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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

O Ignis Spiritus, Hildegard


O ignis Spiritus paracliti
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Latin Text

1a. O ignis Spiritus paracliti,

vita vite omnis creature,

sanctus es vivificando formas.


lb. Sanctus es ungendo periculose

fractos, sanctus es tergendo

fetida vulnera.


2a. O spiraculum sanctitatis,

o ignis caritatis,

o dulcis gustus in pectoribus

et infusio cordium in bono odore virtutum.


2b. O fons purissime,

in quo consideratur

quod Deus alienos

colligit et perditos requirit.


3a. O lorica vite et spes compaginis

membrorum omnium

et o cingulum honestatis: salva beatos.


3b. Custodi eos qui carcerati sunt ab inimico,

et solve ligatos

quos divina vis salvare vult.


4a. O iter fortissimum, quod penetravit

omnia in altissimis et in terrenis

et in omnibus abyssis,

tu omnes componis et colligis.


4b. De te nubes fluunt, ether volat,

lapides humorem habent,

aque rivulos educunt,

et terra viriditatem sudat.


5a. Tu etiam semper educis doctos

per inspirationem Sapientie



5b. Unde laus tibi sit, qui es sonus laudis

et gaudium vite, spes et honor fortissimus,

dans premia lucis.

English Translation

1a. O fire of the Spirit and Defender,

the life of every life created:

Holy are you—giving life to every form.


1b. Holy are you—anointing the critically

broken. Holy are you—cleansing

the festering wounds.


2a. O breath of holiness,

O fire of love,

O taste so sweet within the breast,

that floods the heart with virtues’ fragrant good.


2b. O clearest fountain,

in which is seen the mirrored work of God:

to gather the estranged

and seek again the lost.


3a. O living armor, hope that binds

the every limb,

O belt of honor: save the blessed.


3b. Guard those enchained in evil’s prison,

and loose the bonds of those

whose saving freedom is the forceful will of God.


4a. O mighty course that runs within and through

the all—up in the heights, upon the earth,

and in the every depth—

you bind and gather all together.


4b. From you the clouds flow forth, the wind takes flight,

the stones their moisture hold,

the waters rivers spring,

and earth viridity exudes.


5a. You are the teacher of the truly learned,

whose joy you grant

through Wisdom’s inspiration.


5b. And so may you be praised, who are the sound of praise,

the joy of life, the hope and potent honor,

and the giver of the gifts of light.


Themes and Theology by Nathaniel M. Campbell

In contrast to Hildegard’s hymn to the Holy Spirit, with its sparse music and taut themes, this sequence bursts into life with overflowing exuberance. At the same time, through Hildegard’s unique recasting of the sequence form, in which “she makes each pair [of versicles] melodically similar, at times identical, yet [with] a trace of asymmetry” (Dronke, Poetic Individuality, p. 158), it maintains a rhythm both steady and dynamic to express the Holy Spirit’s role as root of nature and as anima mundi, “the soul of the world.” (For a more detailed analysis of Hildegard’s melodic development of each versicle pair, see the “Commentary: Music and Rhetoric” below.) The poetry adopts the same paradoxical movement that animates some of Hildegard’s other pieces for the Spirit, especially the antiphon Spiritus sanctus vivificans, which combines the Spirit’s eternally rooted stability—the ground of being—with its dynamic activity. As Peter Dronke notes, this musical “pattern of echo and modification” is “beautifully reflected in the thematic development of the poetry: in each pair of versicles, the images and meaning of the second both mirror and carry forward those of the first” (ibid.).

The opening trope on the triple Sanctus reveals what Newman has called “the delicate balance” of this sequence’s images, as it moves between its Platonic role as “life-giver in the initial bounty of creation” to its grittier role as “source of healing” in “the ‘stricken’ world” (Symphonia, p. 281). This particular movement between grace and fallenness motivates the second and third versicle pairs, which begin, like the second, third, and fourth verses of Hildegard’s hymn O ignee Spiritus, by imagining the Spirit in relation to each of the five senses: the sound of the breath (the “mighty wind” from Acts 2:2), the felt heat of the fire, the taste and smell of divine virtue inspired in human hearts, and finally the contemplative gaze. Each of these physical senses is effortlessly connected to its deeper, spiritual signification—a perfect example of Hildegard’s visionary-poetic capacity to “construct” symbolic landscapes that “show no trace of [the didactic, allegorical, or figural] scaffolding” upon which they rely.[1]Indeed, verse 2b requires for clarity in translation the addition of some of that scaffolding—in this case, to explain that the indefinite quod (that which “is seen” [consideratur] in the Spirit’s fountain) refers to theopus Dei, “the work of God,” held eternally reflected within the creative divine foreknowledge. As Hildegard explains in the words of Divine Love (Caritas) in Liber Divinorum Operum III.3:[2]

