Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Illuminations.
In this novel set in the twelfth century, the author paints a story of deep passionate love, betrayal, duty and jealousy. Illuminations begins just as nun Hildegard of Bingen is being accused of committing outrageous acts of sedition. A sense of foreboding flares while fate awaits Hildegard; she knows the prelates’ retribution will be merciless. Renowned for preaching upon the steps of Cologne Cathedral, Hildegard has castigated those very same men for their fornication and hypocrisy, “their simony and greed.”
Hildegard has endured much in her life: an abbey dissolved, her beloved women left homeless and a world turned upside down, yet she remains an extraordinarily courageous character. The key to saving her daughters is from the tempest of lies that make up her past. Sharratt constructs a framework that allows her heroine to examine her life from its genesis. Past and future connect in an eternal ring, like the circle of holy flames Hildegard sees in her visions, the “ring of fire enclosing all creation.”
An unmistakable glint of anger runs through the quiet beauty of much of Hildegard’s story. Banished at the age of eight to the Disibodenberg Anchorage because of her mother’s embarrassment over her visions, Hildegard is made to be a handmaiden and accompany Jutta, the count of Sponheim’s daughter, the most beautiful young nobleman in the Rhineland. Jutta is ripe for marriage, but obtaining a place in the monastery is considered to be an honor. The fact that she was actually chosen will bring glory to all, including Jutta’s wealthy, self-serving mother,
Jutta is entranced by this cloistered, stubbornly isolated life. As she seeks to banish impure thoughts, clear her mind and sanctify her body so she can raise herself to “the throne of God,” poor Hildegard never anticipates the lengths her new friend will go to give herself over to spiritual life. While Jutta is obviously troubled and frantically turns to prayer to appease a dark and shameful secret, Hildegard tries in vain to convince the abbots that she is unfit for religious life.
Sharratt unfolds many pages describing their hard, embattled lives and the crumbling church with its eight-sided tower containing ramshackle dormitories, all jostled together within the confines of its hilltop walls. Although the monastery has been in decline for many years, Abbott Adilhum eagerly welcomes Jutta and Hildegard because of their ample dowries. Their devotions gradually become thing of beauty, feeding Hildegard’s soul as she explores the power of the herbs from the forest surrounding Disibodenberg. This and other wild places call out to her in the face of Jutta’s dire warnings that she must dread everything dark and untamed.
As a woman, Hildegard lives the life as a slave to the whims of the monks and bishops. Her opinions outside of her small circle of influence within this formidable hierarchy are worthless, and when not warranted, she is subject to often brutal physical treatment. Sharratt does a fine job of counterbalancing this fundamentalist misogyny with the passing years, Hildegard’s blazing visions, and her sense of burning pride in her daughters, her “personal illuminations” of the glory. With the arrival of Guda and emerald-eyed Adelheid, Hildegard is finally able to form a pact of sorts, the three of them united against Jutta’s tyranny.
Although the later sections lack the power of those first heartbreaking chapters, Sharratt does a fine job of placing her unconventional heroine in a situation that keeps her in the realm of the material yet raises her to arenas of the spiritual. Her writing compels us to revel in the small moments of love and compassion of this truly noble, compassionate soul who must find a way to battle through the poverty and cruelty endemic to this period in history.