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The ‘green truth’ of 12th-century visionary abbess Hildegard

Hildegard von Bingen illumination, 'Nuns'

Hildegard von Bingen 'Human soul'

A festival celebrating the life and work of an extraordinary 12th-century abbess takes place at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) from 6-10 February.

Hildegard von Bingen was a German visionary, theologian, composer and naturalist whose substantial body of writings, art and musical works (she was the most prolific composer of the Middle Ages) is now finding new audiences.

University of Sussex music lecturer Dr Alice Eldridge has curated Viriditas, a programme of musical performances, installations and talks about, and inspired by, the remarkable woman.

“Viriditas means literally ‘green truth’, or greening power, which was one of Hildegard’s key philosophical or cosmological ideas,” says Dr Eldridge. “In simple terms, for humans to be healthy and happy, then the natural world needs to be happy and healthy too.”

As a nod to this, visitors to the Attenborough Centre’s cafe can experience Dr Eldridge's sound installation of Sussex birdsong, Birdbath (6-8 February, 3-6pm), with a guided listening meditation with broadcaster and meditation teacher Alistair Appleton on 5 February at 5pm.

Other events include a performance by Voice & Celestial Sirens of music composed or inspired by Hildegard on 10 February, as well as a new multi-media work for strings and electronics, The Untuning of the Sky, based on celestial harmonies, by Laura Cannell with Laura Spark and André Bosman on 7 February.

Meanwhile, composers and sound artists from the University of Sussex’s Department of Music have created installations and performances for Hildegard’s Resonances, which features vocal articulators, Fem Engine, on 8 February.

Dr Eldridge, who first discovered Hildegard through her music, describes the works as “arrestingly beautiful”, with a quality that “almost transcends its medium”.

She says:  “What I didn’t know when I first heard these works was that they are condensed accounts of her prophetic visions.”

Hildegard described her first vision at the age of three, and received multisensory prophetic visions throughout her long life. These were documented in three substantial theological texts, complete with vivid illuminations. Historians and neurologists have since speculated that the visions could have been the symptoms of migraines. 

She was also considered one of the first women doctors and scientists. She was the author of Physica, a study of botany, zoology, stones, metals and elements; and Causae et Curae, a study of the causes and consequences of disease, with plant-based remedies.

Observer music critic Fiona Maddocks will be discussing her book about Hildegard, The Woman of Her Age, on 7 February with University of Sussex Professor of Cultural Studies Margaretta Jolly, and the University’s Head of the School of History, Art History and Philosophy, Professor Liz James.

Dr Eldridge adds: “In the last 30 years in the UK we have come to celebrate Hildegard primarily as a composer, but in her lifetime she was a powerful religious and political figure, revered as an apocalyptic prophetess and visionary for church reform.

“This festival is a wonderful opportunity to explore the far-reaching ideas of composers through the ages. Hildegard will be a hard act to follow.”


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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 1 February 2019

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