Friday, September 17, 2010

Hildegard of Bingen: Mystic who loved women

“St. Hildegard of Bingen and Her Assistant Richardis” by Lewis Williams,

Hildegard of Bingen was a medieval German nun, mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist. She founded several monasteries, fought for women in the church and wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Hildegard was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. Her feast day is Sept. 17 (today).

The title “Doctor of the Church” is a rare honor, bestowed upon only a few saints whose writings have universal value to the church. Their “eminent learning” and “great sanctity” must be affirmed by the Pope. Currently the Roman Catholic Church has only 33 doctors, including three women.

The friendship -- or love story -- between Hildegard and Richardis is included in a 2009 film from German feminist director Margarethe von Trotta called Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Von Trotta is one of the world’s most important feminist filmmakers and a leader of independent German cinema. Von Trotta allows Hildegard to speak for herself by using a script based on Hildegard’s own writings and a soundtrack filled with Hildegard’s music. Watch a trailer at the end of this post.

Richardis von Stade (center, played by Hannah Herzsprung) and Hildegard (left, Barbara Sukowa) in the biopic “Vision” (from

Hildegard also inspired a play by lesbian feminist playwright Carolyn Gage. In the play “Artemisia and Hildegard,” Gage has two of history’s great women artists debate their contrasting survival strategies: Gentileschi battled to achieve in the male-dominated art world while Hildegard created women-only community to support her art by founding a nunnery.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the tenth child of a noble family, was offered to the church as a “tithe” when she was very young. She was raised from the age of 8 in the hermitage that later became her Benedictine abbey. She founded two other convents where women performed her music and developed their artistic, intellectual and spiritual gifts. She spent almost all of her life in the company of women.

“Hildegard: The Vision” by Tricia Danby

She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.

When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).

"St. Hildegard of Bingen" by Plamen Petrov

Hildegard was nursed in her illness and encouraged in her writing by Richardis von Stade, a younger woman who was her personal assistant, soul mate and special favorite. Whether or not they were physically intimate, Hildegard’s actions suggest that she was a lesbian in the sense that her primary love interest was in women.

In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.

Hildegard wrote intense letters begging Richardis to return: “I loved the nobility of your conduct, your wisdom and your chastity, your soul and the whole of your life, so much that many said: What are you doing?”

Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.

“The Universe”
by Hildegard of Bingen

Wikimedia Commons
Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum (“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According to Wikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”

In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.

“Hildegard of Bingen: Vision of Music” by Tricia Danby

As a church leader, Hildegard had to support its policy against homosexual behavior. But she often wrote about the divine feminine and the dignity of women, presenting sexuality in a generally positive way. She wrote, “Creation looks on its Creator like the beloved looks on the lover.” Many readers today delight in her erotic descriptions of marriage as a metaphor for the union of a soul with God. Hildegard writes:

The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
It is a yearning to take on God's gentle yoke,
It is a yearning to give one's self to God's Way.

In the Symphonia, a collection of liturgical songs to Mary, Hildegard writes with ecstatic passion of her love and devotion to the Virgin Mary. She extols Mary as “greenest twig” and sings the praises of her womb, which “illuminated all creatures.”

Her songs to Mary are available for listening in the following video and on the Sequentia recording, “Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy.” Her music is still just as beautiful today.

Hildegard died on Sept. 17, 1179 at age 81. The sisters at her convent said they saw two streams of colorful lights cross in the sky above her room. She became a saint by popular acclamation.

The icon of Hildegard and Richardis at the top of this post was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons. This post also features images of Hildegard by artists Tricia Danby and Plamen Petrov.

Hildegard appears as a young woman in new portraits by Tricia Danby, a spiritual artist based in Germany and a cleric in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church. Her images reveal a sensuous side to Hildegard’s rapturous connection with God.

Stained-glass artist Plamen Petrov of Chicago is known for his window showing the male paired saints Sergius and Bacchus at St. Martha Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. His Hildegard window shows her illuminated with beautiful aquamarine colors.

