Thursday, November 20, 2014

Who was St. Bernward?

The saint of the day for November 20 is St. Bernward, who was the thirteenth Bishop of Hildesheim, Germany. He was also an architect, painter, sculptor, and metal smith. Born in 1022, he came from a noble Saxon family. His grandfather was Athelbero, Count Palatine of Saxony. Having lost his parents at a young age, he was entrusted to the care of his uncle, Bishop Volkmar of Utrecht. He was educated at the cathedral school at Heidelberg, where he made rapid progress in Christian piety as well as in the sciences and in the liberal and mechanical arts. He became very proficient in mathematics, painting, architecture, and primarily in the manufacture of ecclesiastical vessels and ornaments of silver and gold.

He completed his studies at Mainz, where he was ordained as a priest by Archbishop Willigis, Chancellor of the Empire (975-1011).  In 987, he was appointed as chaplain of the imperial court, and was shortly afterwards selected by the Empress-Regent Theophano to tutor her six-year-old son, Otto III. The youthful emperor is known to have been an erudite and religious prince due to the diligent work of his tutor.

Bernward remained at the imperial court until 993, when he was chosen to be Bishop of Hildesheim. He became a wise, gifted, and enthusiastic pastor who remained bishop for nearly thirty years. He organized a system of deaneries for the diocese, held an annual synod, and is known to have built castles to use as defenses against the invading Danes or Slavs.  With his own hands, he made gold and silver vessels for the altars. Under his direction, numerous churches were built. Attesting to his skill as a painter and metal worker, there are still preserved in Hildesheim his works which include: a cross of rich and exquisite workmanship, known as the "Bernward Cross", the famous Bernward column, with winding reliefs representing scenes from the life of Christ, two bronze doors of the Cathedral of Hildesheim, showing Scriptural scenes, and two candlesticks symbolic of Christ, the light of the world.

A man of extraordinary piety, he was much given to prayer and the practice of mortification. Around 1020, he retired to a Benedictine monastery to spend his remaining days in prayer. He died in 1022 and was canonized by Pope Celestine III in 1193. St. Bernward is the patron of goldsmiths, architects, painters, and sculptors.

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