Cosmological Vision of Hildegard Van Bingen

, March 23, 2015 in Hildegard / Reflective Essays

The word “holistic” is relatively new to the lexicon of medical science. It was coined to describe an integrated form of perceiving and acting in a way that was generally associated with the subject of health. Holistic health is usually the way the terms appear in context. We say someone is a holistic practitioner when he addresses the patient’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components of life. Each different component may have a different modality to treat it or they can be part of a multilayered treatment protocol. Suppose a herbal clinician, in the course of the consultation, burned incense, offered counseling, gave a massage, and the patient left the office with an armload of dried herbs, tinctures, flower remedies, and instruction sheets for meditation exercises. Some may consider that herbalist to be labeled “holistic”. Holistic thinking is being applied to other pursuits and meets its greatest resistance when it is juxtaposed to linear mental rationalizations. The more complex a system, the more it lends itself to holistic thinking. Holism in health, as it is practiced today, still falls short of the mediaeval concept of cosmology. Practitioners do not tend to address the patient’s level of integration into society, the whole nature kingdom, the universe at large, or their Creator. In the 1960’s and 1970’s at Findhorn, the integration of the individual with the whole of creation and its Creator was explored in a living laboratory by the community and documented in their literature and, of course, etched in the lives of the participants. The results did influence the nascent herbal renaissance. A notable example of this can be found in the writings of David Hoffmann. The principles of ecology applied to physiomedical herbalism buttressed with biomedical sciences and infused with spiritual intuition were channeled through David’s holistic herbal texts. The philosophy is there but there was no room for the protocols to address the totality of one’s being in a cosmological context. For that we turn to the extensive works of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century nun who was one of the brightest stars in the mediaeval firmament.

Hildegard of Bingen could conceptualize in a cosmological fashion. Today, cosmology is a branch of astrophysics. In the 12th century, cosmology was the study of the whole of creation to ascertain its inherent order. Hildegard took cosmology to its ultimate extension. Hildegard’s hermeneutics were anagogical and eschatological. By this, I mean that, she intended her own writings to have literal, allegorical, moral, and spiritual interpretations. Her spiritual interpretation included God, the Creator of all, the whole universe and for all times. Time for Hildegard starts at the Genesis story of creation of Adam and Eve and ends with the Apocalypse. In her visions, Hildegard witnessed the creation of the universe with all its myriad of beings, planets and stars, angels and devils, plants, minerals, animals, and even the primordial elements. These visions were considered by her to be Divine Revelations imposed upon her humble personage. Hildegard learned that the human being stands at the centre of creation and is supported by all of creation. The human being contains all of creation. The individual is the microcosm of the total universe, which is the macrocosm. Just as the ontogeny of a foetus recapitulates the phylogeny of the human race, Hildegard’s perfected man is born of the dust of the earth and becomes a shining stone in the heavenly New Jerusalem, a scintillation in the firmament.

By the primeval decree that has been with God from all eternity, the Deity has ordained how the divine work is to be accomplished. God formed the human species out of the vile dirt. God accomplished this work, just as the Deity ordained the human form before it becomes audible. This is what God did in the divine Word, for God accomplished everything. The word-that is to say, the Son- was within the Father, just as the heart remains hidden within a human being. And God formed humanity according to the divine image and likeness. God already had it in mind that this very form should enclose the holy Godhead. For the same reason God delineated all of creation in the human species, just as the whole world emerged from the divine Word. (Scivias)

All of creation is fashioned by Divine “Fiat”. God spoke the word and it was made so. All of creation is made of divine substance and quickened by divine life. Man is made in the image and likeness of God. This is called “panentheism” in which all of creation is made of “God-substance” and the Creator is also above or beyond creation. The colour painting of the vision from the Book of Divine Works is on the nature of man. The vision is not static like the image but is vibrant and swirling whilst it speaks to her.

I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life, and I emit nothing that is deadly. I decide on all reality. With my lofty wings, I fly above the globe: With wisdom, I have rightly put the universe in order. I, the fiery life of divine essence am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life. The air lives by turning green and being in bloom. The waters flow as if they were alive. The sun lives in its light, and the moon is enkindled, after its disappearance, once again by the light of the sun so that the moon is again beaming. I have established pillars that bear the entire globe as well as the power of the winds which, once again, have subordinate wings-so to speak, weaker windswhich through their gentle power resist the mighty winds so that they do not become dangerous. In the same way, too, the body envelops the soul and maintains it so that the soul does not blow away. For just as the breath of the soul strengthens and fortifies the body so that it does not disappear, the more powerful winds, too, revive the surrounding winds so that they can provide their appropriate service. (Scivias)

The vision continued to explain to Hildegard that the right understanding of life comes when we look behind the phenomena for the divine spark of truth and life. That, which is most immanent to us: our life, our breath, and our thoughts, are indicators of the divine presence within us.

