Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
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"God our Mother": The Feminine Cosmology

of Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen

Jennifer A. Hudson

For centuries humanity has sought to explain the mystery of divine power, and humanity’s relation to that power, through visualization. During the Middle Ages, a time marked by unabashed misogyny, the Judeo-Christian imago Dei often ignored feminine aspects of divinity. However, women such as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen experienced cosmic visions that embody feminine and masculine characteristics, with specific emphasis placed upon the feminine. But do Julian’s and Hildegard’s feminine theologies simultaneously possess feminist implications? One might argue that their visions encompass nuances of feminist thought since the feminine aspects of divinity are revered, and the masculine and feminine powers present within that divine reality achieve balance.

An analysis of Julian’s and Hildegard’s representations of the feminine aspects of divinity necessitates an inquiry into meanings of terms such as "feminine," "balance," and "feminist" in order to understand the nature of these visions. Generally, "feminine" refers to that which we associate with the female sex based upon cultural definition and expectations. However, feminine characteristics do not necessarily negate feminist implications as feminization1 affirms the beauty and worth of femininity within a Judeo-Christian cosmology that has typically validated masculinity as the norm.

A feminist philosophy, critique, or image is one that advocates egalitarianism between the sexes. One feminist panacea for patriarchy (and one that Julian and Hildegard employ in their visions of deity to some degree) is a non-binary approach to gender traits: balance. This non-binary approach suggests that gender traits (what androcentric culture has categorized as "masculine" and "feminine" and has attributed to men and women, respectively) are fluid, balanced, and mediated equivalents rather than rigid, polarized, and irreconcilable opposites. For instance, feminine may include aspects of masculine and vice versa. In this sense, masculine and feminine achieve a state of balance.2 The balancing of masculine and feminine is a sort of amalgam, a blending of these stereotypically opposed characteristics. Gender balance is a feminist initiative insofar as it advocates harmony and equity between the sexes and acknowledges the full potential of both female and male human beings.

In The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, Julian presents a gender-balanced view of divinity. She depicts Christ as a feminine and maternal divine figure. In the fifty-ninth chapter Julian establishes that Jesus is "our very Moder in kynde, of our first makyng; and He is our very Moder in grace, be takyng of our kynde made. All the fair werkyng and all the swete kindly office of dereworthy moderhede is impropried to the Second Person" (2469-72). This is to say that Jesus is our Mother through the divine creation of humankind and also through His own incarnation. According to Julian, Christ shares in our full humanity. Moreover, the "feminine" traits of kindness, gentleness and nurturing are appropriated to Christ, including female generative and life-sustaining power.

Julian articulates Christ’s feminine life-sustaining power in the sixtieth chapter of Shewings as such that "a Moder may geven hir child soken her mylke, but our pretious Moder Jesus, He may fedyn us with Himselfe, and doith full curtesly and full tenderly with the blessid sacrament that is pretious fode of very life[. . .] the moder may leyn the child tenderly to her brest, but our tender Moder Jesus, He may homely leden us into His blissed brest be His swete open syde and shewyn therin party of the Godhede" (2501-4; 2508-11). As a mother feeds her child with milk produced by her own body, Christ tenderly feeds humanity with His body in the Eucharist. Likewise, as a mother lays her child tenderly to her breast, Christ leads humanity to His breast through his open side.

As Julian ventures into Christ’s open side, she discovers the feminine liquids of nurturance and life-sustenance, and also female generative power. In chapter twenty-four, Julian describes Christ’s side as "large enow for al mankynd that shal be save to resten in pece and in love. And therwith He browte to mende His dereworthy blode and pretious water which He lete poure al oute for love" (865-8). Julian’s description of Christ’s open side bears significant resemblance to the womb. It is a place where humanity is brought to new life. Christ’s side is also filled with blood and water, two liquids that both sustain human life and pour from a woman’s body during childbirth. Moreover, Julian contends that, as women shed their blood and water in childbirth out of love for human life, Christ sheds His blood and water out of love for humankind. In this sense, human mothers and the Supreme Mother, Christ, both share the power to grant life and love to the human race. Thus women hold a sacred place in Julian’s vision and the feminine becomes a door to union with the divine.

