[St. Pachomius Library]

St. Virgil the Geometer, Abbot-Bishop of Salzburg, Enlightener of Carinthia

VIII Century
Celtic hierarch best known for his conflicts with the Anglo-Saxon mission of St. Boniface. Although Boniface and Virgil, reluctant co-workers in Germany, evidently suspected each other of heresy, Pope St. Zachary I found both to be Orthodox. Shortly after St. Virgil's death, Bavaria was annexed to the Frankish Empire and the distinctive character of its no-longer-autonomous church was lost.

Born in Ireland, Virgil undertook a journey to continental Europe in 743. He spent two years at the court of Pepin the Short and travelled to Bavaria to make peace between the French king and Duke Odilo, who appointed him abbot of St. Peter's.

St. Virgil was one of the most learned men of his time, but his intellectualism may have worked against him; St. Boniface twice complained to Pope Zachary of Virgil's "unorthodox" views. In the first matter, a question of baptismal validity, the pope sided with Virgil and agreed that baptisms are valid even if the priest mispronounces the formula. St. Boniface's most famous (and from the modern viewpoint strangest) accusation was that St. Virgil believed "that beneath the earth there was another world and other men, another sun and moon". What exactly this meant is not clear today -- and was not clear to Pope Zachary, who summoned Virgil to Rome to explain. Did he refer to the Southern Hemisphere, to some underground Celtic fairy-world, or to something else, perhaps a philosophical teaching of some kind misunderstood by his audience? Although apparently Virgil returned from Rome vindicated, there is no record of what he said there; only the original vague accusation is preserved (in the correspondence of St. Boniface.)

Versions of this story (usually minus the happy ending -- it is worth stressing that Virgil was appointed bishop after the heresy investigation) are often quoted in anti-religious literature as a case of the Church persecuting someone who said the Earth was round. In reality, if the Antipodes were indeed the "underground world" in question, the main theological issue was probably the Adamite descent of its people -- a far-from-trivial matter, since Greek science, accepted by most Christians, knew the Earth to be round but thought the Equator to lie in a Torrid Zone of uncrossable heat. While this seems quaint now, the problem may -- who knows? -- arise again in the Space Age in a different form.

In 767, Virgil was appointed Bishop of Salzburg, where he dedicated the first cathedral. He translated the relics of St. Rupert to the cathedral, where he may also have translated those of St. Samthann and of St. Bridget of Ireland. Virgil established monasteries in his diocese and sent missionaries to Carinthia and Styria.

It has been suggested that the mysterious Latin cosmological writer who called himself " Æthicus Ister" was St. Virgil, but there is no proof of this.

Norman Hugh Redington and Karen Rae Keck


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