"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
humanitys 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 Julians and Hildegards 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
An analysis of Julians and Hildegards 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
Julian articulates Christs 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
As Julian ventures into Christs open side, she discovers the feminine
liquids of nurturance and life-sustenance, and also female generative power.
In chapter twenty-four, Julian describes Christs 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). Julians description of Christs open
side bears significant resemblance to the womb. It is a place where humanity
is brought to new life. Christs side is also filled with blood and water,
two liquids that both sustain human life and pour from a womans 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 Julians 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
Julians 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 Julians 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. Julians vision is feminist in that it is woman-affirming.
However, Hildegard of Bingens feminine cosmology is much more ambiguous
than that depicted in Julians Shewings as it seems to place the
feminine within both a positive and negative context, while Julians 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 womens
cosmic significance with a practical view of femininity as a form of weakness"
(xviii). But if Hildegards "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? Hildegards 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, Eves "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 elementsearth, fire, air and watertogether 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 Hildegards 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
Gods 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 Godheads 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 Hildegards
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 Platos 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. Hildegards 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 visionarys
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 Julians 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 Hildegards 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 Julians vision seems to place women and the feminine
within a more positive context, even more venerable than in Hildegards
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 womens 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 humanitys 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.
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. Johns 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 &
- - - . 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,
Newman, Barbara J. "Preface." Sister of Wisdom: St.
Hildegards Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley:
U of California P, 1987.
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