If women potentially share in the awesome creative and life-sustaining power of the Godhead and, likewise, the Godhead shares in the creative and life-sustaining power of women, then Christ as Mother reflects a gender-balanced nature within the Godhead, as He became a man through His incarnation. Moreover, Julian distinctly refers to Christ as "God our Mother," yet at the same time employs the use of the pronoun "He." Although Heimmel suggests that Julian’s simultaneous reference to God as "Mother" and "He" presents an image of a deity that is "asexual" (3570), God fully encompasses masculine and feminine qualities. Thus Julian’s imago Dei is gender-balanced rather than asexual as suggested by Heimmel. Moreover Julian defies limitations of gender in her approach to divinity through her association of the feminine with equally honorable characteristics and the male-female fusion she perceives in the divine. Julian’s vision is feminist in that it is woman-affirming.

However, Hildegard of Bingen’s feminine cosmology is much more ambiguous than that depicted in Julian’s Shewings as it seems to place the feminine within both a positive and negative context, while Julian’s placement seems more positive. In Sister of Wisdom, Newman articulates the tensions between masculine and feminine forces (and within the feminine itself) as "a holistic cosmology with a dualistic system [. . .] and an exalted view of women’s cosmic significance with a practical view of femininity as a form of weakness" (xviii). But if Hildegard’s "holistic" cosmology features oppositional components and if one of those components (here, the feminine) holds a dual nature, then how stable is that "holistic" cosmology? Moreover, if a cosmology is unstable, then is everything encompassed within that cosmic order (divinity, the earth, humanity) also unstable, or can these macrocosms and microcosms exist beyond the stability/chaos dichotomy? Hildegard’s cosmology exists beyond binarisms because her cosmic vision is cyclical (and, in this way, is feminine) and reaches beyond structure and chaos in that it consistently negotiates the masculine with the feminine.

In vision 1:14, Hildegard links female generative power with Satan, who regards Eve as "the mother who would bear in her womb a world of great possibilities" (18). At first, Eve’s "great possibilities" lack clarity: are these possibilities good or evil? Satan, in the form of the serpent, projects his gaze onto Eve, who will bear evil into the world through temptation (weakness). However, vision 2:1 presents readers with a much different perspective on female generative power. The wheel that appears to Hildegard takes "the form of an egg" (22). The human figure that stands inside of the egg is given no sex or gender distinction, a suggestion of an intrinsically androgynous nature. The figure also outstretches its arms, a sign of human and divine love. The "watery air" within the egg is of crucial importance as water and air both signify birth: water represents the amniotic sac in which the fetus grows and develops in the womb and air represents the breath of life. Moreover, vision 4:8 indicates that greening power, the Earth, is another affirmation of female nurturing power. She describes "female" clouds that "have breasts, so to speak, from which they pour rain down upon the Earth, just as milk is suckled from a breast. [. . .] The clouds are strengthened by fire, raised up by ether, drenched by waters, and contracted by the cold so as not to pour down from their breasts too much rainwater" (84). In this vision, the four elements–earth, fire, air and water–together maintain balance within the natural order. This balance not only affirms the goodness of female nurturing power, but immanence, that this power exists within a much larger context: the Earth, the universe and, possibly, the Godhead from whom all of this is brought into fruition.

Balance and interconnection are a major crux of Hildegard’s cosmology: balance and interconnection of masculine and feminine forces within humanity mirror the balance and interconnection within divinity and the cosmos. Hildegard attains this vision by working through binarisms. Vision 1:14 denotes a binary dualism in which the masculine sun marks goodness and the feminine moon is characterized by evil. According to Hildegard, "as the moon wanes and waxes, so, too, evil despises good and calls it foolish and vain, even though it knows what is good" (35). Even in vision 4:100, she declares "man is [. . .] an indication of the Godhead while woman is an indication of the humanity of God’s Son" (123). Both instances seem to place the feminine as object against the masculine subject.

