Review

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

by Mary Sharratt

ILLUMINATIONS is a fascinating work of historical fiction about the life and times of a saintly woman whose vision that the divine is present in all of God’s creation resonates across the centuries and is relevant today.

From an early age, Hildegard is a weak and sickly child who experiences visions of glowing orbs and floating trees. When her health permits, she delights in the childhood pleasures of running through the forest with her brother, Rorich. While her father and an older brother are off fighting in the Crusades, Hildegard is avoided by her mother, but her peasant nurse Walbruga deeply loves and dotes on the child.

When Hildegard is eight years old, her mother entrusts her to accompany Jutta von Sponheim, the daughter of wealthy nobility, to a remote monastery in Disibodenberg, Germany, where Hildegard will become Jutta’s attendant. At the monastery, the girls become anchorites. As anchorites, they are blocked off from the rest of the world beneath the church eaves, where they pray, work and fast.

"ILLUMINATIONS is a fascinating work of historical fiction about the life and times of a saintly woman whose vision that the divine is present in all of God’s creation resonates across the centuries and is relevant today."

As the years turn into decades, Jutta’s behavior becomes increasingly Spartan and bizarre. While at the abbey, Hildegard learns how to read and sing Latin psalms and befriends a young monk named Volmar, who sneaks books to her. In her daily life of prayer, fasting and reflection, Hildegard’s visions intensify. Volmar becomes the scribe for her visions, which bring to light that the divine is found in everything and that all creation reveals the face of God. Her visions eventually come to the attention and disapproval of the Abbot.

Despite difficulties and conflict with the prelate and others in the Church hierarchy, word of Hildegard’s visions spreads. She becomes known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, and pilgrims flock to the abbey to get a glimpse of the saintly nun and hear her words of wisdom. It is only after Jutta’s death that Hildegard is permitted to leave. After she starts her own abbey at Rupertsberg near Bingen, girls aspiring to become nuns flock to join her community. Among those entranced by Abbess Hildegard is Richardis von Stade, a younger nun who becomes her protégé.

Mary Sharratt’s rich details and extensive research portray Hildegard’s life in an authentic voice from the time the visionary is a child until her death as an abbess in 1179. On only a few occasions did the mystic’s voice slip out of the 12th century into modern times when words such as “siblings,” “fart” and “conflicted” slipped into the narrative. Nevertheless, Sharratt gives voice to Hildegard, who held steadfast in her beliefs, stood up to those in power, and recently was named a Doctor of the Catholic Church.

Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt on October 12, 2012

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen
by Mary Sharratt

  • Publication Date: October 15, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544106539
  • ISBN-13: 9780544106536