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ILLUMINATIONS by Mary Sharratt Kirkus Star


A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

by Mary Sharratt

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-547-56784-6
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A fictionalized biography of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Its publication will coincide with her appointment as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict.

Eight-year-old Hildegard, a knight’s daughter, accompanies teenage Jutta, a countess’ daughter, as both are imprisoned in an anchorage, a tiny enclosure adjoining a Benedictine monastery chapel in the German hamlet of Disibodenberg. The girls are consecrated as “oblates,” an extreme form of cloistered nun. Their parents have ulterior motives for consigning each child to this sacred interment: Hildegard’s visions embarrass her family, and Jutta, a victim of incest, is unmarriageable. For the next 30 years, Hildegard, with the help of a monk named Volmar, manages to gain an education in music, languages and medicinal arts while Jutta starves herself and mortifies her flesh until she dies. Since the anchorage must now be unbricked for Jutta’s funeral, Hildegarde convinces the Abbot of Disibodenburg to allow her and two other oblates to remain free. Soon, Richardis is brought by her noble mother to serve Hildegard. Richardis is mute, but Hildegard correctly divines that her embrace of religious life is voluntary. When she speaks, it is to defend Hildegard’s visions and writings, which Richardis has helped to illustrate on parchment. This miracle affords Hildegard some credibility at Disibodenburg. Then, word comes that Pope Eugenius wants to scrutinize her first manuscript, Scivias. With the help of Volmar and her beloved brother, Rorich, who serves the Archbishop of Mainz, she is cleared of heresy and is even dubbed “God’s Sybil” by the Pope. Now, Hildegard is free to fulfill her destiny, which she first fully realized at the age of 42, as a writer, healer, composer and abbess. But further hurdles await. Sharratt brings the elusive Hildegard to vivid life, underscoring her ability to evade or transcend Church censure while espousing a protofeminist agenda. 

The ideal companion to the elevation of Hildegard by the pontiff who rebuked American nuns for their outspokenness, an irony the saint herself might have relished.