Illuminations – A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt, is a not a light and airy read, but a deep and intelligent historical fiction book. No matter if you practice any religion, are a strict Catholic, or otherwise, this book will draw you in and absorb you into a story of one of the most famous women of the 12th Century, Hildegard von Bingen. She was a visionary, theologian, spiritualist, and of high intellect and regard. But it wasn’t always so, in fact, it took over 870 years after her death for the Vatican to canonize and her the title of Doctor of the Church.
I have to admit, readers, that I am not Catholic, and know little about the life of those who served the Church during these dark eras of history. However, their stories, especially those of the women, intrigue me. I can’t imagine being a highly sensitive, intellectual, and creative child and be given to the Church to be walled into a little room and be submissive (to Church, God, or Mentor) for 30 years. And especially when most of the Church was surrounded with men who didn’t “see” a woman’s worth other than servant and the fact that her mentor, Jutta, with whom she was walled in as a companion, was so very mean.
I enjoyed Sharratt’s narrative, her use of first person is finely done and engaging. Her details are lush, her phrases like honey, and her eloquent writing make me feel as if I am reading a beautiful piece of art. At that point, I began to not even care if the details of historical fact were correct (I wouldn’t know so won’t speculate and I imagine she researched enough to choose a proper version to stem her novel from) but to enjoy this novel for its beautiful prose.
For example, “Autumn drew in, heaping leaves of garnet and gold in our courtyard as my plants shriveled to stalks. Cupping each brilliant leaf in my palm, I traced every vein and curve. This was my devotion, my contemplation, during those short days when twilight stole in early and October fog muffled the church bells.” (page 67)
Isn’t that something lovely to read?
Her book is aptly titled as Illuminations, as Von Bingen saw halos of light and had since childhood (which caused her mother to think her mad and led her to be given to the Church), but also I believe because as a person she illuminates from the dark into sharing her light with the world. It was not until she is out of confinement that she begins to put her mystic presences to paper, taking them as divine. A woman writing in the 12th century is not normal, so Von Bingen’s use of quill and paper, her music, and her quest for compassion and justice is trailblazing. Her mark has been left on many people and groupings over hundreds of years. I believe, she was even thought of as a model for Reformers due to her work against political and ecclesiastical corruption.
The novel shows Von Bingen’s complete amount of strength of faith and self, as well as courage. Being held practically captive and shut off from the outside world for such a length of time usually “breaks people,” but it only seemed to make her more determined in sharing her visions and her intelligence on many subjects.
I really enjoyed reading Sharratt’s Illuminations for its compelling prose, its lovely verbiage, her superb use of narrative and first-person POV, and her development of Von Bingen from history to the page. I was enthralled, curious, and ignited. I highly recommend this as a thought-provoking read, yet one that will absorb you so completely you’ll never use your bookmark.
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Skillfully weaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, 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 expected to live in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned, disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. But Hildegard rejected Jutta’s masochistic piety, rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died, Hildegard broke out of her prison, answering the heavenly call to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters. Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
Link to Book Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz6DAIX6Szk
Praise for Illuminations
“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.”
—Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene
“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.”
—Sharon Kay Penman, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance
“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.”
—Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly
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Author Mary Sharratt, Biography~
The author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who lives in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers. She also lived for twelve years in Germany, which, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Illuminations won the Nautilus Gold Award for Better Books for a Better World and was selected as a Kirkus Book of the Year.
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