Book Review: ILLUMINATIONS by Mary Sharratt

Publisher: Mariner Books
Released: October 15, 2013
Source: Review copy provided for participating in the author’s book tour.

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.


Before reading ILLUMINATIONS, I knew a little about Hildegard von Bingen, like she was a medieval abbess and scholar, a musical composer, and Christian mystic. I’d also read that she was a very early feminist and wrote about the feminine divine in her visions, which of course piqued my interest in learning more about her.

Mary Sharratt’s novel about Hildegard’s life was fascinating! The book was based on facts of her religious life, beginning at 8 years old when she’s given as a tithe to the church. She becomes the captive companion (literally) of a young nun named Jutta, and how poor Hildegard survived her time with the disturbed Jutta, I’ll never know! Hildegard’s treatment and her living conditions were deplorable, yet she persevered. Perhaps it was the mystical visions that sustained her and for which she became famous.

I flew through this book, probably because I was so engrossed in Hildegard’s life. I liked the author’s engaging and descriptive writing style. It felt like I was sharing Hildegard’s experiences with her, many of which made me shudder. I thought that the last third of the book was a bit rushed though – so much of the book was set during her younger years with Jutta. I wish her later years as abbess and her experience with the boy Maximus had been fleshed out more.

ILLUMINATIONS was an enjoyable read that gave me an even greater admiration for Hildegard von Bingen. Yes, she deserved to be made a saint! She was an extraordinary woman who shone in a time women weren’t allowed to.

Rating: 4 Stars

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the book tour company in exchange for an honest review.

Buy Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Indiebound

About the Author:

The author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who lives in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers. She also lived for twelve years in Germany, which, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Illuminations won the Nautilus Gold Award for Better Books for a Better World and was selected as a Kirkus Book of the Year.

“An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace.”
—Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene

“I loved Mary Sharratt’s The Daughters of Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. She brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page.”
—Sharon Kay Penman, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance

“I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions.”
—Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly