Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Scivias by Hildegard von Bingen (1151-1152)

This post is about a type of art that makes my brain and stomach feel like they're turning inside out and my eyeballs are dissolving in their sockets. It's about artists who suffer from migraines and attempt to depict the visual disturbances they get with a migraine aura. For you lucky, lucky, people who have no idea what I'm talking about a migraine aura is basically your brain warning you that in a matter of minutes you're going to be in agony, will probably be vomiting, will possibly be unable to make coherent sentences and if you're as lucky as I used to be you might also be paralysed down one side of your body.

The aura itself isn't much better. The first time I had one I had no idea what was happening to me – all I knew was that all of a sudden no one had a head. I went to the school nurse explaining that I thought I was turning dyslexic because suddenly I couldn't read and on top of this her head was missing. She must have known what was going on but didn't bother telling me because she just gave me one paracetamol, rang my mum and sat me near a bucket.

I'm unable to research any modern artists who do this kind of art because if I type 'migraine art' into Google Images the resulting pictures make me feel really sick, so I've decided to write about a nun from the middle ages.

Hildegard von Bingen was a writer, composer, philosopher, healer, visionary etc etc. And I don't mean 'writer' in the modern sense of the term - she didn't have an eco-fashion blog - she wrote about theology and medicine, created poems, songs and plays, and even invented her own alphabet! In addition to all this she created an illustrated work called 'Scivias' which described 26 of her religious visions. It has over 150,000 words with 35 illustrations. Apparently she had been experiencing these visions since she was five and at the age of 42 god ordered her to share them with the world.

What this has to do with migraine art is that some people, such as Oliver Sacks, have said these visions were migrainous. This theory is based upon her descriptions of the visions she experienced and their accompanying illustrations, which have been said to describe typical symptoms of a migraine attack. Although modern migraine art is very different to these illustrations I still get physical feelings of sickness and twisting in my brain when I look at them, which is good enough evidence for me that what she saw was very similar to what migraineurs see when they experience an aura.

I don't really like the question being about whether she was a migraine sufferer or a visionary, maybe she was both, maybe she was neither. I'm sure there are plenty of other explanations kicking about for the things she saw and felt. Maybe all migraine sufferers are in fact visionaries - when I saw the school nurse's head missing perhaps that area of my visual field was actually focusing on the wrong dimension and was catching a glimpse into another reality where there was no nurse!

The fact that she had these experiences at all was important in itself because it enabled her to partake in unusual activities for women at that time, such as preaching. In this way her experiences paved the way for modern women to transcend such barriers and develop a voice of their own.

Hildegard von Bingen is commemorated on 17th September. Lets all celebrate with cheese, chocolate and some wed wine.

In keeping with this theme here's a self-portrait I did when I had a migraine.


  1. That is a beautiful self-portrait. You have a lot of talent. I stumbled here googling Hildegard, whose story fascinated me, and I wished to see more of her artwork. I hope you've pursued your talents and passions and continue to do so. Thank you for an interesting read : )

  2. what is the medium of scivias slef portrait what is it made otu of?