“Hildegard von Bingen” by Tobias Haller

Hildegard was sketched in blue with intense blue eyes by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

“Saint Hildegard of Bingen” by Robert Lentz

Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons, portrays Hildegard with a wild rose. She used to dip a rose in the Rhine River and use it to sprinkle water on people as a blessing when she traveled between monasteries. Lentz is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland.

LGBT-affirming creation theologian Matthew Fox has written two books on the life and work of Hildegard. The newest is Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, which presents her as an "eco-warrior" who meets such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman, Dorothee Soelle and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Fox also wrote Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was the subject of a major sermon by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori when the House of Bishops met in Taiwan on Sept. 17, 2014. “Hildegard speaks scientifically and theologically of divine creativity as viriditas, reflecting both greenness and truth… Hildegard’s vision motivates all healers of creation who understand the green web of connection that ties creation together in Wisdom’s body,” she said. Click here for the full text. (Thanks to Ann Fontaine at Episcopal Café for the news tip.)

Related links:

Pope sets date to declare two new church doctors (Catholic News Agency)

Ritual to Honor Hildegard of Bingen by Diann L. Neu (WATER)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Hildegarda de Bingen y Richardis: Una mística que amaba a otra mujer

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

The Hildegard icons are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at


Turtle Woman said...

This is my favorite post of the year!! Imagine trying to get the help of a Pope to prevent a lesbian split up LOL.

What an inspiration, and her music is incredible too. We need to build a lesbian chapel in her honor somewhere, and fill it with paintings!

KittKatt said...

Thanks for your enthusiasm! I was a bit disappointed that this post didn’t get much response at first. I did a lot of research for this post and Hildegard is one of my big three personal favorite saints, along with Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila. These have been my guides for years.

I wanted to include more women saints here, so I did some research this week and I was surprised to learn that all three are considered to be LGBTQ saints. I know, I shouldn't have been surprised!

However, the lesbian side of these saints is not well known. It takes a lot of digging to find the truth.

sagar said...

It is true that there are ways people incline toward the fellow being. However, I don't think digging into their personal life was well worth the sacrifice they have done. It is nice to get good blogs but it is more important for you to build the trust and consensus on the relationship between God and humans. I am not against Lesbian image, its just that it pains to see we dig into the worst and ignore the postive

Turtle Woman said...

The trifecta of lesbian saints. And as for history, it is always a search to find gay and lesbian people from the past, because they were good at hiding. And you would hide because a lesbian could be burned at the stake for being lesbian. Or tortured or jailed, as women now are in many parts of the world still.

KittKatt said...

I am approving this negative comment from Sagar because it illustrates why places like the Jesus in Love Blog are still needed. Some people still don’t understand that having a homosexual orientation is a GOOD gift from God, just as good as a heterosexual orientation.

When people like Sagar say that Hildegard’s love for another woman is “the worst” thing about her, they drive some LGBT people away from God and into self-hatred and destructive behavior. Surely that is not what Jesus or even Hildegard would do.

I agree that Hildegard’s love life was not her main accomplishment, but it’s important to have places like this where the truth of her same-sex attraction is included along with descriptions of her music, art, writing, etc.

Thank you, Turtle Woman, for your support and for pointing out why Hildegard’s lesbian side was and IS hidden.

Usually my posts on historical saints are not very controversial, but this one is. I got another negative comment on this post that I am not approving.

pennyjane said...

hi kitt. i really have to agree with you and turtle woman that gay images are very important to doing good chrisian people NEED these images in order to find their own place in the bigger picture.

i'm really glad you didn't choose to not post sugar's comments. i was recently repremanded a bit because i objected to an image of Jesus and "cruising." if you had not posted this comment i would have wondered why mine was posted.

