Saint Virgil of Salzburg
Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Ireland’s contribution to the cultural renaissance that followed The Dark Ages has largely been forgotten outside of Central Europe. One of the lesser well known saints, but a major contributor to this renaissance was St Virgil, Virgil or Virgilius being the Latin form of Fergal. He was a man very much ahead of his time, who would go on to become the patron saint of Salzburg, in Austria, where he is still revered to this day.
He was born of noble birth around 700, where exactly is not known, though some sources suggest Trim, County Meath, and educated at the monastery of Iona. After becoming a monk and a priest he became the abbot of a monastery at Aghaboe in County Laois in the late 730's.
He decided to travel to the Holy land and this decision marked a turning point in his life.
It was not unusual at the time for Irish monks to go abroad. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the ensuing Barbarian invasions, Europe was plunged into a cultural void known as The Dark Ages and the spread of Christianity as well as cultural development in general came to a halt. Ireland was spared this terrible period and the island of saints and scholars sent hundreds of missionaries to Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The missionary work was not without its risks and St. Cillian from Mullagh, Co Cavan was martyred in Würzburg in 689. It was largely due to these missionaries that Christianity not only flourished once more, but Central Europe experienced a cultural renaissance not seen since the Roman Empire.
En route to Jerusalem Virgil came to the court of Pipin at Compaigne in 741. Pipin was the father of the emperor Charlemagne and both men were champions of the faith. Pipin welcomed Virgil and his followers and employed them as consultants. In 744, Pipin sent Virgil and his companions to the court of his brother-in-law, Ottilo, Duke of Bavaria, whose dukedom was only partly Christian. While Southern Germany and Austria are today strongly Catholic areas, in the 8th century and it was on the edge of the Christian world and in desperate need of missionaries.
From there Virgil was sent to Salzburg where he founded a monastery and became abbot-bishop of St. Peter’s Monastery, while his companion Sidonius became bishop of Passau. It was in Salzburg, that Virgil was to remain for the next forty years spreading the word of God. Virgil, however, was the only saint operating in the area. St. Boniface, a Saxon missionary who was primate of Germany controlled the diocese of Bavaria, to which Salzburg belonged and the two saints soon became rivals.
Part of the problem was that Virgil was doing things ‘the Irish way’. Boniface had structured the church so that it looked towards Rome. The early Irish church or the ‘Celtic church as it was also known, however, saw itself more independent of Rome and was not hierarchical, the abbots being regarded as independent authorities.
The first dispute arose over baptisms. Priest at the time were poorly trained and ill educated. Their Latin was equally poor and when Boniface learnt that their Latin grammar was weak he declared baptisms in Virgil’s diocese to be invalid. Virgil disagreed and the matter came before Pope Zachary, who supported Virgil stating that ignorance of Latin did not invalidate baptisms.
Apart from being a holy man, Virgil was one of the most learned men of his age. As well as being a brilliant theologist and philosopher Virgil was a renowned mathematician and astronomist. His knowledge of geography earned him the nickname ‘geometer’. This was in a time when very little was known of the physical world. He believed that the world was round as opposed to flat. This was nothing new at the time. The Ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras and Aristotle had argued this centuries before, but Virgil was among the first Christians to believe and propagate this. In any case very few people had access to the ancient Greek manuscripts and as a result they were not widely known. Other theologians such as St. Augustine and his Virgil’s compatriot Dungal, astronomer to the Emperor Charlemagne also believed in a spherical earth but refuted the notion of the antipodes.
Virgil did believe in the antipodes, the theory that people lived on the other side of the world. The Irish, influenced by Saint Brendan the Navigator and the earlier pagan eachtra stories, believed that people lived on the other side of the world. This was of course several centuries before Columbus and mediaeval depictions of such people portrayed them as deformed creatures, with legs growing upwards out of their heads.
Boniface interpreted Virgil’s teachings that these people were not of the ‘race of Adam’ and therefore not in need of salvation. Boniface, perhaps stinging from the previous year’s baptismal humiliation, seized his opportunity to report him to Pope Zachary in 748, who ordered him to set up a church council to investigate Virgil.
It was a charge that would have to be proven and few knew more about the antipodes than Virgil. The pope was not expected to rule in his favour and excommunication loomed. Fortunately for Virgil the Pope died and the matter was apparently forgotten. It did not appear to stain his career as he was made bishop of Salzburg, though when exactly is not known. The area was not big enough for both saints and Boniface went to Frisia, in present day Holland, where he was martyred in 754. From Salzburg Virgil dispatched missionaries to what is now the Czech Republic and Hungry and acquiring land, set about buildings churches.
In 774 he laid the foundation stone of Salzburg’s cathedral and dedicated it to Saint Rupert.
He died in 784 and was canonized in 1233. In 1288 his remains were interred under the altar of Salzburg Cathedral, where they still remain. Unfortunately, all of his writings disappeared with his passing. He is commemorated in Germany and Austria on 24 September and in the rest of the world on 27 November.