Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt
Illuminations illuminates the life of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century nun who founded her own abbey and composed beautiful works of sacred choral music.
Hildegard’s journey to becoming a nun began against her will, when her mother “tithed” her to the church at the age of eight (she was her family’s 10th child). Hildegard became a companion to Jutta, who chose to become an “anchorite” nun, bricked into two rooms in the church. In compensation for Hildegard’s companionship, Jutta’s wealthy mother paid the dowries of Hildegard’s sisters. So in effect, the imprisonment of Hildegard as a child was a transaction to get her sisters married into wealthy families.
Hildegard is helped to endure her ordeal through visions of a compassionate female deity who assures her, “You are here for a purpose, though you don’t know it yet” (p. 44). Hildegard has frequent visions of this beautiful, divine woman.
Barefoot and mother-naked, I found myself within a greening garden so beautiful that it made me cry out. Each blade of grass and newly unfurled spring leaf shimmered in the sun. Every bush and tree was frothy with blossoms and heavy with fruit at the same time. In the midst of that glory, the Tree of Life and its jeweled apples winked at me, and yet I saw no serpent. The Lady’s voice whispered: “See the enternal paradise that has never fallen.”(p. 45)
Details of Hildegard’s life are known through biographies of her and Jutta, written during their lifetimes. Mary Sharratt has used these old documents, as well as Hildegard’s musical compositions and her own book on her visions of a female God, to bring to life the story of this remarkable woman.
Despite the fact that much of the book takes place within the two small rooms and high-walled courtyard where Hildegard lives with Jutta, this novel is full of tension, emotion, and even action. Hildegard is able to come into her own power once Jutta dies, setting her on the path that leads her to found her own abbey on a crag overlooking the Rhine river.
Illuminations is a deeply spiritual and feminist book. Sharratt’s careful choice of scenes and details creates a compelling narrative with memorable characters.
The picture above is from Liber Scivias, Hildegard’s book of her visions. This image shows Hildegard receiving a vision, with her friend the monk Volmar looking on. For more images from Scivias, see https://www.healthyhildegard.com/scivias-illustrations/