And thus, I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power. Everything burns because of me in such a way as our breath constantly moves us, like the wind-tossed flame in a fire. All of this lives in its essence, and there is no death in it. For I am life. I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made. I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species. For I am life. I am life, whole and entire (vita integra)

Within the Infinite Unmanifest is all of creation. Hidden in creation is the fiery life force. Hidden within life is spirit. As man is the microcosm he reflects this truth. Hidden within the breast of man is his heart and hidden within there is his soul. Knowing that we have this life force hidden within us and it is that which is leading us through daily life, it behooves us to seek our inner connection to it.

Whatever the soul achieves within us has a fiery substance. The soul arouses the entire human organism and gives life to the body. Because the soul has a fiery nature, we are warm-blooded creatures. Its paths are windy in nature. The soul inhales the breath of life into the body and then expels it. By inhaling, we dry out, which is good for us since our flesh remains healthy and flourishes as a result of diminished moisture and warmth is removed. Thus the whole body is constructed with the greatest sensitivity so that we can be alive, so that we can control all five senses of the body with their cluster of functions. If that warmth were not discharged from the body, the fire of the soul might burn the body, just as a house might be completely destroyed by the heat of a fire.

Through the fiery capacity of the soul, we are also able to realize that we possess God, and through the breath of the spirit, we are also able to realize that we possess God, and through the breath of the spirit, we understand that we can act within our body.

The soul is like the mistress of a house. God has formed the whole abode for the soul’s sake so that it can take possession of that house. To be sure, no one can see the soul while it is in the body, just as we cannot see God unless faith makes us clairvoyant and gives us knowledge.

In Hildegard’s visions we witness all of history in repeating cycles. We see images of stars in the sky falling to earth and entering the womb of a mother to begin the quickening of her child. With the child’s first breath and tears we understand the repetition of the fall of the rebel angels. We have traveled from spiritual heights to the earth to inhabit corporeal forms. If we can begin to understand who we really are and what is our purpose in creation, we can return to our rightful position.

In Hildegard’s visions we witness all of history in repeating cycles. We see images of stars in the sky falling to earth and entering the womb of a mother to begin the quickening of her child. With the child’s first breath and tears we understand the repetition of the fall of the rebel angels. We have traveled from spiritual heights to the earth to inhabit corporeal forms. If we can begin to understand who we really are and what is our purpose in creation, we can return to our rightful position.

When the spiritual wind of knowledge is stirred up within the brain, it descends from the brain into the thoughts of the heart. The soul, which is endowed with reason, has its origin in God, who breathed life into the very first form. Therefore, both body and soul exist as a single reality in spite of their different conditions

We exist as corporeal beings. And this is our essence.

If we behave correctly, the elements will keep to their appointed path. But if we succumb to evil deeds, we will draw down upon ourselves elementary forces with punishing blows of fate. Of course, the body deals with the soul according to the body’s own desires, and God judges us according to our work.

All of our health comes from within us; and so too, our sickness. The life force can be expressed within us through various powers. The powers have a dual nature. The positive expression of these powers is called Virtue and the negative expression is called Vice. (Shown on next page.) Hildegard wrote an entire book dedicated to this, explaining this play of forces. The book is called Liber Vitae Meritorum (The Book of Life’s Rewards). She also wrote a musical play or opera called Ordo Virtutum, in which her nuns each sung the role of one virtue. A male voice played the opposing devil but could not sing. In prelapsarian times Adam and Eve could sing like the angels but this divine activity was lost to all the fallen beings. Through grace the human race can begin to learn to sing again but the devil can only shriek or speak in a plangent voice of utmost sorrow and melancholy. The virtues and vices give us an outline for a psycho-somatic medicine. Here “psyche” is in its Platonic interpretation of “soul.” As the body and soul are one and the state of the soul is reflected in the health of the body, we are the living meeting ground of religion and science. How can we interpret the many symptoms and phenomena of daily living and what can we do? The body is the temple of the living God and the soul within is a potential stone within the walls of the New Jerusalem. We are obliged to care for them both with utmost concern and respect. All of creation is reflected in man so every mineral, plant, and animal outside of him has some kind of lodging within him as well. Every creature has its own kind of inner nature by which it integrates itself into the human microcosm. Hildegard explained that merely by gazing upon a creature the “Living Light” would reveal to her the subtle nature of each creature. She catalogued her findings in her books, Physica and Causae et Curae. In Physica she divided her work into nine chapters being: Plants, Elements, Trees, Stones, Fish, Birds, Animals, Reptiles, and Metals. Because she believed that all of creation provides some kind of service or support to humanity she listed the ways in which each of the above does its duty. Everything is a food or medicine and can serve by providing an energy that is in sympathy or antipathy to man’s condition. Hildegard adapted the sciences and language of her times when it suited her. She used the structures and language of humoural medicine that went back to ancient Greece. In Causae et Curae she, in an unsystematic fashion, gave medical advice and related further the interrelationships of all created beings.

