The art essay of the month

The Sacrifice of Christ and the Church (c. 1141–1151) by Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179)

"And after these things, I saw the Son of God hanging on the cross, and the aforementioned image of a woman coming forth like a bright radiance from the ancient counsel.” Thus Hildegard of Bingen begins to describe her vision of Christ’s sacrifice and the Church, the sixth such vision contained in her first book, Scivias (an abbreviation of Scito vias Domini, “know the ways of the Lord”), redacted between 1141 and 1151.

Hildegard was born around 1097 into a noble family in western Germany. The last of ten children, she was offered to the Lord and entered the convent at age eight. Sick from a young age, she remained physically frail until her death in 1179. Spiritually, however, she became a powerhouse of her century. Her correspondence includes popes and emperors, to whom she wrote with prophetic insights and stern warnings. From an early age, Hildegard was graced with numerous visions.

The sixth vision of Scivias deals with priesthood and the Eucharist. There was something timely about it: a few decades earlier, Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) had implemented a major reform intended to raise the spiritual level and discipline of the clergy.

One of the many originalities of Hildegard von Bingen was to complement the verbal description of her visions with their visual depiction. Like John in the Book of Revelation, Hildegard’s words can scarcely do justice to the magnitude of the vision. In a religion whose central claim is that the Word became flesh, the image is a necessary companion to the word—hence the inexhaustible cultural wealth born from the Christian experience.

The crucifixion as marriage

The painting we are looking at is composed of two juxtaposed scenes. Above are Christ crucified and Ecclesia, the Church, standing at the foot of the cross, collecting his Precious Blood in a chalice. Below, Ecclesia stands at the altar, arms outstretched in a priestly fashion while the sacramental species seem to flow from the cross as from a waterfall of grace. Four little vignettes render explicit the double movement of that vertical waterway: descent (birth and death; left side of the altar) and ascent (Resurrection and Ascension; right side).

This painting is remarkable both for its artistic clarity and for its theological depth. As far as the latter is concerned, we could summarise thus its most fundamental and boldest assertion: the Eucharist originates in an act of spousal love. “By divine power she was led to him,” writes Hildegard, “and raised herself upward so that she was sprinkled by the blood from his side; and thus, by the will of the heavenly Father, she was joined with him in happy betrothal and nobly dowered with his body and blood.”

The crucifixion, in Hildegard’s prophetic vision, is not the solitary, heroic sacrifice often depicted in paintings. It is an act of love both given and received. “Behold your bride,” says the Father, whose hand blesses the mystical marriage between the new Adam and the new Eve. The masculine offering of Jesus, symbolised by the outpouring of his blood, is not addressed to a collective, anonymous humanity, but to a Church personified in Mary, whose essential contribution to redemption consists in the feminine act of receiving, symbolised by the open chalice collecting the precious blood.

Of symbols and sacraments

Saint Hildegard’s symbolic use of colours and forms speaks of a time when men moved more freely and easily between the physical and the spiritual realms. Let us consider, for instance, her use of colour. Behind the standing figure, a starlit, navy blue signifying the earthly realm extends throughout the lower scene. Jesus’ halo, symbolic of his divinity, is painted in the same gold that fills the heavenly realm. Interestingly, his body is painted in fleshly, naturalistic tones, while the body of Mary shines with the bright radiance of divinity. It is as if a marvellous exchange had just taken place: her humanity became his, while his divinity became hers.

In the lower scene, the golden, heavenly light flows down on the Eucharistic species. The altar, also painted in gold, is covered with a white and blue cloth that relates to the inside of Jesus’ loincloth, visible in the fold above his waist. Hildegard thus reminds us that the Eucharist is the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice and that the priest stands at the altar like Mary at the cross, receiving, in the sacred species, the gift of his divinity. To participate in the Eucharist is, therefore, to participate in the spousal response and the fruitfulness of the new Eve.

The painter as prophet

Hildegard’s paintings raise a question. Can a work resulting from a mystical vision qualify as art? Where is the artist’s creative freedom when she is urged by God himself to leave the revelations absolutely unaltered?

In this regard, it is interesting to contrast Hildegard with Hilma af Klint, whose 2018–2019 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum created a stir in the art world. A follower of Rudolf Steiner’s “theosophy”, Hilma claimed to channel spirits under whose guidance she painted “automatically”. Loaded with obscure symbols, her work is opaque and esoteric. It seems to ask from us the same blind submission through which it was created.

By contrast, Hildegard’s work charms by its clarity and freedom. It speaks to the senses as well as to the intelligence. Hildegard is not painting “automatically”, nor is her freedom compromised. Her creativity lies precisely in her receptivity to the living Light. In that sense, she is much closer to Matisse or Giacometti than to Hilma af Klint.

As a painter, Hildegard was determined by what she saw, as Matisse and Giacometti were determined by their models. The image, born of that encounter between object and subject, is not a photographic depiction of what is seen, but a revelation of what eyes alone, with love, cannot see. Thus Hildegard participates in Marian receptivity and fruitfulness; her work stems from a love both given (by the object) and received (by the subject). Its beauty is not a subjective coating but—as Aquinas would have it—the splendour of its truth.

Father Paul Anel ministers to artists in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York.

The Sacrifice of Christ and the Church (c. 1141–1151), Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), Scivias II, 6, copy of the original Scivias manuscript, Abbey of Saint Hildegard, Eibingen, Germany© akg-images / Erich Lessing.