When one thinks of a touching (and doomed) medieval love story, the first historic couple who come to mind are Abelard and Heloise.
But this same 12th Century renaissance revealed another very intense and well-documented love, the spiritual love between the Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and her protege, the Abbess Richardis von Stade (ca. 1123-1151).
This friendship is dramatized in the film Vision: From the life of Hildegard von Bingen, as directed by the noted German artist Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Promise, Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemburg).
First, some background on the film, which was scripted personally by director von Trotta from Hildegard’s own writings and letters, and accompanied by Hildegard’s music. Von Trotta therefore lets Hildegard substantially speak (and sing) for herself.
The film carries the viewer through major episodes in Hildegard’s life from her eighth year to her sixtieth (Hildegard lived until the age of 81, and indeed faced and overcame many other challenges not depicted by this film). Vision presumes that the moviegoer know who Hildegard is, and something of her life story. For further background on Hildegard, please see my previous post.
Vision demonstrates through a number of vignettes the many foundational contributions of Hildegard in music, theology, botanical medicine, gynecology, drama, and ecclesiastical polity as Hildegard strove for the foundation of an all-female abbey while seeking ecclesiastical permission to convey her visions to paper.
The warm collaboration between Hildegard (played by the luminous German actress, and I might add, singer, Barbara Sukowa) and Richardis (depicted by the lovely and intense Hannah Herzsprung), a young noblewoman for whom her family had ambitious plans, allowed Hildegard, who despite her genius had significant gaps in her formal schooling, not to mention poor health, to finish and illuminate her books of visions, theology, and science, with a significant assist from the monk Volmar, one of Hildegard’s earliest teachers and advocates (played with occasional humor by Heino Ferch).
Von Trotta utilizes the character of the nun Jutta (Lena Stolze), raised with Hildegard from a young age by the anchorite Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl), to bring Hildegard down to earth as the “prophet in her own country.”
Like Robert Bolt’s film A Man for All Seasons, von Trotta’s Vision depicts in part conversations which in real life were based upon letters.
Warning: film spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending of the film, stop reading here, see the film, then come back to this article.
It is therefore appropriate at this point to turn to a few of the letters of the actual players in this drama. Thanks to the continuous tradition of the Benedictines, and to the work of many scholars, we can read today what these characters were actually saying to one another over 800 years ago.
Vision dramatizes the struggle between Hildegard and the family of Richardis over the appointment of Richardis to leave Hildegard at Mt. St. Rupert to serve as abbess at Birsim (today Bassum). Hildegard made no secret of her opposition to this appointment, viewing it as based upon human ambition (presumably, to extend the influence of the von Stade family, rather than to follow a divine calling). Hildegard was not shy about her feelings, and wrote, literally, to everyone who would listen, from the Pope on down to Richardis’ mother and brother, respectively, the Margravine (played in the film by Sunnyi Melles) and Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen. Finally, Hildegard wrote to Richardis herself, all to no avail. Richardis moved away from Hildegard.
We turn now to the collection of letters, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, ably compiled and presented by the scholar Joseph L. Baird, and published by Oxford University Press in 2006. Here are a few key excerpts.
First, an impassioned plea from Hildegard to Richardis–
“Daughter, listen to me, your mother, speaking to you in the spirit: my grief flies up to heaven. My sorrow is destroying the great confidence and consolation that I once had in mankind. From now on I will say: ‘‘It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in princes’’ [Ps 117.9]. The point of this Scripture is that a person ought to look to the living height, with vision unobstructed by earthly love and feeble faith, which the airy humor of earth renders transient and short-lived. Thus a person looking at God directs his sight to the sun like an eagle. And for this reason one should not depend on a person of high birth, for such a one inevitably withers like a flower. This was the very transgression I myself committed because of my love for a certain noble individual. Now I say to you: As often as I sinned in this way, God revealed that sin to me, either through some sort of difficulty or some kind of grief, just as He has now done regarding you, as you well know. Now, again I say: Woe is me, mother, woe is me, daughter, ‘‘Why have you forsaken me’’ [Ps 21.2; Matt 27.46; Mark like an orphan? I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?"
"Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person— as I had for you— but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me. But, all the same, may the angel of God go before you, may the Son of God protect you, and may his mother watch over you. Be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade."
From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 47-48.
Then we skip ahead to the very sad turn, the sudden death of Richardis at the age of about twenty-eight within a year of her departure from Mt. St. Rupert. The following two letters are perhaps among the most forthright and touching in Christian literature, first the letter from Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen, notifying Hildegard of his own sister Richardis' passing--
"Hartwig, archbishop of Bremen, brother of the abbess Richardis, sends that which is in the place of a sister and more than a sister, obedience, to Hildegard, mistress of the sisters of St. Rupert.
I write to inform you that our sister— my sister in body, but yours in spirit— has gone the way of all flesh, little esteeming that honor I bestowed upon her. And (while I was on my way to see the earthly king) she was obedient to her lord, the heavenly King. I am happy to report that she made her last confession in a saintly and pious way and that after her confession she was anointed with consecrated oil. Moreover, filled with her usual Christian spirit, she tearfully expressed her longing for your cloister with her whole heart. She then committed herself to the Lord through His mother and St. John. And sealed three times with the sign of the cross, she confessed the Trinity and Unity of God, and died on October 29 in perfect faith, hope, and charity [cf. I Cor 13.13], as we know for certain. Thus I ask as earnestly as I can, if I have any right to ask, that you love her as much as she loved you, and if she appeared to have any fault— which indeed was mine, not hers— at least have regard for the tears that she shed for your cloister, which many witnessed. And if death had not prevented, she would have come to you as soon as she was able to get permission. But since death did intervene, be assured that, God willing, I will come in her place. May God, who repays all good deeds, recompense you fully in this world and in the future for all the good things you did for her, you alone, more even than relatives or friends; may He repay that benevolence of yours which she rejoiced in before God and me. Please convey my thanks to your sisters for all their kindness.”
From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 48-49.
And then, here follows Hildegard’s restrained and irenic response. But note, however, her parting turn on the concept of obedience, with which Hartwig began his letter–
To Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen
“O how great a miracle there is in the salvation of those souls so looked upon by God that His glory has no hint of shadow in them. But He works in them like a mighty warrior who takes care not to be defeated by anyone, so that his victory may be sure. Just so, dear man, was it with my daughter Richardis, whom I call both daughter and mother, because I cherished her with divine love, as indeed the Living Light had instructed me to do in a very vivid vision.”
“God favored her so greatly that worldly desire had no power to embrace her. For she always fought against it, even though she was like a flower in her beauty and loveliness in the symphony of this world. While she was still living in the body, in fact, I heard the following words concerning her in a true vision: ‘‘O virginity, you are standing in the royal bridal chamber.’’ Now, in the tender shoot of virginity, she has been made a part of that most holy order, and the daughters of Zion rejoice [Zach 2.10, 9.9]. But the ancient serpent had attempted to deprive her of that blessed honor by assaulting her through her human nobility. Yet the mighty Judge drew this my daughter to Himself, cutting her off from all human glory. Therefore, although the world loved her physical beauty and her worldly wisdom while she was still alive, my soul has the greatest confidence in her salvation. For God loved her more. Therefore, He was unwilling to give His beloved to a heartless lover, that is, to the world.”
“Now you, dear Hartwig, you who sit as Christ’s representative, fulfill the desire of your sister’s soul, as obedience demands. And just as she always had your interests at heart, so you now take thought for her soul, and do good works as she wished. Now, as for me, I cast out of my heart that grief you caused me in the matter of this my daughter. May God grant you, through the prayers of the saints, the dew of His grace and reward in the world to come.”
From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 49-50.
While von Trotta’s film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen is beautiful and inspiring, the letters above complement the film in a profound and touching way. I highly recommend close study of Joseph L. Baird’s collections of Hildegard letters.
