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Visions of Hildegard von Bingen

Library exhibit brings to light 12th century nun with a contemporary following

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May 10, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new Northwestern University Library exhibition - "The Once and Future Saint: Two Lives of Hildegard von Bingen" - chronicles the astonishing life of Hildegard of Bingen. 

World-renowned in the 12th century as a visionary, composer of music, healer and church reformer, Hildegard was "resurrected" in the late 20th century by feminists, New Age gurus and musicians inspired by her writings, musical compositions and acts of independence.

In May, Barbara Newman -- one of the world's foremost authorities on Hildegard -- will lead two special events related to the exhibition. Curator Nina Barrett has dubbed Newman the "patron saint" of the free and public exhibition at the Main Library, 1970 Campus Drive on the Evanston campus through Aug. 27.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 18, Newman will lead a free, public guided tour of the exhibition. On Thursday, May 20, she will lead a discussion following the 7 p.m. Chicago premiere of "Vision: Scenes from the Life of Hildegard of Bingen" at Northwestern's Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. Directed by German feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, "Vision" was the official German entry of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

The quirky exhibition features rare books from Northwestern's Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, CDs and scores of Hildegard's music as it has been interpreted in the 20th century, contemporary books and a scrapbook display of press clippings confirming her current celebrity status.

The exhibition even includes a sampling of health food items advocated by Hildegard nearly 1,000 years ago that nuns at St. Hildegard's abbey near Rüdesheim, Germany produce today.

"The library exhibition is not solely about Hildegard von Bingen but also about scholarship," says curator Barrett. "It is designed to demonstrate the incredible power of written documents and how they preserve lives that otherwise would be swallowed by history."

"While a rich international body of literature about Hildegard and other women mystics exists today, none of it existed in the late 1970s when Barbara Newman began working on Hildegard for her dissertation," Barrett adds.

By any measure, Hildegard was a remarkable woman. Pledged to the Church as a child by her parents, she spent much of her life in a cell-like enclosure with only a handful of other nuns. At age 40, she emerged as an outspoken woman who went on to counsel popes and emperors, fight for church reform and compose music she insisted was inspired by angels.

In 1994, a CD of Hildegard's music topped Billboard's crossover music charts. In 1998, she was so famous that thousands of pilgrims made trips to Germany to celebrate her 900th birthday. And though the Vatican still denies her full sainthood, in recent years The New York Times proclaimed her a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance.

Visitors to "The Once and Future Saint" are encouraged to check out a free audio companion to the exhibit. Available at the library's circulation desk, the audio includes readings from Hildegard's writings, commentary by Newman and samples of Hildegard's music and its contemporary reinterpretations.

The audio also can be downloaded online at http://www.library.northwestern.edu/exhibits/hildegard/hildegardexhibitaudio.zip to a personal mobile device and then brought along to the exhibit.

"The Once and Future Saint" exhibition is free and open to the public Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to noon. For more information, call (847) 491-7641 or e-mail n-barrett@northwestern.edu.

For information about the May 20 film screening of "Vision," call the Block Museum of Art at (847) 491-4000 or visit www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu. The screening and discussion are made possible not only by the Block Museum and Northwestern University Library but also by Northwestern's German department and medieval studies cluster.