Summary and book reviews of Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

Illuminations

A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

By Mary Sharratt

Illuminations
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2012,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2013,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt's redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.

Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta's masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine.

When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage.

Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.

She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans. . . . But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.
—Hildegard von Bingen's vision of the Feminine Divine, from Scivias,
III, 4.15, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop

Prologue: Apostate
Rupertsberg, 1177

THE MOST ANCIENT and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse. Once, centuries before my existence, there lived in these Rhineland forests a woman named Weleda, she who sees. She took no husband but lived in a tower. In those heathen times, her people revered her as a goddess, for she foretold their ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In our contemporary culture, we can little fathom walling a child into a small space as a spiritual offering--a living sacrifice. How did this kind of isolation and austerity effect Hildegard's character and later life? How much of her "genius" might have had its genesis in learning to preserve her sanity in such inauspicious surroundings?

  2. Hildegard's magistra and spiritual mother, Jutta von Sponheim, embraced a spiritual path that involved extreme asceticism in the form of fasting and self-flagellation. How was Hildegard able to forge such a different spiritual path for herself, one that embraced the sacred in the natural world and a vision of overpowering divine love?

  3. From earliest ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Deftly written, this novel places the reader fully into Hildegard's life and time with fully rounded characters, the historical backdrop of the Crusades and the ongoing struggle of women to overcome the social roles expected of them.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Full Review Members Only (820 words).

Media Reviews
Booklist

Psychological insight, passages of moving spirituality, and abundant historical detail - from straw bedding and hairshirts to turtle soup and wooden dolls - make this a memorable addition to the genre of medieval historical fiction.

Publishers Weekly

Sharratt offers up an imaginative retelling of the fascinating life of the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen... Though confined primarily to the abbey and peopled by a small cast, Sharratt's gripping story, like Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, is primarily about relationships forged under pressure.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. The ideal companion to the elevation of Hildegard by the pontiff who rebuked American nuns for their outspokenness, an irony the saint herself might have relished.

Author Blurb C. W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
With elegance and sensitivity, Mary Sharratt rescues Hildegard von Bingen from the obscurity of legend, bringing to life the flesh-and-blood woman in all her conflict, faith, and unwavering tenacity. Illuminations is an astonishing revelation of a visionary leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her beliefs in a dangerous time of oppression.

Author Blurb Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene
An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace.

Author Blurb Sharon Kay Penman, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance
I loved Mary Sharratt's The Daughters of Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. She brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page.

Author Blurb Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly
I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions.

Reader Reviews
Pamela F. (Grants Pass, OR)

Illuminations
I really didn't know much about Hildegard, and being a Catholic, I was really curious about this Saint. I read it more as a novel as I am not sure of the accuracy, but major events check out and I found the novel to be fascinating. Hildegard is going...   Read More

Linda S. (Oceanside, NY)

Illuminating the life of an anchorite
Imagine being bricked up into a small two room enclosure, with no windows and only a small courtyard that receives sparse light. This enclosure is attached to a church and your only contact with the outside world is through a small screen in the ...   Read More

Tracy B. (New Castle, DE)

Illuminations
What a shocking story. Well written and hard to put down. I wasn't raised as a Catholic so this was all very new to me. I had heard of female mystics but didn't know what their life was like? True women have come a long way in history but being ...   Read More

Mary G. (Lawrenceville, NJ)

Illuminations
What an interesting story of Hildegard Von Bingen. From a very young age she was taught always to obey and remain silent while other in authority decided her fate. But in living her humble existance she produced many remarkable accomplishments. ...   Read More

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The Musical Legacy of St. Hildehard von Bingen

St. Hildehard von Bingen was an incredibly gifted writer and music composer. Her music is known for its soaring registers and flourishes. As a child, she was exposed to music at the monastery when she heard others take part in the Divine Office. She listened and learned from the interplay between words and sound. The monastery provided a forum for music composition with copyists who could pen the music and a skilled group who could sing it.

The saint believed music was the highest form of human activity and collected them as a complement to traditional Gregorian chants.

A Paris-based ensemble group, Sequentia, has revived the popularity of St. Hildegard von Bingen's music. Sequentia's work on the music has been recorded on seven releases ...

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