Indeed, such close examination of Hildegard scholarship reveals that it is very possible that Richardis was dead by the time Hildegard’s morality play, The Play of Virtues, or the Ordo Virtutum, was performed in its final form. Therefore, the lovely “play within the play” within von Trotta’s Vision, with a prominent role played by Richardis, may or may not have ever really happened with Richardis personally playing the part. The brilliant Hildegard scholar Barbara Newman astutely pointed out (Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, U. California Press, 1997, p. 223) that the very same words of praise for Richardis’ virginity contained in Hildegard’s letter to Richardis’ brother the archbishop appeared again in the very final version of the Ordo Virtutum. Therefore, who else but Richardis, according to “Central Casting,” would ever play the virtue Castitas, as inspired by Hildegard’s vision? Director von Trotta, by getting history probably wrong, more likely got a truth of the vision right.
How do I support my assertion that the love of Hildegard for Richardis was true Christian love? It is clear from the letters and the testimony of herself and others, at least on Hildegard’s part, that she loved Richardis completely and complexly, in all commonly describable ways, as a friend, a sister, a religious superior, a teacher, a student, a surrogate parent, an admirer, as a seer, as a patient to a caregiver, and by way of sacrificial Christian love, except for the love of sexual intimacy. This relationship appears to make concrete the teachings of Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. This multifaceted love might only be successful across a lifetime between two very strong and talented colleagues.
This kind of relationship would also probably not be tolerated in modern religious life! Even in her own time, Hildegard was asked, “What are you doing?”
I also can’t help recalling, however, that Jesus had his own Beloved Disciple.
To the modern witness, it may make perfect sense that Richardis would step away from Hildegard to lead another abbey shortly after the great project of Scivias was completed, especially since, to the modern understanding, the child must step away from the parent, no matter how loving. But we may never know Richardis’s mind on this subject to the degree that we know Hildegard’s. Whether Richardis received a spiritual call, had her own ambitions, was forced into accepting the abbey by her mother and her brother the archbishop (his letter points in this direction), or was seeking to put distance between herself and Hildegard (the timing of waiting to leave after Scivias was finished may indicate a planned departure), or all of the above, will remain an open question.
I am grateful that, into these open questions, such a director as von Trotta did not fear to step!
I end this post by sharing a number of reviews of the film, which are, as evidenced also by their titles, rather, if not humorously, divergent in their attempts to apply paradigms of various ages and interest groups upon the film and to Hildegard.
To the New York Times reviewer, Hildegard, known otherwise to history as a polymath, or universal genius, was the “multitasking nun.”
The Boston Globe applies in an otherwise perceptive review, the post-Freudian saw of “repressed eroticism.”
The dignified review from the National Catholic Reporter carefully relates that experienced nuns would recognize the “special friendship” (years ago also called, a “particular friendship”) that the film depicts in the story of a woman who “humbly initiated change.”
To the Christianity Today reviewer, the film did not convey enough of a “sense of the transcendent.”
Variety’s reviewer appears eager to end the review since the subject of the film is so obviously Catholic.
The San Francisco Chronicle thinks that Hildegard was a “very cool nun.”
NYPress.com sees “female will and independence” in the film.
The LA Times sees a “feminist centuries ahead of her time.”
Flip comments from the NPR reviewer, whose knowledge of the subject of the film (e.g., nuns, history) appears to be gleaned from. . . other films.
Roger Ebert sees the love between the characters as sublimated lesbianism, and is apparently unaware that Benedict XVI, like other recent Popes, explicitly recognized the sainthood of Hildegard in two Fall, 2010 general audiences, linked at my earlier post.
America Magazine, the Jesuit publication, saw Hildegard “caught in a riptide of lesbian love.”
Finally, two interviews with the director–
From FilmMaker Magazine, and from the Huffington Post.
Director von Trotta, in her FilmMaker Magazine interview linked above, explains why in this film she depicted participants kissing each other on the mouth in many different situations. She refers to a scholarly theory about mouth-kissing being more common prior to the Black Death, but it is probably safe to say that she is making a statement about a less inhibited and perhaps idealized “wholesome” approach to human love.
One final tale of the book Scivias, produced by Hildegard in collaboration with Richardis and Volmar. One important original manuscript of Scivias was taken to Dresden for safekeeping during World War II, where it was lost. Copies remain.
Vision as of 2011 is available for viewing on demand from Netflix.
Here is the link to the official website for the film at Zeitgeist Films.
© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved