Hugh St. Victor
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Hugh St. Victor


Hugh who??  Most people have never heard of this medieval mystic who resided in the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris.  Even though I have included his story in our “Saints” column, technically Hugh of St. Victor was never canonized and is not an “official” saint, but heaven is filled with many remarkable men and women that were never officially canonized.  His writings are intriguing, however, as he set about putting philosophy and logic at the service of theology at his abbey.  He certainly was not the first to do this.  Irenaus and Origin and Jerome and Augustine all speculated about the relationship of philosophy to theology; Irenaeus even called philosophy the “handmaid” of theology.  During the 12th century, the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was a major center for biblical exegesis, theological reflection, spiritual guidance and liturgical innovation.  During this time also, there was considerable controversy about the role of science and its relation to theology.  Hugh delved into all these topics and more, and is regarded by some as one of the greatest theologians of the 12th century, with many of his writings comparable in popularity to those of Bernard of Clairvaux.  He was born around 1096 probably in Saxony and lived until 1141.  A German canon regular, he was not only a leading theologian of his time, but a writer of mystical theology as well. 


hugh of st. victor


When I first heard of Hugh of St. Victor a few years ago, what fascinated me most about this particular saint was not some great theological treatise about philosophy and theology, but his artistry.  He drew pictures.   He studied the Scriptures and wrote commentaries, pulling out the meaning of the texts, and then he sketched salvation history.  As humans, we are limited in many ways and language is one of those ways.  We wrap words around experiences.  We try to express beauty or passion or sorrow or evil or even the Holy One, and often are at a loss for words.  Words are just not enough.  Theology tries to do what art and music also attempt, assigning meaning to realities that often escape the ordinary parameters of language.  They are different types of languages, much more universal.  Using art allowed Hugh of St. Victor to express the inexpressible.


Hugh was fascinated by the many layers of meaning in the Book of Genesis.  Like Augustine, he viewed the Trinity as operative in the opening narratives of the Torah and felt Wisdom was at the heart of the creative act.  He saw creation as a mystery for man to contemplate, and speculated whether such contemplation should even be regarded as a sacrament.  Man was constantly being drawn from his chaotic life to enter into that creative Wisdom.  The sacraments and Jesus himself were gifts for humans to find their way back to virtue and wisdom.  Hugh thought contemplation and mysticism were directly connected to ethics and behavior.  One of his works is entitled “On the Moral Interpretation of the Ark of Noah”.  Like Catherine of Siena and many others, Hugh thought mysticism was directly related to moral activity. 

Hugh and his Abbey were also part of a new venture of his time.  As a canon regular of the Abbey, he was part of a movement that sought to return to simplicity, to live like the early Church had lived, combining some ascetical practices with services to one’s neighbors.  The Abbey’s small size allowed them access to small benefactions for church, hospitals and schools.  Hugh was especially interested in education.  Though he wrote many things, he is most known for two things: the Didascalicon, a comprehensive encyclopedia which defined all the important areas of knowledge that he thought one should know for attainment of human perfection and divine destiny, and another work, The Mystic Ark.


As a teaching tool, Hugh constructed a wall painting in the Abbey 4 meters high and 4.5 meters wide of the story of salvation history, entitled “The Mystic Ark”.  He began with earth, air and ether as the three stages of creation that were necessary to build Noah’s ark.  He described the four ascents of the ark, the mystic ark, and the three periods of: natural law, written law and grace.  He went on to add the six ages: 1) Adam up to the flood, 2) the flood up to Abraham, 3) Abraham up to David, 4) David up to the captivity, 5) the captivity up to the coming of Christ and 6) the coming of Christ to the end of all time.  He gave a series of lectures about the creation accounts and the narrative behind Noah’s Ark and as he did so, he constructed his artwork.  His work was quite popular at the time and there were many copies circulating of his lectures and what some thought were directions to construct his diagrams and artwork.  Hugh, however, was a teacher.  His lectures and diagrams were not meant to provide a “how to” make a painting, but were meant to invite the student to contemplation and the creation of one’s own artwork.



Conrad Rudolph recently and digitally reconstructed the artwork for The Mystic Ark and wrote a small text describing that work, entitled: “First, I Find the Center Point” (2006) and Boyd Taylor-Coolman also recently wrote a text entitled The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor (2010) both of which dig deeper into the thinking and holiness of this man.  For more information about the artwork and its construction, see:

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Pope Francis

Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

Evelyn Underhill