Thursday, September 8, 2016

Saint Corbinian – Evangelist and Bear Tamer

Friedrich Pacher. St. Corbinian
German, c. 1480
Unterassling, Church of St. Corbinian
In its nearly two thousand years of existence the Catholic Church has recognized literally thousands of individuals as saints, that is, people who, though imperfect, have shown evidence of great holiness through their lives and works.  Many of them have wide recognition and following within the universal Church, being known and loved around the world, like Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Therese of Lisieux.  Many more are lesser known individuals, with only local recognition and fame.  For example, Saint Catherine Drexel may be moderately well-known in the United States, but barely known outside our borders, while a saint like Augustine of Hippo is universally known. 

One of Europe’s highly local saints got a somewhat larger exposure during the years of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013).  This is Saint Corbinian.  His veneration seems to be confined to Pope Benedict’s home region of Bavaria and he was, in fact, a remote, a very remote, predecessor of Joseph Ratzinger as archbishop of Munich and Freising.  Indeed, he was a missionary bishop in the Freising area before there was even a diocese of Freising.

Saint Corbinian comes from that remote and often bewildering period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800.  This period used to be called the Dark Ages, though this term has become rather meaningless in the last few decades as historical and archaeological research has revealed that it was not so very dark after all.  But, things were different back then.  For one thing, although the Roman Empire was politically defunct, it was still alive in many of the ways of daily life.  Nor was the period as static as one had formerly been led to believe.  People made journeys that often seem surprising to us in a landscape that retained much of its Roman “feel”.  Corbinian’s life is an example of this.

Stained glass window of St Corbinian
French, 1991
Arpajon, Church of St. Clement
Arpajon is the birthplace of St. Corbinian and, in 1991, it was "twinned" with Freising, the site of his missionary activity.  This window was created to memorialize the occasion.

He was born sometime between 670 and 690, not in what is today southern Germany, but in what is today France, indeed very near the center of modern northern France, at Chatres, now Arpajon, near Melun, an hour or so drive to the southeast of Paris.  The concept of “France” and of “Germany” did not yet exist, however.  Both belonged to “Franchia”, which was roughly the former Roman provinces of Gaul and Raetia.  Both were territories ruled by the Germanic tribe called “Franks”.  The Frankish kings ruled over an underlying population that was largely still Celtic, with mixtures of Mediterranean and Germanic settlers, reflecting the settlements of Romans during the dominance of the Empire, and, more recently, by the incoming Germanic tribes.  

At the time of Corbinian’s birth, the “do nothing” Merovingian dynasty was still on the Frankish throne, though the Mayor of the Palace, Peppin of Heristal, great-grandfather of Charlemagne, was the real power in the land.  Local dukes represented the royal authority in local areas, just as the Roman ‘dux’ had done. Their charge was particularly as war leaders, defending the territories assigned to them from the invasion of other tribes. 
Jakob Kaschauer, St. Corbinian
German, 1522
Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

Christianity seems to have largely survived the disruptions of the fifth century because it was still confined mostly to the towns which, though diminished in importance and size had survived.  It was also a religion of the Frankish court; their kings having accepted Catholic Christianity with Clovis in 496.    However, at around this time, missionaries were starting to evangelize the countryside as well.  They encountered a mix of religious beliefs and practices.  In some places the gods they were encountering were the old Celtic deities, in some places there were echoes of the Roman gods and also there were the recently arrived gods of the Germanic tribes.  Additionally, there was also Arianism, which was the form of Christianity to which the Germanic tribes had been converted shortly before their arrival in the Western Roman Empire.  In this way of understanding Christianity, Jesus was understood in an entirely different way to the way he was understood in Catholic/Orthodox Christianity.  He was seen as a created being, subordinate to God, whereas the orthodox Catholic/Orthodox understanding is that He is one manifestation of the complex triune Godhead, not created and co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  There was even a form of “rustic” Christianity, superstitious and ill understood, combining half understood components of Roman Christianity with beliefs and practices from the old religions of the region.  Europe must have had an odd patchwork quality as well as a still Roman feel.

Corbinian’s life was recorded by Arbeo of Freising, one of his proximate successors as bishop of Freising, who lived from 723-784.1  According to Arbeo, Corbinian’s father, Waldegiso, after whom the boy was originally named, died when he was a child.  His father’s death was followed some years later by that of his mother, who had renamed him after her own name, Corbiniana.  For some years after her death the young Corbinian lived as a hermit in the forest not far from his home.  Here he prayed and studied, and attracted a number of disciples.  Dismayed by the interruptions in his intended life of prayer that were being made by the demands of his followers, he decided to journey to Rome and become a hermit there, near the tomb of St. Peter. 

Anonymous, The Young Corbinian as a Hermit
German, c. 1870-1880
Freising, Cathedral

On arrival in Rome rumor of his spiritual prowess reached the ears of Pope Gregory II.  Gregory suggested that he should use his abilities not in withdrawal into a hermitage but to bring the people of his homeland to the Gospel and he sent him back to the north, ordaining him as a missionary bishop before he left.  This was fairly standard practice at this time, for a missionary bishop had the full power of the Church behind him.  He could preach, offer the Eucharist, baptize, confirm and ordain, thus enabling him to plant new churches with complete structures in areas outside the still functioning Roman towns, which still had resident bishops. 2

Anonymous, Corbinian as a Pilgrim Arriving at Rome
German, c.1870-1880
Freising, Cathedral
Corbinian set out as a pilgrim (wandering) bishop and was successful in the Frankish territories.  Sometime around 723 he returned to Rome and on the way there acquired his most famous symbol.  

