31 August 2017


Part 9 of 9 of the Lecture Heavenly Outlook, which I recently delivered to the Catholic Art Guild on 12 August 2017.

St. Hildegard possessed a supersensitivity so great that she could see the color of a calf’s hair while it was yet in utero. This too was taken as evidence of great holiness. She saw the world illuminated by a supernatural brightness - at all times, not only when in ecstasy, and with no impairment to her natural vision. She described it:
The light that I see is not local and confined. It is far brighter than a lucent cloud through which the sun shines. I can discern neither its height nor its length nor its breadth.... This light I have named the reflection of the Living Light.
This woman whose perception was bathed always in the reflected light of the invisible Sun articulated a defense and theology of music, from which, I think, a defense and theology of art in general can be derived. To the prelates of Mainz, who had temporarily forbidden her from singing the Divine Office, she wrote:
Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in Paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams.... God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth [so that] they might, by means of His interior illumination, regain some of that knowledge which Adam had before he was punished for his sin.

And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles (by which the hearts of listeners would be inflamed) but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains. Thereby, both through the form and quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words that accompany them, those who hear might be taught ... about inward things, since they have been admonished and aroused by outward things. In such a way, these holy prophets get beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.... For, before he sinned, his voice had the sweetness of all musical harmony. Indeed, if he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and resonance of his voice.
The experience of Adam in Eden was not only ever musical, but ever beautiful in all ways. You delight in music because you are nostalgic for Paradise; you delight in beautiful pictures for the same reason. If sung words, melodies and musical instruments are means of elevating the mind toward blessedness, so too are works of visual art.


My third advice to anybody who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is not to consider sacred art a completed task, not to consider any historical artifact to be a supreme model to be imitated without improvement. To make art ever more beautiful is not to take it away from its source in history, but to take it back to its source in Heaven. Sacred art does not have a geographic or chronological center; it has, rather, two foci, like a planetary orbit. These correspond to tradition and beauty. One is the foot of the Cross; the other is the Garden of Eden.


Works quoted or referenced:

Hildegard of Bingen, Epistle to Guibert of Gembloux, translated by Joseph L. Baird, The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Hildegard of Bingen, Epistle to the Prelates of Mainz, translated by Joseph L. Baird, The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, (Oxford University Press, 2006).