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.
Were it possible to drown in another's words I might very well have been lost to author Mary Sharratt's pen while reading Illuminations. I really hate to gush, but there is no other way to describe my experience with this book.
For the record, I knew practically nothing about this story prior to reading it. I am not a Catholic, I'd was not at all familiar with Hildegard von Bingen and I'd never heard of an anchorite. In short, I was completely ignorant of the subject matter and wholly unprepared for what I would find within these pages.
Given to the church against her will, Hildegard spends thirty years suffocating behind sealed walls. Thus confined she mourns her loss of her freedom, but in the darkness discovers her faith and the courage required to defend it in defiance of the most powerful men of her age. Though inspired by the life of a Saint, this is much more than a religious story of devotion and prayer. It is a tribute in and of itself to feminine fortitude and strength against overwhelming and unimaginable opposition.
Elegantly written one can't help, but admire Sharratt's extraordinary gift for storytelling. Though restricted to two small rooms for a large portion of the novel, her narrative never lacks movement or intrigue. I wasn't expecting that nor the intimacy Sharratt was able to create between her audience and Hildegard. I'm not big on emotionally driven stories but even I couldn't help being drawn into the world Sharratt created and the story she chose to tell.
Easily one of the best books I've read this year, Illuminations is a vibrate and captivating portrait of an enigmatic woman defined by her desire to love as she herself felt loved by God.