Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (Vision - Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen, 2009)
Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta, the 2009 film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen provides its audiences with a story centered in sphere of the medieval world that filmmakers tend to ignore - life in a female convent. A life of rigorous prayer and silence is understandably not as exciting as a life of battle when it comes to cinematic medievalism, and yet director Von Trotta was drawn to portray medieval monastic traditions by way of an incredible figure: Hildegard von Bingen (Barbara Sukowa), an early twelfth-century abbess, mystic, and saint. As a prolific feminist filmmaker, it is obvious why she would be inspired by Hildegard, whose remarkable life as a mystic was notable because of her struggles with the male authorities in the Church and her own scientific and religious writings. As such, Vision deals primarily with these events and further explores Hildegard’s own genius as a female polymath to give a new historical feminist model to modern audiences. By exploring female relationships, bonds of sisterhood against patriarchy, and Hildegard’s own view of femininity and female power, Vision tells an uplifting, though modernized, story about this remarkable woman.
As most of the action of the story takes place inside of convents, it is important to think about how Vision explores the impact of the inner workings of convent life with its laser-like focus on female relationships. The beginning of the movie opens on a brief introduction to how Hildegard became a part of convent life, showing the audience the importance of her relationship with both her mentor, Jutta the Holy (Mareile Blendi), and her de facto sister Jutta the Younger (Lena Stolze), who joins at the same time. While only briefly featured in the film, the repeated use of lines from Jutta the Holy’s lesson on envy, especially “Love, however, is the greatest power given by God,” serves to show just how deep female bonds can run; for Hildegard and Jutta the Younger, this shared maternal bond is what pulls them together even though they face different struggles. The line itself also echoes independently throughout the whole story, from its use by Hildegard as her modus operandi when teaching the principles of convent life as a magistra, to her relationship with Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung). Her relationship with Richardis is in fact the most important one shown in the film. In his article reviewing Vision, Andrew Cuff mentions how the two women are shown having a relationship with “sublimated homoeroticism”(Cuff 2013). The pure love and joy that Richardis displays upon meeting Hildegard and being admitted as a postulate is overflowing, akin to that of a modern fangirl meeting the celebrity of her dreams. As their story progresses, we see how they become closer and closer, with Jutta the Younger jealously declaring Richardis as Hildegard’s favorite, and their interactions are accompanied with increasingly lingering looks between the older mentor and her young, spritely acolyte. Their eventual parting is made ever more bitter by the deep, true love they have for one another. Whatever their exact formulation, these female relationships are shown as being the backbone of Hildegard’s community, from which she draws strength to press forward.
Hildegard is a female mystic, believing that she is on the receiving end of visions sent to her directly from God, and Vision, although deliberately vague about the source of her visions, depicts Hildegard’s struggle to be taken seriously as a matter not of truth, but as a woman’s struggle to be a leader in a patriarchal society. Abbot Kuno’s (Alexander Held) threats to her leadership create the underlying anxieties present throughout Hildegard’s career, as she consistently faces the possibility of losing support by following her own path rather than the one chosen for her by the men around her. Religious historian Darren Middleton’s interview of Mary Sharratt, a novelist who extensively studied the life and works of Hildegard, best illuminates for us the tactic the abbess used to win her place. Mary Sharratt explains how Hildegard used the Church’s conceptions of female weakness as a character reference for herself, making her special position as non-threatening to ecclesiastical order as possible and thereby easing her legitimization as a mystic (Middleton, 35). After her endorsement by Bernard of Clairvaux (Joseph von Westphalen), followed by securing her own convent at Rupertsberg separate from that of the monks in Disibodenburg, Hildegard seems to have gone through the worst of it. With her position as a mystic assured, she becomes a more assertive figure in the film. Sharon Jones, a theologian with particular interest in feminist interpretations of Church history, describes these events as having reinforced Hildegard’s authority to Hildegard herself and to the male authorities who had for so long denied her abilities as an instrument of change (Jones, 381). No longer do we see scenes of her feeling troubled or hesitant or deferential - instead, she begins to defy traditional Church teachings in smaller and yet more meaningful ways.
Hildegard was not just remarkable for her political achievements, but also for her abilities in medicine and music, as seen in the film. It is her advancements in these fields, written in manuscripts at her dictation, that give us a glimpse in to how Hildegard thought of womankind. Adapted from some of her writings, the movie’s version of Hildegard makes a radical claim that conception happens not only with the man’s semen, but that the blood of the woman also is needed to give life. It is clear that Von Trotta specifically picked this reading when one considers that, in the twelfth century and for the longest time after, women were thought of as practically unessential to the creation of a child, and yet, here was a woman mystic who believed that women were the essential bearers of life (John, 118-119). Hildegard’s morality play, Ordo Virtutum, also gives us clues as to how she conceived of femininity through chastity. The scene depicting the production is a bold statement on how Hildegard has transformed the way the nuns live out the Rule; she allowed the nuns to be out of their habits for its performance. This is interesting to think about in conjunction with the otherwise minor story of the nun Clara (Paula Kalenberg); Hildegard is distraught when learning that Abbot Kuno has no plans to discipline the monk responsible for Clara’s pregnancy he then adds insult by telling her that the women of Disibodenburg are evil for their feminine seduction of his monks. These two events serve to show the audience that, for Hildegard, femininity and female beauty are not catalysts for evil, but rather something to celebrate. In addition, Hildegard’s concept of viriditas - God as existing in and being all of nature – and the importance of appreciating natural beauty reflect further on Hildegard’s rhetoric of expressing femininity as a form of devotion to God (Middleton, 31).
Despite the modern feminist message of the film, it is important to remember the less radical aspects and historical positioning of Hildegard’s life. She was still quintessentially a twelfth-century woman, who lived during a period of social and religious reinvention and change; she too reinvented her own role (Cuff, 2013). But she uses the masculine for references to God and did not advocate for women in positions of power within the existing infrastructure of ecclesiastical power in the Church (John, 116). She lived and abided by the patriarchal rules of the Church. But I believe that this is what makes her all the more radical and inspirational for modern women, as Hildegard is seen as having created a community of her own, separating the world of women in devotion and service to God from that of the men. Vision, in its quest to tell Hildegard’s story, is telling us a story of female spirituality, but it also opens our eyes to the complexities of medieval monastic life, through which a woman like Hildegard could become important and powerful in her own right.
Cuff, Andrew. "Virtue and Vices: Margarethe Von Trotta’s 'Vision': A Coup for Medieval Women's Studies." Coreopsis: A Journal of Myth and Theater 3 (2013).
John, Helen J. "Review: Hildegard of Bingen: A New Twelfth-Century Woman Philosopher?" Hypatia 7, no. 1 (1992): 115-23. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810137.
Jones, Sharon, and Diana Neal. "Negotiable Currencies: Hildegard of Bingen, Mysticism and the Vagaries of the Theoretical." Feminist Theology: The Journal of the Britain & Ireland School of Feminist Theology 11, no. 3 (May 2003): 375-84. Accessed March 12, 2018 through EBSCOHost.
Middleton, Darren N.J. "A Novel Approach to Hildegard Von Bingen: Talking with Mary Sharratt about Faith and Fiction." Encounter, 2017, 19-47. Accessed March 12, 2018 through EBSCOHost.
Faith and Spirituality
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)