Medieval/Renaissance Studies: Sample Writing
March 2004 Eyes: A Jungian Analysis of the Heterotopic Figure
in Hildegard von Bingen’s “Emptying: the True Spirit of Poverty”
The eye is an archetypical image which stretches back many thousands of years in human history. It appears again and again in myths, sculptures, engravings, and paintings in cultures across the world and throughout history. Throughout his extensive career, Carl G. Jung addressed the archetype of the eye in multiple ways. His interpretations range from a symbol of knowledge to a representation of female genitalia and the womb (Jung, Symbols of Transformation 268). Regardless of Jung’s particular interpretation, the eye consistently holds symbolic meaning. In Hildegard von Bingen’s illumination, “Emptying: the True Spirit of Poverty,” there is an eye-covered figure in the lower left-hand corner. Not only are the eyes on the figure archetypes, the figure as a whole is as well. In this painting, certain symbols are clearer than othersthe mountain represents the stability and strength of God, and the wings represent the tender care and protection (Fox 79)but the eye-covered figure is open to many different interpretations. By addressing the eye and the heterotopic figure as archetypes and considering their significance across human culture, Hildegard’s “Emptying: the True Spirit of Poverty” reveals more than standard criticism can discern.
Hildegard explained that the eye-covered figure on the lower-left represented “viewing the Kingdom of God with humility in the presence of God” (qtd. in Fox 79). This explanation only touches the surface of the full meaning of this symbol. Following the research of Jung, the eyes on the heterotopic figure and the figure itself are archetypes. They hold meanings that transcend any one point in any one culture and reach into the collective unconscious of the human race. Jung
sought out the most meaningful representations of man’s spiritual self-portraits in which by their very nature man transcends himself. These portraits have an intrinsic common factor: they are expressed symbolically and not conceptually. It would seem that the psyche speaks to the psyche in its own language, and that this language is no other than the symbol itself. (de Laszlo xxiv)
The eyes (and many other aspects of Hildegard’s paintings) are intentionally symbolic, but they may symbolize more than Hildegard consciously thought. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is “identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us” (Jung, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 4). This collective unconscious leads to the creation of “universal images that have existed since the remotest times” (5). Archetypes present in “Emptying: The True Spirit of Poverty” suggest that Hildegard’s intentions in painting the eye-covered figure may not have been completely conscious.
This figure represents the advice of St. Benedict: “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God” (Craine 53). The idea of the eye as a symbol of enlightenment is present in other cultures as well. “In one Balkan tale, the old man is handicapped by the loss of an eye. It has been gouged out by the Vili, a species of winged demon.The old man has therefore lost part of his eyesightthat is, his insight and enlightenmentto the daemonic world of darkness” (Archetypes 226). In Hinduism, Lord Shiva is portrayed with three eyes. “The possession of two eyes conveys physical normality and its spiritual equivalent, and it follows that the third eye is symbolic of the superhuman or the divine” (Cirlot 95). Lord Shiva is all-seeing and all-knowing, which is represented in possessing a third eye. A figure with more than two eyessuch as Hildegard’sis thus an archetype for enlightenment and divinity.
The eye-covered figure as a whole is an archetype as well, commonly represented as a type of sun god. It is found in Horus, an Egyptian solar deity, who is covered with eyes. Rudra is the father of the winds in Indian mythology, has eyes on all sides, and is called “the great seer.” He is the one “who of old gave birth to the Golden Seed” (Symbols 122). Mithras, the Persian sun-god, also possesses multiple eyes. Jung argues that the sun is the most logical god: “the sun is the father-god from whom all living things draw life; he is the fructifier and creator, the source of energy for our world” (121). In one of Hildegard’s visions, she declares:
But the light I see is not local, but is everywhere, and brighter far than the cloud which supports the sun. I can in no way know the form of this light, just as I cannot see the sun’s disc entire. But in this light I see at times, though not often, another light which is called by me the living light, but when and in what manner I see this I do not know how to say. And when I see it all weariness and need is lifted from me, and all at once I feel like a simple girl and not like an old woman. (qtd. in Symbols 91)
This sun-like rejuvenating light is a common portrayal of the Christian God. Although in the above vision Hildegard gives no exact physical description of the source of the light, the link between this description and heterotopic sun-deities of past civilizations is definite. They see their respective gods as givers of light and life, as does Hildegard. The only difference is the manner in which they depict their gods: whereas Hildegard usually uses the traditional bearded Christ-figure or wise old man to represent her God in her art, the other civilizations use multi-eyed figures to represent their deities.
