Book Review: Illuminations

illumWhen I picked this up, I had no idea how much I was going to be affected by Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) .  Even now, I am haunted and inspired by my memory of her.  She was, in every sense of the word, remarkable.

At the age of eight, Hildegard was given to the church.  Being the tenth child in her family (tithe), she was offered by her mother as an oblate to a monastery (much to the child’s horror).  While there, Hildegard was to be the handmaiden of a very disturbed creature by the name of Jutta von Sponheim.  For terrible reasons of her own, Jutta chose to devote her life to prayer by anchoring herself to the monastery.  Being anchoresses meant that Jutta and her eight-year-old handmaiden were bricked in to a small 2-room dwelling at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest (Germany).  There was no way out.  Their basic needs were delivered to them by the monks through a small window.  Their “outside” was a little courtyard. Their interactions with the world were limited to the monks, and those who sought the blessings of Jutta, who became increasingly well-known across the land.

What simmered in Hildegard’s soul, even before she was forced to live with Jutta, were vivid and incredibly powerful religious visions.  Some of them would seize her with excruciating pain and terrible illness.  Talking of these visions when she was very young frightened her mother greatly, so Hildegard learned not to speak of them.  She kept her secret from Jutta for many years.

As Jutta grew in her piety and her mental illness, Hildegard longed for escape.  She dreamed of the forest, of seeing her beloved brother, of being free.  She found solace in the books that Brother Volmar brought to her.  She became well versed in everything from scripture, to Latin, to the healing properties of nature. While loyally serving her Magistra, Hildegard increased her knowledge.

As time crawled along, two new novices joined them in their anchorage.  Hildegard watched over both closely, choosing to protect them over any chance of her own liberation.

30 years.  This is how long Hildegard spent in anchorage.  Jutta, after years of asceticism and self-flagellation, finally passed away at the age of 45.  Her passing was marked holy by many in the religious community, and she was revered.  At this time, Hildegard was 38, and she became the new Magistra of the younger nuns.  It was time to put her visions to paper.

With the help of her beloved friend Sister Richardis and her confidante Brother Volmar, Hidegard began to share her gifts with the world.  The creation and illumination of the famous Scivias, a tome which described 26 of her visions, is still regarded as a remarkable work today.  (Albeit the original version appears to have been misplaced.)  Scivias took ten years to complete.


Meaning filled me.  For more than three decades I had studied the holy texts, but now I understood them.   ~Hildegard von Bingen

Not surprisingly, there were those who condemned these writings, and called her a heretic.  She persevered.  She found her voice, and her calling.  During a time when many women became nuns to protect themselves from the atrocities of the world, Hildegard von Bingen became a leader.  She designed and created a new monastery for women on a mountainside in Rupertsberg.  She preached, educated and offered her blessings.  By devoting herself to her calling, she became a source of unparalleled female inspiration.  She was remarkable.

This novel was written with great affection by author Mary Sharratt.  Sharratt brought these historical figures to life with majestic imagery, and wonderful character insight.  From the pain of Jutta to the pining of Volmar, Sharratt’s writing was beautiful.  It takes great skill and greater heart to breathe life into historical figures, and Sharratt has done so in such a way that I’ll not soon forget any of them. Illuminations is as elegant as it is significant.  I’ll certainly seek more work by this author.

4.5 stars for Illuminations.