MAN IS MADE FROM THE ELEMENTS. As the above-mentioned elements hold the world together, so the same way are the elements responsible for the well-being of the human body. They are spread through his body and divide their tasks so that man is maintained by them. In the same way, they are distributed throughout the world and operate in a similar way there. Fire, air, water and earth are in every human being who consists of these four elements. From fire he derives his warmth, from the air his breath, from water his blood, and from the earth his flesh. Similarly, he derives his power to see from fire, from air his hearing, from water his movement, and from the earth his pace. The earth prospers when the elements fulfill their duties in a good and orderly fashion so that the heat, the dew and the rain divide and come down moderately at the right time to give the earth and the fruits the best weather conditions and bring much fruit and health.

If the connections of the humours-that come from heat, moisture, blood and flesh and which are all present in a person, – work in peace and maintain their correct proportion in him, they bring health with them.

What is Viriditas? Sounds like vear-ee-dee-tas. Trill the rr sound and accent the first and third syllables. Viriditas was a key concept of Hildegard’s. Literally, it means the power of green. This could be interpreted to mean green plants and their use as food and medicine. Allegorically, it means the life-force within all living beings that animates and warms. The power of life bursting forth in springtime is Viriditas. Anagogically, it means the Divine Life-force that provides a being with its life and identity whilst inclining that being to live in harmony with its soul and obey the mandate or purpose of its creation. Viriditas is a power that emanates directly from the Father-Creator to the virginal bride or human soul that directs it to the state of saintly perfection aka God realization. Mother Mary was “the greenest branch”, “viridissima virga”. Viriditas brings grace with life. Viriditas can help turn fallen Eve become Mary i.e. Eva to Ave (Maria). Viriditas will balance the humours but unbalanced humours dissipate Viriditas. The devil has to steal Viriditas from humans through tempting them with the vices in order to live. Before the fall, humans had perfectly flowing Viriditas, but after, had to work and eat to acquire enough Viriditas.

The starry sky at night is a mirror for us to see our reflection in and to discover the ways of nature. We watch the parade of the zodiac and the changing of the seasons. Everyone knows that when the sun is in a certain constellation in the sky a wind blows in from the southwest and brings and announces the spring. So Temperament Melancholic. Governs the spleen, teeth, bones, brain, hands and feet. Sensitive and tactile. Dreams of dark places, fearful items or events. Body & constitution Medium to large build, well muscled, strong, brown curly hair, dark complexion, pale urine, slow pulse. Personality & character Distrustful, moody, somber, pessimistic, rigid, unsociable, sensitive, self-centered, worried, obstinate, artistic, idealistic, seeking, romantic spiritual. Excess black bile Too much dryness burns choler, blood and phlegm into black bile. Leads to depression, melancholy, despondency, insomnia, thirst, epigastric burning, weak digestion, dry skin, psychoses, and rage Deficient black bile Too much heat and moisture leads to loss of groundednesss and sense of direction or purpose. Can manifest as impulsiveness and lack of focus. Cool dry herbs Signature herb is Witch hazel. Cool dry foods Old bread, hard cheese, crackers, salted foods, dry foods, beef, cabbage, carrots, lentils, oranges, lemons, quinces, beer, cider, barley, egg whites. Seasonality Autumn, evening, the West, maturity. too, when the sun has moved a distance in thy sky, the wind shifts and comes from the northwest and brings dark clouds announcing and bringing the autumn.

The firmament comprises fire, sun, moon, stars, and winds. It exists through all of them and is firmed by their properties so that it may not fall apart. As the soul holds the entire body of a human being, so the winds hold together the entire firmament to prevent its destruction. These winds are invisible, just as the soul, stemming from God’s secret place, is invisible. As a house does not stand without the support of cornerstones, so neither the firmament, nor the earth, nor the abyss, nor the entire world with all its components would subsist without these winds, because everything is composed and held fast by them. (LDO)

The laws of the universe apply to beings in all dimensions. “As above, so below”. The macrocosm is reflected in the microcosm and so the seasons and winds are part of the physiology of man.

