Saint Hildegard of Bingen

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The frontispiece of Scivias, showing St. Hildegard of Bingen receiving visions.

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Hildegard von Bingen, was born about 1089 near Mainz, Germany. She was the youngest of 10 children in a family of the minor nobility. Her parents promised her to the church, so it is only a little surprising that she took her vows as a Benedictine nun at the age of eleven. Five years later, she began to talk about the divine visions she had been experiencing since early childhood and which continued all her life. Later, she received a divine command to write about them as well, resulting in her most famous works: “Scivias” (Know the Ways), “Liber Vitae Meritorum,” (Book of the Rewards of Life), and “Liber Divinorum Operum” (Book of Divine Works). She also wrote two books on herbal medicine and composed many pieces of liturgical music. She is considered to be one of the most important composers of the Medieval period, and her opera "Ordo Virtutum" (The Rite of the Virtues) is the only Medieval composition surviving today with full text and music. Four hundred of her letters still survive, and they contain many references to the sermons she gave during her four preaching tours in Europe. She also founded two Benedictine convents, and led them as an abbess. She died in 1179. Her feast day is celebrated on September 17.

Since 1913, scholars and doctors, both clerical and secular, have speculated that St. Hildegard suffered from migraines all her life, and that her unique visions, which she drew, were heavily influenced by the characteristic auras of visual migraine. This retrospective diagnosis, first proposed by Dr. Charles Singer, received wide acceptance when the popular neurologist Oliver Sacks mentioned Saint Hildegard’s visions in his 1970 book “Migraine.” He noted that the radiating fortifications, wavering concentric circles, and showers of stars she described and drew are classic migraneous visual auras, and that her “privileged consciousness” transformed experiences which many find “banal, hateful or meaningless” into “the substrate of a supreme ecstatic inspiration.” In 2012, Hildegard was canonized and also named a Doctor of the Church. In this context, “doctor” means “teacher” or “instructor.” This title is awarded to saints whose writings, research, and study significantly contribute to doctrine or theology.

Saint Hildegard is generally portrayed as an abbess in the black habit of her Benedictine order, writing, preparing medicine, or receiving a vision. She is called on for the blessing spiritual communities, to increase closeness to God, and for relief from migraines.


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