Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Place Setting: Hildegarde of Bingen

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Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Hildegarde of Bingen place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

Hildegarde of Bingen
(b. 1098, Böckelheim, Germany; d. 1179, Ruperstberg, Germany)

Hildegarde of Bingen, also known as St. Hildegard and the Sybil of the Rhine, was an enormously influential and spiritual woman, who paved the way for other women to succeed in a number of fields from theology to music. She was a mystic writer, who completed three books of her visions. During a time when members of the Catholic Church accorded women little respect, Hildegarde was consulted by bishops and consorted with the Pope, exerting influence over them.

Much of the knowledge about Hildegarde is based on a biography written by two contemporary monks, Godefrid and Theodoric. The tenth child to a noble family, Hildegarde was placed under the care of a Catholic anchoress named Jutta, at the age of eight. Jutta was a recluse who set up a Benedictine community just outside of Bingen. Benedictine nuns lived hermetic lives and spent most of their time alone in meditation. Influenced by Jutta's devotional lifestyle, Hildegarde dedicated herself to the church. Although she claimed to have had supernatural visions as an infant, she hid her prophetic ability, revealing it only to Jutta, who died when Hildegarde was 38.

In 1136, Hildegarde assumed the role of Mother Superior of the convent. In 1147, she moved the convent to Rupertsberg, a town near Bingen, as urged by one of her visions. Although never formally educated and unable to write, Hildegarde quickly became a well-regarded authority and gave influential advice, relying on secretaries to transcribe her ideas onto paper. She was an idolized visionary who earned a saint-like status and name, despite her lack of official beatification.

She wrote on topics ranging from philosophy to natural healing with a critical expertise praised by both German advice-seekers and the highest-ranking figure in the Church, Pope Eugenius III. An esteemed advocate for scientific research, Hildegarde was one of the earliest promoters of the use of herbal medicine to treat ailments. She wrote several books on medicine, including Physica, circa 1150, which was primarily concerned with the use of herbs in medicinal treatment.

Hildegarde may be best known as a composer. Stemming from the traditional incantations of Church music, Hildegarde's compositions took the form of a single chant-like, melodic line. These compositions are called antiphons and are a single line of music sung before and after a psalm. Hildegarde combined all of her music into a cycle called Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum, circa 1151, or The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations, which reflects her belief that music was the highest praise to God. Her works, including In Evangelium and O Viridissima Virga, are still released today, and her ethereal style continues to influence New Age music. Hildegarde of Bingen stands out as an extraordinary figure in women's history, not only as a talented musician but also as an unapologetically prodigious woman who found remarkable success by expressing her unique voice.

Hildegarde of Bingen at The Dinner Party

Hildegarde's place setting is based on the structure of a Gothic cathedral. Her plate is painted as a rose window, the central stained glass window in any cathedral, often considered the spiritual center of the church. When viewed from different angles, the iridescent white and yellow hues of the plate transform, playing with light and shadow, and giving the effect of rose glass.

Gothic architectural elements are also embroidered on the runner, including the famed innovative Gothic arches that served as the support for each cathedral. One arch frames the plate, putting focus on the rose window. Chicago used the opus anglicanum, or "English work," embroidery technique, which was generally used in ecclesiastical vestments. The skill necessary for the stitch and the fine goldwork made it a costly symbol of status in the Middle Ages. Its use in the runner associates Hildegarde with bishops and kings whose vestments would have been adorned in the same manner.  The runner replicates the iridescent colors in the plate, and includes two additional stained-glass windows stitched on either side of Hildegarde's name, completing the Gothic architectural structure.

Hildegarde herself created a drawing, or illumination, in her manuscript Scivias (Know the Ways), circa 1140–50, of her defining vision, in which the great span of the universe revealed itself to her in a trance as "round and shadowy…pointed at the top, like an egg…its outermost layer of a bright fire." Chicago chose to duplicate that drawing on the back of the runner. The center is a deep blue, dotted with stars and faces breathing life into the universe. Bordering this blue is ring of abstracted flames in burgundy and dark orange. The outermost portion is raised gold embroidery done with the opus anglicanum technique.

By adding this illumination, the place setting displays the harmonious balance between the religious and secular aspects of Hildegarde's life. As a woman of the church, a composer, and a pioneer of holistic medicine, she devoted herself to helping others in the physical world, while simultaneously maintaining a spiritual life.

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Gertrude the Great

Herrad of Lansberg
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Isabel of France
Juliana of Norwich
Marguerite of Bourgogne
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Primary Sources

The Visionary Trilogy

Liber scivias domini (Know the Ways of the Lord)

Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life's Merits)

Liber divinorum operum (Book of the Divine Works)

Natural Science

Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturum creaturam (Book on the Subtleties of Many Kinds of Creatures)

Physica or Liber simplices medicinae (Book of Simple Medicine)

Causae et curae or Liber compositae medicinae (Book of Compound Medicine)

Musical Compositions

Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of Harmony of Celestial Revelations)

Miscellaneous Works

Expositiones evangeliorum (Discourses of the Gospels)

Litterae ignotae (Cryptic Writings)

Lingua ignota (Cryptic Language)

Explanatio regulae Sancti Benedictini (Explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict)

Explanatio symboli Sancti Athanasii (Explanation of the Symbols of St. Athanasius)

Vita Sancti Ruperti (Life of St. Rupert)

Vita Sancti Disibodi (Life of St. Disibod)

Solutiones triginta octo questionum (Solutions to 38 Questions)

Epistolae (Letters)

Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources

Atherton, Mark, ed. and trans. Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings. London and New York: Penguin, 2001.

Baird, Joseph L., and Radd K. Ehrman. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098–1179: A Visionary Life. London: New York: Routledge, 1989.

Holsinger, Bruce W. Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University California Press, 1987.

Pernoud, Régine. Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired Conscience of the Twelfth Century. New York: Marlowe & Co., 1998.

Silvas, Anna. Jutta and Hildegard: The Biographical Sources. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Sweet, Victoria. Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky: Hildegard of Bingen and Premodern Medicine. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Weeks, Andrew. German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Web Resources

Images of Hildegarde's manuscript Scivias

St. Hildegarde's Parish and Pilgrimage Church in Eibingen

St. Hildegarde Abbey


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