………that the human being consists of the elements. In the way that the elements, as has been said before, hold the world together so they also are the fastening of the human body. Their perfusion and operating in human beings is apportioned in such a way that they are held together. This is similar to the way the elements perfuse the world and affect it. Fire, air, water, and earth are present in human beings, who consist of them. For they have warmth from fire, breathe from air, blood from water, and flesh from earth. Likewise, they also have vision from fire, hearing from air, motion from water, and their manner of walking from earth. The world prospers when the elements fulfill their tasks well and in an orderly manner, so that warmth, dew and rain apportion and descend separately and moderately at the proper time to provide earth and fruits with proper weather and to bring much fruitfulness and health. For if they suddenly fell unto the earth simultaneously and not at the proper time the world break asunder and its fruitfulness and health would perish. Likewise, when the elements operate in an orderly manner in human beings they maintain them and make them healthy; when they are at variance they make them ill and kill them. (LDO)

Hildegard’s further observances: Hildegard believed that Adam was the first man and that Jesus was the last, the alpha and omega of creation. She believed that Eve was the first woman and Mother Mary was the last. By “last” she meant the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection. Though Hildegard believed that sex was natural, that there should be no shame between a man and a woman and that married couples should enthusiastically engage in loving sex, she also believed that virginity was a higher state of consciousness. Hildegard taught married people that procreation would remind them of the Creator and that it may be their closest experience of divinity. She held that for the religious elect they should practice abstinence until they were ready to take holy orders and then practice celibacy. She said Eve first gave birth as a virgin and that in heaven all our souls will be virginal. Hildegard’s nuns did not cut off their hair but wore it down from their uncovered heads. They wore little crowns on their heads and white robes to signify and celebrate their virginal purity.

Reading through Hildegard’s remedies can be most confusing. You have to figure out if what she says is literal, allegorical, moral, or anagogical. Many remedies appear to be homoeopathic or requiring prayers and chants to be repeated whilst taking the remedy. Hildegard wrote many antiphons and implied that the music provided healing for both the singer and the listener. Hildegard built her own monastery so her sisters could pray and work without the interference of church politics. A picture of a similar design to Hildegard’s monastery is attached to demonstrate that cosmology applied to the monastery as well. The monastery was a microcosm of the world and contained elements that were meant by their presence and location to provide an example for the laity to witness the archetypal perfect life. Perhaps she was the first feminist role-model. She took on the male leaders of the Catholic Church and political giants. At least three popes and Barbarosa, King of the Holy Roman Empire, paid deference to her. Hildegard received her first imprimatur from Bernard of Clairvaux who was counselor to kings and popes and considered a saint in his own lifetime. In her letters you can get the feel of her personality. She was tremendously humble but also able to hold fast under serious pressure from those who tried to control her. When you meditate upon Hildegard’s writings, allow the wisdom hidden within the words to be revealed to you. Listen to her music as performed by singers who try to reproduce the authentic sound and feel what happens within your consciousness. For some, revelation is holding an ice cube in their hand and discovering that it is only cold water. For others it is holding an acorn in their hand and closing their eyes and seeing a mighty oak. And there are others still who, whilst trampling through a field wild violets, smell the sweet fragrance of the violet’s forgiveness on their boots and discover a cure for cancer.


Hildegard died nine hundred years ago and was mostly forgotten by history. Read her story and decide for your self if it is time to live the cosmological life.

Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart & Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist Press, 1990

Hildegard of Bingen. Liber Vitae Meritorum, translated by Bruce Hozeski. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Hildegard of Bingen. De Operatione Dei, or Liber Divinorum Operum, edited by Matthew Fox. Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987. Text includes letters and songs.

Hildegard of Bingen. Physica, Book One: Healing Plants, translated by Bruce Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Hildegard of Bingen. Cause and Cure: Holistic Healing, translated by Manfred Pawlik & Patrick Madigan. SJ, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1994.

Hildegard of Bingen. Cause and Cure: On Natural Philosophy and Medicine, translated by Margaret Berger. Cambridge: Brewer Library of Medieval Women, 1999.

Hildegard of Bingen. Physica, complete translation by Priscilla Throop. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1998. Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum, translated by Barbara Newmann. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Books about Hildegard:

Bobco, Newman, & Fox. Vision: The Life and Music of Hildegard of Bingen. New York: Penguin Studio Books, 1995.

Flanagan S. Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, London: Routledge, 1989.

Schipperges H. Hildegard of Bingen: Healing and the Nature of Cosmos, translated by John Broadwin. Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1997.

Fox M. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Santa Fe: Bear and Company Inc., 1985.

Strehlow W. Hildegard of Bingen’s Spiritual Remedies. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2002.

Schipperges H.The World of Hildegard of Bingen: Her Life, Times and Visions, translated by John Cummings. Toronto: NOVALIS Books,1998.


Abbes Hildegard of Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God, Sequences and Hymms, Gothic Voices. Hyperion CDAA66039

Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum, Sequentia. Harmonia Mundi. 77051-2ng

Hildegard von Bingen: Symphoniae: Spiritual Songs, Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi

Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ectasy. DHM 05472 77320 2

Hildegard von Bingen: 11000 Virgins, Chants for the feast of St. Ursula, Anonymous 4, HMU 907200