by Mary Sharratt

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Illuminations is about the extraordinary medieval German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, whose parents made her become an anchorite in 1106 when she was only eight years old. The novel offers poetic, horrifyingly vivid impressions of the dedication ceremony, a funeral service in which Hildegard dies to the world before being sealed with Jutta, her older companion by a few years, into a pair of narrow rooms in the Abbey of Disibodenberg. "The funeral tapers, the bed of earth - this night I was to die. To be buried with Christ.... Holy water fell on my back like rain, wetting me through the prickly hair shirt. Incense and the stink of dank earth filled my nose.... I choked and coughed as the archbishop sprinkled ash on us. Every part of my body shriveled as he spoke the Rite of Extreme Unction, reserved for those on their deathbed.... Tears slid from my eyes as I watched the lay brothers brick up the doorway that Jutta and I had passed through but would never be allowed to exit."

Only Hildegard's mystical visions take her outside the confinement of the anchorage. "Barefoot and mother-naked, I found myself within a greening garden so beautiful that it made me cry out. Each blade of grass and newly unfurled spring leaf shimmered in the sun. Every bush and tree was frothy with blossoms and heavy with fruit at the same time.... The Lady's voice whispered: See the eternal paradise that has never fallen."

Is a novel whose main character lives walled into close confinement from childhood dull? Not a bit. Hildegard's vibrant spirit and passion for life are honed by conflict with Jutta, the monks of Disibodenberg and others, friendly and unfriendly, who rule their lives through a small grille for speech and a hatch for food and water. Hildegard's eventual emergence is a miraculous triumph - wrought in Illuminations less by supernatural wonders than by Hildegard's no less miraculous creativity and strength of will. (2012, 272 pages, including an Afterword discussing the history and sources behind the novel)

More about Illuminations at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Interview with author Mary Sharratt

Other novels about mystics:

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak (2010), a dual-time novel about the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi, and an unhappily married modern woman reading a manuscript about Rumi which transforms her life. More info

The Green Rose by Warren A. Silver (1977), about the eleventh-century Spanish Jewish mystic and poet Solomon ibn Gabirol. More info

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922), about a prince and spiritual seeker who attained enlightenment; based on traditional tales about the Buddha. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about Hildegard of Bingen:

Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times by Matthew Fox (2012). More info

Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks (2001). More info

Jutta and Hildegard: The Biographical Sources, edited by Anna Silvas (1999). More info

Hildegard's Music:

11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula, The Anonymous Four, Harmonia Mundi

A Feather on the Breath of God, Gothic Voices, Hyperion UK

Hildegard von Bingen: Heavenly Revelations, Oxford Camerata, Naxos

Hildegard von Bingen: Symphoniae, Cologne Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (includes the song "O virga ac diadema")


Hildegard of Bingen: A Music of Light

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