Scivias, an illustrated tome, was Hildegard of Bingen’s first, and perhaps most famous of her writings. Scivias, (“Know the Ways”) describes 26 of Hildegard’s most vivid visions. The book deals with the interconnectivity of man in the universe; the concept that man represents a microcosm of the cosmic macrocosm, in other words, the belief that the universe exists simultaneously within each of us, while also encompassing everything else externally.
The Story Behind Scivias
Through Scivias, Hildegard of Bingen described a mystic philosophy full of archetypal images and a hero’s journey, wherein the soul predates the body and persists beyond experience on earth. Hildegard’s descriptive, visionary recitation of her visions framed a powerful and compelling perspective of existence and divinity that impressed many who would discover her work, including Carl Jung, who drew much from Scivias to inform his thinking. Hundreds of years after Scivias, Hildegard’s mandala images would be a reference point for Jung’s process of individuation, described in his Red Book.
Scivias is renowned for its 35 images, or Illuminations, accompanying the descriptions of Hildegard’s visions as part of the original illuminated Rupertsberg manuscript. The images have become, perhaps, more popular than the actual narrative contained within Scivias.
The specific origin and nature of the thumbnail illustrations remains unknown. There is some disagreement about whether the images were completed during Hildegard’s lifetime or after her death. The mainstream view generally accepts the completion of the original Rupertsberg manuscript around 1175, before her death in 1179.
The Original Rupertsberg Scivias-Codex
The story of the manuscript is almost as interesting as the book itself. Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias-Codex survived Hildegard in separate manuscripts, two of which lasted 800 years before being destroyed within the last century.
The original manuscript, was first kept in Rome, and later, in 1814, arrived in Wiesbaden, where Goethe saw it and wrote: “an old manuscript containing the visions of Saint Hildegard, is extraordinary.” In 1942, during World War II, the Scivias-Codex was transferred for safer keeping to Dresden. Soon after, the original Scivias manuscript was lost in the chaos of war. At the end of the war in 1945, Dresden came under the occupation of Soviet troops. Despite attempts to safeguard the original Scivias manuscript it disappeared and remains missing without a trace to this day.
35 Thumbnail Illustrations
Much of the appeal for the Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript comes from the fine detail of the accompanying illustrations. The 35 thumbnail images attempt to interpret the three dimensional nature of Hildegard’s perception in her visions. The thumbnails capture a unique, self-contained symbolism, including Christian theological allegories and unusual portrayals of people and creatures of mythological proportions.
Ostensibly created under the oversight of Hildegard herself, the thumbnails found in the Rupertsberg original Scivias manuscript offer detail and imagery not common during that time period. Specifically, the use of bold colors and language that was both unusual and compelling.
Reconstructing the Lost Scivias Manuscript
Fortunately, for posterity, in 1925 photographs of the original Scivias manuscript were taken as part of a series of exhibitions in Cologne. In addition, in 1933, a duplicate manuscript was created and stored safely at the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen. Today, the duplicate remains at the abbey, the same place where four Benedictine nuns inspired by Hildegard dutifully produced it.
Beginning in 1927, three of the sisters edited the text, leaving the paintings to their colleague, Josepha Knips. Sister Josepha who died in 1976 at the age of 96, worked tirelessly to recreate the thumbnail images using medieval painting techniques involving layers of vibrant colors.
Like so many others who have been inspired by Hildegard, the four nuns at Eibingen selflessly spent six years recreating the original Scivias manuscript. Though perhaps some of the vitality of the original images was compromised in the duplication process, the recreated thumbnails represent accurate impressions of the originals, particularly in upholding the vibrant colors.
During Hildegard’s time, creating illustrations, such as those contained in the original Scivias manuscript would have represented a time-consuming and expensive process. Access to produce and even view such work was typically reserved for nobles and clergy. Thus the value of the original Scivias manuscript as a historical relic had been appreciated since its painstaking creation.
Origin of Hildegard’s Thumbnail Illustrations
There are no conclusive studies on the origin and nature of the thumbnail illustrations contained in the original Scivias manuscript. Experts generally acknowledge the timing of the original manuscript corresponding with the latter years of Hildegard’s life. Recent research, however, supports the assertion that the Scivias manuscript was completed shortly after Hildegard’s death.
The 35 images contained in the Scivias manuscript are instrumental in memorializing Hildegard’s beliefs, art and spirituality. They serve as signposts, illuminating imagery capturing the essence of Hildegard’s dense descriptions of her visions. The thumbnails do more than simply illustrate Hildegard’s visions; they serve as an original expression of creativity, arguably one of the most essential tenets of Hildegard’s faith.
Appreciating the Thumbnail Illustrations
A thoughtful examination of the thumbnail images contained in Scivias yields an appreciation for their role in accompanying the descriptions of Hildegard’s visions, as well as original, works of art in their own merit. The thumbnails help to interpret the text and provide visual stimulus. In fact, the images tie so closely with the narrative of Scivias that historians credit Hildegard with their creation, insofar as the standard of authorship can be applied, given the standards of the medieval period.