For I have written humanity, who was rooted in me like a shadow, just as an object’s reflection is seen in water. Thus, it is that I am the living fountain, because all creation existed in me like a shadow. In accordance with this reflected shadow, humankind was created with fire and water, just as I, too, am fire and living water. For this reason also, humans have the ability in their souls to set each thing in order as they will. Indeed, every creature possesses this reflected shadow, and that which gives each creature life is like a shadow, moving this way and that.(…) And so the living fountain is the Spirit of God, which he distributes unto all of his works. They live because of him and have vitality through him, just as the reflection of all things appears in water. And there is nothing that can clearly see this source of its life, for it can only sense that which causes it to move. Just as water makes that which is in it to flow, so also the soul is the living breath that always pours forth in a human being and makes them to know, to think, to speak, and to work by streaming forth.(…) Wisdom drew from the living fountain the words of the prophets and the words of other wise people and of the Gospels, and she entrusted them to the disciples of the Son of God. This she did so that the rivers of living water might flow out through them into the entire world, that they might return humanity to salvation like fish caught in a net. Indeed, the leaping fountain is the purity of the living God, and in it shines his radiant glory. In that splendor God embraces all things with great love, for their shadow appeared, reflected in the leaping fountain before God bade them to come forth in their forms.And in me, Divine Love, all things shine resplendently, and my splendor reveals the form of creation just as a shadow indicates the form [of its object]; and in Humility, my helper, creation goes forth at God’s bidding. Likewise in humility, God bowed down to me, so that he might refresh those dried-out, fallen leaves in that blessedness by which he can do all things that he wishes. For he had formed them from the earth, and thus he has also freed them after their fall.

As I have noted elsewhere, Hildegard’s symbolic-poetic mode excels in connecting “the highest levels of contemplative knowledge (of divinity itself) with the lowest levels of concrete images and artifacts” as she envisions each particular image in the light of the entire scope of salvation history.[3] This mode of thought and expression participates in the neoplatonic metaphysics that Hildegard deploys particularly strongly in the fourth pair of versicles of today’s sequence. As Dronke explains (Poetic Individuality, pp. 158-60):

[T]he Spirit is characterized first as an irresistible force that penetrates the universe from without; then, in the complementary half-stanza, as the source of motion and fertility within the natural world. When the pervasive power has moved from the circumference of the cosmos right through to its centre, it becomes the centre-point from which new elemental life radiates.(…)The threefold action in [versicle 4a] recalls the functions of the three wings of the virtus Sapientie, as well as perhaps the Neoplatonic triad of processio, conversio, and reditus: the divine force descends and enters into all things, it harmonizes them, and draws them to itself. If here the language associates the powers of the Holy Spirit with those of the Anima Mundi, in the second versicle it links them with those of the goddess Natura. (…) At the same time, these functions, cosmic and terrestrial, complement each other; the movement of the thought and that of the music are shaped by same symmetrical-asymmetrical pattern, the undulation of parallelism and contrast.

In the final pair of versicles, the musical symmetry breaks down, however—5a illuminates the Spirit’s particularly pentecostal task within the teaching life of the Church, while 5b summarizes the sequence in a final burst of praise. Those final “gifts of light,” however, are also the tongues of fire that “through Wisdom’s inspiration” came upon the apostles at Pentecost, and the one trace of melodic parallel in this final verse pair connects “gifts of light” to the joy of the apostolic teaching; they can also be thematically connected to the Holy Spirit’s office as lucerna anime, “lamp of the soul,” in verse 3 of Hildegard’s hymn, O ignee Spiritus.

Biography of Hildegard

St. Hildegard (born 1098, Böckelheim, West Franconia [Germany]—died September 17, 1179, Rupertsberg, near Bingen; canonized May 10, 2012; feast day September 17) was a German abbess, visionary mystic, and composer.

Hildegard was born of noble parents and was educated at the Benedictine cloister of Disibodenberg by Jutta, an anchorite (religious recluse) and sister of the count of Spanheim. Hildegard was 15 years old when she began wearing the Benedictine habit and pursuing a religious life. She succeeded Jutta as prioress in 1136. Having experienced visions since she was a child, at age 43 she consulted her confessor, who in turn reported the matter to the archbishop of Mainz. A committee of theologians subsequently confirmed the authenticity of Hildegard’s visions, and a monk was appointed to help her record them in writing. The finished work, Scivias (1141–52), consists of 26 visions that are prophetic and apocalyptic in form and in their treatment of such topics as the church, the relationship between God and humanity, and redemption. About 1147 Hildegard left Disibodenberg with several nuns to found a new convent at Rupertsberg, where she continued to exercise the gift of prophecy and to record her visions in writing.

A talented poet and composer, Hildegard collected 77 of her lyric poems, each with a musical setting composed by her, in Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Her numerous other writings included lives of saints; two treatises on medicine and natural history, reflecting a quality of scientific observation rare at that period; and extensive correspondence, in which are to be found further prophecies and allegorical treatises. She also for amusement contrived her own language. She traveled widely throughout Germany, evangelizing to large groups of people about her visions and religious insights.

Her earliest biographer proclaimed her a saint, and miracles were reported during her life and at her tomb. However, she was not formally canonized until 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI declared her to be a saint through the process of “equivalent canonization,” a papal proclamation of canonization based on a standing tradition of popular veneration. Later that year Benedict proclaimed Hildegard a doctor of the church, one of only four women to have been so named. She is considered a patron saint of musicians and writers.

As one of the few prominent women in medieval church history, Hildegard became the subject of increasing interest in the latter half of the 20th century. Her writings were widely translated into English; several recordings of her music were made available; and works of fiction, including Barbara Lachman’s The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen (1993) and Joan Ohanneson’s Scarlet Music: A Life of Hildegard of Bingen (1997), were published.


[1] Peter Dronke,The Medieval Poet and His World(Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1984), p. 85. 

[2] Trans. by Nathaniel Campbell, from the Latin text of the Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke, in CCCM 92 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), pp. 379-81; translation © The Catholic University of America Press, forthcoming. 

[3] See Nathaniel M. Campbell, “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript,”Eikón / Imago4(2013, Vol. 2, No. 2), pp. 1-68, esp. pp. 29-30; accessible onlinehere.  


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