However, in vision 4:105, Hildegard tries to reconcile this opposition with the notion that the sun "gives illumination [to the moon] at night, so that we recognize through our good deeds the evil deeds that are cut off from the light" (135). The sun balances the moon, good balances evil, and in both instances each force is co-dependent and interconnected. In vision 7:13, Hildegard reconciles masculine and feminine so that both forces become subjects. Not only does she link Adam to Mary, but also Eve to Christ. She states "God created [Eve] by the same power through which God sent the Son to the Virgin. Neither Eve, the virgin and mother, nor Mary, the mother and Virgin, has found any woman like herself. In this way God put on a human form" (199). In this sense, the opposition between the masculine as good and feminine as evil is reconciled through Eve and Mary who bring life (and rebirth) to the human race through divine power. Without God, there could have been no Eve; without Eve, there could have been no Mary; without Mary, there could have been no Christ. In this sense, Hildegard reinvents Eve and the realm of the feminine, which serves as both a door to the Godhead and the Godhead’s affirmation of humanity. Moreover, the feminine balances masculine within the divine power that is immanent in all of its creation.

This reconciliation or balance of feminine and masculine also appears in Hildegard’s first book Scivias, which, like vision 7:13 in Book of Divine Works, posits a gender-balanced Godhead that can be experienced through its feminine aspects. Her conceptualization of the universe in Scivias falls within the Ptolemaic tradition, but Hildegard modifies this tradition through her motif of the world as the fruitful center of the universe, an egg (Gossmann 35). It refutes Plato’s conceptualization of the male as the "begetter" and female as the passive "Mother Receptacle" on the cosmic level and instead places Mother Earth as center of the universe and powerful creatrix. She is not passive, but active in her generative energy. Hildegard’s use of larger-than-life feminine allegories holds great significance. Mothering is revered and woman is given back her awesome creative power that had been previously diminished by Socratic philosophers such as Plato. However, the visionary’s theology is more than feminine as she witnesses God as a "living light." She describes the Trinity as "a very bright light, and inside it there was a human [italics mine] figure [. . .], the fire and the light surrounded the human [italics mine] figure" (quoted in Gossmann 37). Moreover, Hildegard uses the feminine form in Latin, sapienta Dei, whenever she discusses Christ, which is similar to Julian’s use of "God our Mother." Hence it is not so much that God exists as a sexless entity for Hildegard, but rather as a balanced higher power that possesses a blend of masculine and feminine characteristics. These divine qualities are in turn mirrored within both sexes of the human family.

Overall, the feminine cosmic visions of Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen hold feminist implications. Both revolutionize the imago Dei into one bearing feminine characteristics. And, in both Julian and Hildegard’s view, the feminine aspects of divinity become the door to an intense union between God and humanity. Finally, both women present images of a gender-balanced deity. Even if certain contradictions emerge within their portraits, Julian and Hildegard still manage to create this image and maintain a feminist theology. Although Julian’s vision seems to place women and the feminine within a more positive context, even more venerable than in Hildegard’s vision, both women extend their visions beyond misogynous and androcentric ideologies, thus shaping an image of divinity that affirms, heals, and unites women. Insofar as Julian and Hildegard arrive at portraits of a non-binary divinity and cosmos, these women’s visions could indeed be considered feminist. The harmony and equity of the sexes, the goal of feminism as a philosophy, manifests itself within a higher power that demonstrates humanity’s potential to realize its fullness in a non-binary cosmos.

1 "Feminization" here refers to the shifting of a masculine imago Dei into a vision that is more feminine, if not wholly feminine.

2 Balance here pertains to more than just a state of equilibrium, or equality between opposing forces. In this paper, balance pertains to both the equality between and the amalgamation of two opposing forces (here masculine and feminine) without those forces co-opting each other. Though different, masculine and feminine do not have to exist as entirely polarized and hostile oppositions if they attain this kind of balance, as Julian's and Hildegard's visions seem to suggest.


Works Cited

Gossmann, Elisabeth. "Hildegard of Bingen." Trans. Katherine Best and Laura Dolby. A History of Women Philosophers. Ed. Mary Ellen Waithe. Vol. 2. Netherlands: Kluwer, 1989. 27-65. 2 vols.

Heimmel, Jennifer P. " ‘God is Our Mother’: Julian of Norwich and the Medieval Image of Christian Feminine Divinity." Diss. St. John’s U, 1980. DAI. 41-08A (1980): 3570.

Hildegard of Bingen. Book of Divine Works[with letters and songs]. Trans. Robert Cunningham. Ed. Matthew Fox. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1987.

- - - . Scivias. Trans. Bruce Hozeski. Sante Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1986.

Julian of Norwich. The Shewings of Julian of Norwich. Ed. Georgia Ronan Crampton. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Press, 1994.

Newman, Barbara J. "Preface." Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.













Updated 9/25/02