Not only does the combination of illustration with narrative represent a new creative form for the medieval era, but also the individual thumbnails represent a unique deviation from the traditional iconography of that time.
The thumbnails contribute to a vision, theological interpretation, and creative presentation that demand a holistic appreciation from its readers and viewers. The combination of reading, looking, watching, and thinking together lead to a deeper understanding of her work. The images are presented in varying sizes and lay-outs. In some cases, the thumbnail images span across columns of narrative, in other cases they occupy full pages, breaking from the traditional format of the period.
The thumbnail illustrations contained within Scivias do more than interpret the accompanying text; they retell the stories of Hildegard’s visions, using a wholly separate medium. Thus they serve an essential role in the presentation of Scivias.
The description of Hildegard’s visions, taken together with theological interpretation and creative artwork, presents a complete, holistic perspective, as the combination of reading, looking, watching, and thinking lead to a deeper understanding of her work.
Image One: “The Visionary”
The first thumbnail contained in the Rupertsberg Scivias-Codex illustrates Hildegard at work, recording her visions, while overwhelmed by fiery flames, with her loyal assistant, Volmar documenting the experience visions. This thumbnail accompanies the preface to the narrative, and illustrates Hildegard’s calling from God to serve him as a prophet. The event matches Hildegard’s description in the preface of Scivias of her visions in 1141, accompanying her 43rd year of life.
Image Two: “The Radiant”
The exceedingly bright light that floods over Hildegard, while she assumes her Protestificatio (“Declaration”), takes a concrete shape in this first vision. The accompanying thumbnail illustrates a richness, a distinguishing attribute of Hildegard’s visions.
Image Three: “The Fall of Sins”
After illustrating Hildegard’s divine vision of God’s kingdom in the opening vision, pages from Holy Scripture appear as uniquely appealing images. This vision, “the Fall of Sins”, revolves around three themes, including (i) the beginning of evil; (ii) relationship between man and woman; and (iii) redemption or salvation.
Image Four: “The Universe”
This image illustrates the universe, surrounded by the symbolic divine voice. The entire universe points to an almighty and incomprehensible God. The outermost layer of the fire represents God’s duality, on the one hand he takes fiery revenge on the unfaithful, and on the other hand, he offers deep comfort to those who believe.
One may also be struck by the feminine qualities of this image of universe, reflecting on divine feminine. Hundreds of years after Scivias, Joseph Campbell, in his study of mythology suggested that myth universally represents the masculine as “master of the universe”, and the feminine is portrayed as the universe itself.
Image Five: “The Soul and Your Pavilion”
This vision (Scivias I. 4. 9) traces man’s path from initial stirrings, in the mother’s womb, all the way through separation of spirit from the body. The rich ideas portrayed in this vision are captured in three total thumbnails.
Image Six: “Fidelity in Temptation”
“God, have you not created me? Behold, common ground oppresses me!” (Scivias I. 4.4.)
Hildegard speaks in her visions of a bullet, which penetrates many storms. In this thumbnail, the artist captures the reality behind Hildegard’s visionary images: the man who falls to temptation begs for God’s help.
Image Seven: “Extract the Soul from the Pavilion”
This accompanies Image Five, which shows the beginning of human life on earth. On the other hand, this miniature thumbnail illustrates the last moments of a human life on Earth, with departure from the human form, and arrival in the afterlife.
Image Eight: “The Synagogue”
“The mother of incarnation of the son of God” (Scivias. 5.1.)
In this thumbnail we are confronted with the visage of a sad woman, representing the synagogue in medieval depiction. In contrast to the more common medieval representation of synagogue as a woman with a blindfold and broken scepter, Scivias illustrates a striking beauty with honor and self-worth.
The relationship between Christians and Jews had been growing hostile since the emergence of Christianity. Hildegard’s vision expresses solidarity and hope for the synagogue, in light of the Jewish persecution of 1096 and the first two crusades (1096-99, 1147-49). In this vision, Hildegard openly expressed her support of the Jewish faith.
Image Nine: “The Choirs of Angels”
This mandala image illustrates the nine choirs of angels, who deliver prayers to God and God’s answers to man. The angels serve the glory of God and the salvation of man. Each type of angel protects in a unique manner. This vision informs by introducing the individual choirs presented in Scivias.
Image 10: “The Redeemer”
This thumbnail illustrates several themes, including the creation and fall of man. In addition, we see representations of our world’s incarnation, salvation, and glory. In the upper half of the image, we see life emerges from the blue center sphere, surrounded by the brightly shining border of an almighty God. A flame strikes down from the ball of light and life to fill a sphere of emptiness with God’s creation. Each of God’s six days of creation illuminate the otherwise empty sphere beneath the source of life and spirit.
Image 11: “True Trinity in Unity”
This thumbnail is among the more famous images, having emerged from the original Scivias Codex manuscript. It illustrates the unity of divine trinity, using basic images of a sapphire-blue human form, surrounded by multi-gold-colored circles, in the midst of a broad background and border. Light flows from the background to emphasize the contrast.
Image 12: “Motherhood from the Spirit and Water”
These images describe the realization of salvation in the Church and its sacraments. The thumbnail shows the nature of the Church and the sacrament of baptism in partial representations.
