, namely that indiscriminate exploitation may risk compromising the very life of man on this planet.

To understand the difference between this way of thinking and that of ancient culture, one should think of the difference that exists between not fouling a water course because this would pollute the water we drink, and of not fouling it because by so doing we would be committing a sin, offending against the sacred nature of the cosmos. This is in fact attested by the word “environment” itself which etymologically means “that which surrounds us”, precisely as if man were the centre around whom all things rotate and whom all must serve.

Thus the essential failure of contemporary ecology is not surprising either: since it is an ecology based on economics, an ecology-economy, in the conflict of advantages there is always a stronger, more immediate financial gain which prevails over “respect for the environment”.

Hildegard drew her awareness of the unity of all things from her mystical inspiration, from her late antique and early medieval sources, as well as – probably – from the pagan heritage at that time still very much alive in the Germanic world, particularly in the knowledge de occultis operationibus naturae that lived on in that mainly feminine marginal environment which was later to be the object of witch hunts.

In her Book of Divine Works, for example, Hildegard described the universe as egg-shaped. The cosmos is one, as is the egg which contains within it four elements: the shell is similar to the element earth, cold and dry; the white is similar to the element water; the yellow and oily part, to fire; the watery part, to breath or air. This image also dates from the Orphic Pythagorian tradition, passed down to the medieval world through the Hellenistic culture, hermeticism and alchemistic writings, although we must not presume that the Benedictine nun was acquainted with all this literature.

It suffices to remember the description of the wonderful cosmic vision that Gregory the Great attributes to St Benedict: “When it was time to go to rest, the venerable Father Benedict reposed himself in the top of a tower, at the foot whereof Servandus the Deacon was lodged…. The man of God, Benedict, being diligent in watching, rose early up before the time of matins (his monks being yet at rest) and came to the window of his chamber, where he offered up his prayers to almighty God. Standing there, all on a sudden in the dead of the night, as he looked forth, he saw a light, which banished away the darkness of the night, and glittered with such brightness, that the light which did shine in the midst of darkness was far more clear than the light of the day. Upon this sight a marvellous strange thing followed, for, as he himself did afterward report, the whole world, gathered as it were together under one beam of the sun, was presented before his eyes”.

In this – which Marta Cristiani rightly defines “the last dazzling synthesis of ancient Platonism and Christianity”– the whole cosmos appears gathered under a single beam: a beam, indeed, lumen de lumine, that is radiated from the source of light, distinct but not separate from it. Hence the cosmos resembles something that has within it the divine light of which it is constituted and which is therefore worthy not only of being respected but also of being deeply loved as a divine theophany.

This is not in fact an isolated experience in the history of spirituality. It happens every time that the evangelical detachment from self-love brings us out of the prison of the ego. We then feel in profound unity with the cosmos, perceived, precisely, as a whole. This experience also entails overcoming that mind-body or spirit-nature dualism which has afflicted and still afflicts Western culture so deeply: indeed to the detached human being nature appears as the visible spirit and the visible spirit as invisible nature.

Among the many possible testimonies, let us here recall that of another Benedictine monk, our contemporary, Henri Le Saux, who notes in his Diary that the primordial duality to be overcome may be that between ourselves and the rest of the cosmos, and not that between us and God. Indeed, until there are “others” outside us, God and the world will be confused, even though they can subsequently be distinguished and defined. As long as the world remains other, God will never be able to be perceived within us.

“It is therefore necessary”, Le Saux writes, “first of all to suppress this ‘centre’ that I call ‘myself’ and around which I trace concentric circles that are my mind, my body, the world conceived essentially in relation to me and finally God, he too conceived, alas, in relation to me”.

It was in detachment from herself that the nun Hildegard found the meaning of the unity and divinity of the cosmos with which the human being is profoundly, wonderfully united, to the extent of constituting a cosmos and a whole self. According to an erroneous but significant etymology, homo, human being, for people in the Middle Ages was in fact linked to omnis, all, and it is therefore hardly surprising that for Hildegard the dimensions of the human body and their reciprocal proportions constituted the measure of the universe, which is why the measurement of the height and of the arms wide open enables one to inscribe the human figure in a circle, in accordance with the representation that was to inspire the Renaissance versions of it and primarily that of Leonardo da Vinci.

Man the microcosm, therefore, is in profound correspondence with the macrocosm; so one should not be amazed to find the roots of what is often presented as new, secular and modern in a nun who lived in the distant Middle Ages.

Marco Vannini




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020