Jesus is not a saint nor a prophet, to me...He is the risen Son of God, the Living God. i think you pointed out very well your objection to sugar's comment, that imagining hildegard's lesbianism is looking in the "worst" of her...that stuck in my craw as well. a person's sexual orietation is neither the best nor the worst of them, no more than is intelligence or good's just a part of them.

personally i think that examining the sexuality of saints is as valid as looking into any other matter of their whole it homosexual or heterosexual.

i think that in your post you included the more visible aspects of her nature...the music...and the words of her own mouth, "soul kissed by God."

hildegard, and you pointed it out, surely felt a connection between physical love and the love of God. i was very touched by this, i hope sugar will read the post again, she might see where her own ideas are being sung right here in this blog.

like turtle woman, i found this post inspiring...spiritually...this lovely lesbian woman, so in tune with God....i think it's wonderful and i thank you very much for sharing it with us all.

much love and hope. pj

KittKatt said...

Pennyjane and Eric, it’s important for me to hear that at least some of you find it worthwhile for me to approve and respond to comments that seem negative or worse. Some people “subscribe” to the comments here, and I don’t want them to feel attacked when the Jesus in Love comments come to them. On the other hand, I don’t want us to drift away from reality because we never hear opposing views. My goal is for this to be a place of balance, mutual respect and open dialogue.

Pennyjane, I’ve never had a single doubt about approving your comments, even when we disagree. The comments that I don’t approve come from anonymous people who express hate for LGBT people and/or say that homosexuality is a sin. Their anti-GLBT statements stand in direct opposition to the purpose of this blog. They may leave a name like “Sagar,” but other contact info. Their comments don’t belong here, and they can hurt people in this community (including me!)

In contrast, Pennyjane, I see you as a familiar friend and member of this loose-knit online community of queers and our allies. You don’t say it’s a sin to be gay. Your ideas are more complex, moving us toward greater understanding of how to be LGBT people of faith.

Eric, another good friend in the Jesus in Love community, has written a powerful in-depth reflection about sexuality and spirituality, based in part on Sagar’s comment that when we look at St. Hildegard’s lesbianism we “dig into the worst” about her.

Eric writes, “Far from being the worst aspect of this particular saints’ life, her sexuality is perhaps among the highest and best qualities of her life, that which makes her particularly worthy of emulation for those who identify with her. For it is her devotion and love for the one who may have been her life-partner that is most worthy of emulation.”

He has a lot words of wisdom, and you can read the whole essay at this blog “On and Off the Road”:

Frank said...

I am not sure where the evidence of homosexuality is. I had a male friend write an email to me recently that said "I miss you very much". Someone who doesn't know this could say "Gee, sounds kind of queer to me", as men nowadays do not usually use such language...such people would be wrong. The man in question is just very old-fashioned (actually very conservative really) prefers to be called his full name, rather than a nickname, very mannerly, etc.

I want to be clear I am not expressing hatred toward the idea of homosexual saints. Homosexuality has always existed, but we must also keep in mind that simply because two people of the same sex were closely attached, does not indicate that the two were homosexual.

We must also keep in mind that homosexuality as a separate identity is relatively new, as homosexual philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out, before the 19th century there homosexuals were mostly just people that preferred sex with the same gender, but who did not necessarily live a non-conformist lifestyle outside of the other norms of their sex.

Judging the past is difficult, personally, I must say I find the evidence for the homosexuality of St. Hildegard as presented here to be dubious at best.


Kittredge Cherry said...

Frank, you correctly perceived that there is no conclusive evidence (for OR against) regarding Hildegard’s sexual orientation or sexual activity. I simply presented what slim evidence exists.

This series is about queer saints, broadly defined. According to the American Psychological Association, “sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes.” The evidence for Hildegard’s emotional attraction to women is strong. However, as you say, the whole concept of sexual orientation is new, and I apply it in hindsight. One reason that I write this LGBT Saints series is to show that people are not defined by their sexuality or gender -- anyone can lead a holy life.

I recently expanded this post to include lesbian feminist interpretations of Hildegard’s life in film and theater. You can see the updated version at this link:

Joe Gibson said...

I love your blog and your bosts on Hildegard von Bingen.

Please visit my own website on the amazing 12th century mystic.

Thank you
and God Bless.