Image 13: “Anointed with the Holy Spirit”
This thumbnail is characterized by an imposing female figure in front of a large white tower made of stone. The female archetype represents the Church, occupied by patrons. The white tower symbolizes the Holy Spirit, in its luminous clarity, encircling all living creatures. Bright lights emerge from three windows in the tower. Just as the Church is guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, so too shall the baptized be fulfilled.
Image 14: “The Mystical Body”
This thumbnail illustrates the Church as a mystical body, formed by estates of the secular, clergy, and religious bodies.
Image 15: “The Sacrifice of Christ and the Church”
This vision captures the origin of the Church. Themes of the celebration of Holy Mass, and sacrament of the Eucharist play prominently through the middle of Scivias, including the book’s second part. This thumbnail image portrays the Church as Christ’s bride, under the cross. The Church receives the flesh and blood of Christ as a gift from her bridegroom and calls for this dowry in the Holy Mass before God.
Image 16: “The food of life”
This thumbnail must be seen along with the previous thumbnail image.
With true devotion, the faithful should eat and drink the flesh and blood of their Savior who suffered for them and sacrificed his life on earth.
Image 17: “The Enemy Bound”
This theme represents the last vision of the second part of Scivias, and is represented in two miniatures. It surrounds the devil’s work, along with his vices, and the struggles that believers encounter when faced with evil.
Image 18: “The Tempter”
This thumbnail shows Satan’s works in two images.
Image 19: “The Ruler of All”
Unfortunately, this thumbnail appears incomplete and offers only a mere glimpse at the richness and depth of the record of these visions. Eastwardly, Hildegard saw an immense iron-colored shrouded in a shiny white cloud. A royal throne was placed upon the boulder, whereupon sat a living being of radiant glory.
Image 20: “Extinct Stars”
This thumbnail shows the fallen angels, Lucifer along with those who accompany him.
Image 21: “The Building of Salvation”
In this thumbnail, Hildegard’s vision of building strong foundations and setting solid cornerstones helps to illustrate her belief in the basic partnership between God and man, which is implicit in all human undertaking and enterprise.
Image 22: “The Tower of Council”
In the tower of divine council, Hildegard sees five figures, heavenly powers, or virtues. Each one stands independently, under its own gateway arch. No virtue consists of its own power, exclusively. Instead these virtues divine from a bright luminous glow, shining forth from God in man’s works.
Image 23: “God’s Five Forces in the Tower of Council”
This thumbnail shows details of the five virtues in the tower of divine council.
Image 24: “The Pillar of the Word of God”
Beyond the divine council is the pillar of the word of God. The pillar of the word of God is built on the luminous wall and its proportions exceed man’s ability to perceive it with the human eye.
Image 25: “The Recognition of God”
Within the sanctuary, a brightly illuminated figure stands on the pavement before the pillar of the word of God.
Image 26: “The Zeal of God”
After the mystery of the word of God has been “revealed in the pillar of the word of God “was revealed, the zeal God’s love appears openly in this thumbnail. The three wings represent the power of retribution directed against the devil and evil.
Image 27: “The Triple Wall”
In the image of the wall, God ordains his people through the rule of law. Thus, the government has been established for the benefit of the living, through the Holy Spirit.
Image 28: ‘The Pillar of the True Trinity’
In the western corner of the sanctuary, Hildegard saw a wonderful, mysterious and extremely powerful column of dark red color. It stands for the triune God. Father, Word, and Holy Spirit are one God in the Trinity.
Image 29: “The Pillar of the Humanity of the Savior”
Hildegard describes the humanity of the savior, who was born of the Holy Spirit, conceived by the Virgin Mary, and born as the highest son.
Image 30: “The Tower of the Church”
This tower, which can be seen both inside and outside the building, has not yet been completed. Numerous workers are seen tirelessly continuing to build it. At its peak, sit seven strong defenses, representing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and no enemy can destroy them.
Image 31: “The Son of God”
At the highest point of the sanctuary, where the two walls unite, stands a throne on seven steps, on which a young man sits, the son of God.
Image 32: “The End of Times”
This thumbnail concerns the theme of judgment when God permits the coming of the anti-Christ preceded by the five kingdoms represented in five animal forms. In the events leading to the end of times, God leads man and Church to its fulfillment. This image has deeper meaning, and some suggest a more gruesome tale of rape of the Church by the anti-Christ, represented in gruesome animal form.
Image 33: “The Day of the Great Revelation”
In this thumbnail God reveals to Hildegard von Bingen the end of the world, where the son of God returns for the final judgment. The end of the world corresponds with the death of the man.
Image 34: “The New Heaven and the New Earth”
After the judgment has been carried out, a great calm and silence emerges. The elements radiate in cheerful clarity as if the grime had been stripped away from them. The air is pure, the water is clear. All heavenly bodies shine with full force and beauty.
Image 35: “The Choirs of the Blessed”
This thumbnail continues the worship of God and the saints under the patronage of Mary. In this image, Mary sits enthroned above the choirs of angels, who stand above the apostles, patriarchs and prophets, virgins, confessors and martyrs.