According to the story, as he traveled through the foothills of the Alps his horse was attacked and killed by a bear.  Nothing daunted, Corbinian subdued the bear and, as penance for killing the horse, asked the bear to carry his bags in its stead.  The bear accepted the penance.  Corbinian saddled it and loaded his bags on its back.  The bear was as good as its word, carrying them all the way to the gates of Rome.  At Rome Corbinian released it back to the wild with thanks. 

Anonymous, St. Corbinian and the Bear
German, c. 1870-1880
Freising, Cathedral

It is not necessary to believe this charming tale, of course, but it is typical of the kind of detail that accrues to the stories of the saints of this period as they have been handed down to us.  And, just possibly, it might even be true!  In any event, the bear became the symbol of Saint Corbinian as well as the symbol for the town of Freising.3 
Seal of the town of Freising
Freising, Town Hall

After reporting to Pope Gregory II on this second trip to Rome, Saint Corbinian was sent back to the north to continue his missionary work.  He appears to have arrived in the Freising region about 724 and established a Benedictine monastery there.  
Anonymous, Corbinian Confronting Grimoald
German, c. 1870-1880
Freising, Cathedral

Almost immediately he entered into a controversy with Grimoald, the duke ruling the area now called Bavaria on behalf of the Frankish kings.  Grimoald, who, as a Frankish noble, was already a Christian, had contracted a marriage to his brother’s widow, Biltrudis.  This kind of marriage was considered incest, if undertaken without a dispensation (this is the same issue as the situation of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon hundreds of years later).  Corbinian denounced the marriage and was forced by threats from Grimoald and Biltrudis to leave the area, retreating to northern Italy for a while.   On their deaths he was able to return to Freising and resume his work.

He died there on September 8, 730 and September 8 became his feast day. This day is, of course, overshadowed by the greater feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It has subsequently been moved to November 20.

Jan Polack, Death of St. Corbinian
Polish, 1484-1485
Munich, Alte Pinakotek

Although Corbinian had established the church in Freising, the diocese of Freising was actually established territorially only after his death, in 739 by Saint Boniface, the English missionary to the Germans.  Although Corbinian is counted as the first bishop of the diocese, the actual first bishop in residence was Erembert, who may have been Corbinian’s brother.4

An interesting sidelight on the way in which rural Europe was being Christianized at this time is that Corbinian, who came from the west in what is now modern France, was sent by the Pope from Rome, north over the Alps to southern Germany; while Boniface, himself a descendent of converted Germanic settlers to England, came east from the Low Countries.  Both strains of evangelizing Christianity met in south Germany.

Iconography of Saint Corbinian

Understandably examples of the iconography of Saint Corbinian are mostly confined to the Bavarian region of southern Germany and primarily to the diocese of Freising.  There is, however, evidence of considerable local interest over the centuries.
Friedrich Pacher, Scenes from the Life of St. Corbinian (Corbininan predella)
German, 1480
Unterassling, Church of St. Corbinian
Jan Polack, Death of St. Corbinian
Polish, 1484-1485
Munich, Alte Pinakotek
Cosmas Damian Asam, Transfer of the Body of Corbinian
German, 1724
Freising, Cathedral
While there are some depictions of the main events of his life, the majority of images show him as a bishop, usually accompanied by the bear, sometimes saddled, sometimes not.
Master of the Pollinger Panel, St Corbinian
German, c, 1460
Freising, Diözesanmuseum für christliche Kunst des Erzbistums München und Freising
Michael Pacher, St. Corbinian
German, 1520
Innichen, Monastery Church, South Portal (detail)
Rupert Potsch and Philipp Diemer, Saints Corbinian,  Adalbert and George
Altarpiece from Bressanone (Brixen) Italy
German, 1506-1510
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Kaspar Niederreiter, Main Altar
German, c.1700
Otterfing, Catholic Parish Church of St. George
St. Corbinian and his bear are on the right.

Franz Kobald, Corbinian and His Bear
German, 1899
Kuens, Parish church
Alfons Siber, Saints Candidus and Corbinian
German, 1909
Innichen, Monastery Church, North door

A few show him in other ways, as the founder of the diocese, or as a saint being received into heaven. 
Unknown, St Corbinian
German (?), c. 1750
Freising, Episcopal Palace
Cosmas Damian Asam, Apotheosis of St. Corbinian
German, 1723-1724
Freising, Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Corbinian
But it is the whimsical story of the bear that has provided his most memorable attribute.
Madonna and Child enthroned with  Saints Corbinian and Sigismund
 German, 15th century
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art
Jan Polack, St. Corbinian and His Bear
Polish, 1484-1485
Freising, Diözesanmuseum für christliche Kunst des Erzbistums München und Freising

Cosmas Damian Asam, Saint_Corbinian and the Bear
German, 1725

Klaus Blackmund, St. Corbinian
Monument for the 1,250th anniversary of the establishment of the diocese of Friesing 
German, 1989
Munich, Maxburgstrasse

© M. Duffy, 2016

1.      Arbeo’s Vita Corbiniani has been translated into French and German, but not, apparently, into English.  The Vita is available online in Latin at, pages 189-234.

2.      For information on how the rural areas of Europe were evangelized after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west (and through the rest of the Middle Ages) see:  Fletcher, Robin.  The Christianization of Europe, From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386, London, Fontana Press, 1997.
      When ordained as archbishop of Munich-Freising in 1977 Joseph Ratzinger chose the bear of St. Corbinian as part of his episcopal coat of arms and it became part of his arms as Pope Benedict XVI as well. 

4.      For what we know of Corbinian’s life see:  Mershman, Francis. "St. Corbinian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908 at
and Butler, Alban.  The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints: Volume VII.  Dublin:  R. Coyne, 1833, p. 417 at

1 comment:

Gerald D. Hodge, Jr. said...

Is Saint Corbinian the Patron Saint of Bears? Thank you.