W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art & Archaeology.
Part of my graduate research in technology and human affairs at Washington University in Saint Louis back in the '70s involved looking at projections about the limits to growth.
Numerous studies suggested that humans might encounter some nasty energy and pollution ‘sinks’ starting in the new millennium if present trends continued. I spent much of my subsequent career trying to help communities envision alternatives to those development trends, but if anything they have accelerated since the '70s.
That’s why I was mesmerized by John Darkow’s head-turning cartoon in this Wednesday’s op-ed section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. His powerful vision depicted a dazed polar bear gazing toward us from a desert landscape under a blazing sun, while words of the prophet Jeremiah about destructive human actions burned across the upper left hand corner. It’s one thing to read about a ‘sink’; it’s another to experience it.
At the Museum of Art & Archaeology, I experience another powerful vision about judgment for the ends of human activity. This plaster cast of the tympanum of Chartres Cathedral frames the west door of the museum lobby, a visual and vertical reminder of what American historian Henry Adams called the pinnacle of Gothic architecture and civilization. Adams was struck by the differences between modern and medieval civilizations, what he referred to as The Dynamo and the Virgin, and how modern civilization seemed like a vast, powerful engine of activity lacking any direction in comparison to the medieval Gothic cathedral and the cult of the Virgin.
In his classic work titled "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres," Adams reflected:
“The fact, conspicuous above all other historical certainties about religion, that The Virgin was in essence illogical, unreasonable and feminine, was the only fact of any ultimate value worth studying and starts a number of questions that history has shown itself clearly afraid to touch …"
"Why was Chartres Cathedral in the thirteenth century like Lourdes today the expression of what is in substance a separate religion? Why did the gentle and gracious Virgin Mother so exasperate the Pilgrim Father? Why was The Woman struck out of the Church and ignored in the State?
These questions are not antiquarian or trifling in historical value; they tug at the very strings of all that makes whatever order is in the cosmos.”
As the Darkow cartoon clearly suggested to me and perhaps also to you, these questions are not antiquarian or trifling in historical value at all. However, answering them requires a new vision of the ends of human activity than simply that of the Dynamo which has brought us to this point.
In the past two decades, enormous interest has developed in the life and work of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mother superior of Benedictine convents at Bingen and Rupertsberg, who produced major writings on theology, natural history and medicine, as well as composed music, including a symphony, and even illustrated (“illuminated”) manuscripts. She undertook the first of her four successful preaching tours at the age of 60. Hildegard’s contemporaries praised this medieval polymath and visionary as the “Teutonic prophetess,” the “jewel of Bingen,” and the “sibyl of the Rhine.”
Matthew Fox (1985) noted that during her momentous lifetime “Chartres Cathedral rose from the grain fields of France with its delicious stained glass and its inimitable sculpture; Heloise and Abelard fell in love and left their tragic story for future generations to ponder; Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas à Becket strode the political stage; Frederick Barbarossa frightened peasant and pope alike — and Hildegard dressed him down; Bernard of Clairvaux both reformed monastic life and launched the Second Crusade; the Cathedral School of Paris was evolving into the University of Paris — and its faculty approved of Hildegard’s writings after she traveled there in her mid-seventies with her books under her arm.” Perhaps the time is ripe for this heirloom seed …
Hildegard’s powerful "visions" (depicted in an upcoming movie), which were quite possibly triggered by intense migraine headaches, captured the popular imagination, both in her time and recently. Comparative religious scholar Mircea Eliade remarked about such visions:
“It is important to stress that whatever the nature and intensity of an experience of the Light, it always evolves into a religious experience. All types of experience of the Light that we have [examined] have this factor in common: they bring a man (sic) out of his worldly Universe or historical situation, and project him into a Universe different in quality, an entirely different world, transcendent and holy.”
Like the music she composed, and which is capturing ever wider audiences, Hildegard’s visions of an entirely different world offered her a way of “recapturing the original joy and beauty of Paradise.” She described music as the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. According to Hildegard, before the Fall Adam had an absolutely pure voice and joined angels in singing praises to God. The soaring music of Hildegard von Bingen suggests what such music might have sounded like, at least to this most practical of medieval religious mystics.
Hildegard believed that humanity was formed in God’s image as the "recapitulation" of Creation. Creation and humankind are both made of the same thing — cosmic dust. Humans were made after Creation, so the world was not created for humankind alone. Humanity was actually created last in a Great Chain of Being, and therefore depends upon the world as a whole. Therefore humanity’s very purpose, in Hildegard’s worldview, is to glorify Creation in the name of the Lord and serve as its stewards. In Hildegard’s words:
“God created the world out of the four elements, to glorify His name. He strengthened the world with the wind. He connected the world to the stars. And he filled the world with all kinds of creatures. He then put human beings throughout the world, giving them great power as stewards of all Creation. Human beings cannot live without the rest of nature, they must care for all natural things.”
Hildegard’s songs, visions, drawings and remarkably careful observations of the natural world grow out of a matrix of “Viriditas”, or Greenness. Hildegard saw ‘Viriditas’ expressing the Divine power on Earth that penetrated every aspect of life:
“The Word of God regulates the movements of the Sun, the Moon and the stars. The Word of God gives the light which shines from the heavenly bodies. He makes the wind blow, the rivers run and the rain fall. He makes trees burst into blossom, and the crops bring forth the harvest.”
For Hildegard von Bingen, the entire cosmos, not just the individual soul, is the proper context for spirituality and faith. Human creativity and imagery can make emerging new scientific paradigms of the unfolding cosmos come alive in the human soul.
From a museum perspective, the life and work of Hildegard von Bingen suggests that the arts can help bridge science and spirituality. “All the arts serving human desires and needs,” she wrote, “are derived from the breath that God sent into the human body.” Hildegard teaches us that it is art, including cartoons, that “wakes us from our sluggishness” in order to realize our vocation as co-creators of the phenomenal world.
Although Hildegard lived at the beginning of the second millennium in a world whose assumptions differed radically from ours, she still speaks across centuries to those of us seeking a better vision for the new millennium than that depicted in John Darkow’s haunting jeremiad. Her enduring message includes loving, careful observation of the natural world and a clear theology of environmental stewardship, showing Henry Adams and us that feminine concepts and imagery can be used creatively beyond "The Da Vinci Code" in understanding the relationship of the divine and the human.
Hildegard envisioned in Creation a pure gift of the grace of God linked to a clear call for human stewardship and even a creative role in shaping the world to honor the Creator, using our best judgment to figure out how to clean our sinks.