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Faith Wilding, Woman Clothed in the Sun, 1985, mixed media, 22 1⁄4 × 30".

Faith Wilding, Woman Clothed in the Sun, 1985, mixed media, 22 1⁄4 × 30".

Faith Wilding

The twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen (known colloquially as St. Hildegard or the Sibyl of the Rhine) was a scientist, healer, composer, religious philosopher, and visionary mystic. She is perhaps best known for the last of these roles, having written down (or at least dictated) dozens of religious visions over the course of her life. Some of these visions articulate a cosmology or rehearse key moments of biblical mythology with new emphasis on the interconnectivity between the divine, the soul, and the world, offering a hermeneutics of relation. One recurring concept and word in her earliest visions is viriditas, a Latin term that literally means “greenness” but implies all manner of fecundity—the growth and survival of plants, people, and animals, as well as the expression of the divine spirit that connects all things for Hildegard. Her eco-feminist understanding of the world predates that movement by centuries. (A word of caution to potential Hildegard fans: Throughout her writings, the nun also reinforces then-common conceptions of the (un)cleanliness and social subservience of women, especially within the church, even as her work might have served to counter these subjugations.)

Inspired by this icon’s life, Faith Wilding produced works on paper, a series of paintings, an illuminated manuscript, and a radio play referencing Hildegard’s feminist visions. That was in the 1980s. (Judy Chicago, too, paid homage to the nun with a place setting in her Dinner Party installation, 1974–79.) Thirty years later, Wilding has revisited that project, adding a sequence of watercolors that extend and elaborate the theme of viriditas. Works such as Angel of History, 2018, echo the formal innovations of her earlier pieces, including Propagations: Hildegard and I, 1985, an abstract mixed-media work on paper that is a polyphony of bodies, patterns, and colors evoking dense tree roots or the arterial highways of the heart and body—both of which would have been germane to Hildegard, a gifted healer. Angel of History is many things at once: an approximation of a saintly aureole, a reinvigoration of tired imagery, and a reference to Paul Klee’s 1920 Angelus Novus, who, per Walter Benjamin, is blown backward by the winds of progress.

Some of Wilding’s earlier works incorporated the manuscript illuminations (which some argue may not have been completed by Hildegard’s hand) that accompany the nun’s texts. One of the illuminations depicts the soul’s arrival in the body of a fetus and is reproduced in Woman Clothed in the Sun, 1985—a fiery, gnarly work on paper that matches the oddity and profundity of Wilding’s source material (the titular woman, whose story is told in the Book of Revelation, is thought to stand for the church or for the Virgin Mary). The original imagery features a diamond filled with an abstract, nearly cellular pattern, which funnels down from the heavens into a woman’s womb. Wilding repeats this pictorial device to connect umbilically a dozing red wolflike mammal to a blue stag resting at the feet of a human protagonist, who caresses the rays of a flower/sun. Wilding’s use of the contrasting pattern looks as fresh as ever, even if the appropriated materials, which are always tinged with a blue muddiness, reveal the historical limitations of photo transfer. Rather than simply illustrating Hildegard’s visions, Wilding uses them to create her own world of symbols and associations. 

In Remnants, 2018, Wilding seems to incorporate a new thread—her own feminist origins—into this body of work. Bright yellows and subdued blues, greens, and reds define an orchid form, accompanied by monochromatic drawings of four plants, each lovingly labeled with its scientific name. At the bottom, a line of text reads WE COBBLED TOGETHER THE REMNANTS OF A PLUNDERED KNOWLEDGE AND STARTED. That Wilding doesn’t finish the sentence reminds the viewer of the ever-evolving character of feminism, and of knowledge itself.