Some may question Hildegard’s heterotopic figure being a deity, for there is already a Godlike figure at the top of the mountain. Hildegard even specifies that the heterotopic figure represents “the awareness of God’s justice” (qtd. in Fox 79). This figure, however, has too many archetypical qualities to be written off as a simply symbol of the fear of the Lord. On an unconscious level, Hildegard constructed a deity in the lower left corner of her illumination. This becomes more apparent after examining the eye as an archetype for rebirth.
Jung saw the eye as an archetype for
the female genitals, as is clear from the myth of Indra [Hindu god of rain and thunder], who, as a punishment for his wantonness, was smitten with yonis [representations of the external female genitals] all over his body, but was so far pardoned by the gods that the shameful yonis were changed into eyes. The little image reflected in the eye, the ‘pupilla,’ is a ‘child.’ The great god becomes a child again: he enters into the mother’s womb for self-renewal. (Symbols 268).
It should be noted that this Hindu myth not only interchanges female genitalia with eyes, it has a god being reborn and becoming a child again. This motif is present in Egyptian mythology as well. The symbol of the eye is closely tied to the archetype of a god incarnate: “In the autumn equinox the heavenly cow with the moon-eye [the moon is the left eye in Egyptian mythology], Isis, receives the seed that begets Horus (the moon being the guardian of the seed)” (Symbols 268). Horuswho is also an aforementioned eye-covered figureis a deity that is reborn, signifying new life and renewal, as do other heterotopic figures in mythology.
Physically, Hildegard’s figure is very similar to Horus, Rudra, and Mithras, all of which are solar deities. Archetypically, eyes represent enlightenment and rebirth. Thus, the eye-covered figure in Hildegard’s illumination is likely a deity who has been reborn. The archetype of the god incarnate fits nicely into Hildegard’s religious beliefsit is none other than Christ. Like other gods in human mythology, Christ was conceived and given birth to. The Christian God is quite close to a solar deity, in that He is life-giving and often symbolized as light: “For with you is the fountain of life; / in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). In Revelation 22:16, Christ proclaims himself “the bright Morning Star.” In the gospel of John, “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8:12). The light Christ describes here is enlightenmentthe ability to be cleansed and reborn in the knowledge of the Word. “Christ brings the eyes of faith, the understanding and knowledge of God” (Fox 80).In Hildegard’s illumination, one might wonder about the placement of the heterotopic Christ. In almost all of Hildegard’s works, God and/or Christ are represented at the top or center, but this heterotopic figure is obscurely placed in the lower-left corner of the illumination. Also, it is below the mountain of men, some of who don’t even have their eyes open to the glory of God. Not only that, but the figure is in complete darkness, save the stars in the background.
This works symbolically because Christ is below the mountain of men, symbolizing his humility. “[Christ,] being in very nature God, / did not consider equality with God / something to be grasped, / but made himself nothing, / taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). If Hildegard portrayed Christ at the same level as God in this illumination, it would contradict the quote from Philippians. He was not equal to God (at least on earth), so he placed himself below God. It is also written that though Christ “was rich,for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Supposedly, Christ placed himself among the poor so he could serve humanity. Hildegard represented this by placing the heterotopic Christ-figure in a dark, obscure place, away from heaven and below men.
Hildegard’s illumination, “Emptying: the True Spirit of Poverty,” is likely representative of the time of Christ’s life on earth. God and the Christ figure are physically separate, and Christ has lowered himself to poverty, representing his willingness to serve. Hildegard’s explanation that the eye-covered figure symbolizes the awareness of God and humility before him is inadequate. It may have been her conscious intention, but there are archetypes present that suggest it is more than a symbol for enlightenment. Historically, heterotopic figures have symbolized enlightenment, but they have also been deities. A being who is all-seeing and all-knowing (as represented by heterotopic eyes) is more than human. Whether it is Horus, Shiva, Rudra, or Mithras, heterotopism is a consistent archetypical symbol for superhuman knowledge. Furthermore, the individual eyes on the figure not only represent enlightenment, they symbolize the rebirth of a deitythe god incarnate. Transcending time, culture, and geography, Hildegard unconsciously incorporated archetypes into her art, adding more weight to its meaning.
The Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.
Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. NY: Philisophical Library, 1962.
Craine, Renate. Hildegard: Prophet of the Cosmic Christ. NY: Crossroad, 1997.
Fox, Matthew. Commentary. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1985.
Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. NY: Pantheon Books, 1959.
—. Symbols of Transformation. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton, 1956.
de Laszlo, Violet S. Introduction. Psyche and Symbol. A Selection From the Writings of C.G. Jung. NY: Doubleday, 1958. xix-xxxiv.