January 21 – Maximus the Confessor; Epiphanius of Pavia

Icon of Maximus the Confessor, date and iconographer unknownMaximus the Confessor (ca. 580–662) started life as a baby, but his biographers all start with his service as imperial secretary to Emperor Heraclius. (Who, so far as we know, never stepped into any rivers, distinguishing him from the similarly-named Heraclitus.) When Maximus realized that Herry was a heretic, however, he quit his day job and begin a life of public debates—punctuated with bouts of monasticism—about the Monothelite heresy, which claimed Christ only had one will. (He left everything to his Mom.) This controversy pitted the Emperor and a number of eastern Patriarchs against the Pope of Rome (Martin), our man Maximus, and their seconds. Excommunications flew, tempers grew hot, and Maximus travelled extensively, in the process racking up a lot of frequent trireme miles. Stadia. Something like that. One of his greatest triumphs was convincing then-heretic Pyrrhus to come around to the orthodox point of view, but if you think I’m going to make a pun about a Pyrrhic victory. . . .

Through it all Maximus stayed true to his principles, and was ultimately vindicated in the Third Council of Constantinople (the Sixth Ecumenical Council for those playing Council Bingo) a mere 18 years after his death, in one of those “oops you were right” kind of things that churches are famous for. He leaves a thick ream of thick theological writings—many (to the horror of librarians everywhere) in the margins of other people’s books—and his words make up a goodly chunk of the famous Philokalia*.

High relief of Epiphanius, Christ, and St. Godehard from the Basilica of St. Godehard, Hildesheim, GermanyEpiphanius, Bishop of Pavia (438–496). Pavia is in Lombardy, famous for its ham, risotto, and American Football coaches. It would have been a nice place to settle down and raise a diocese at any other time, but unfortunately for Epiphanius the western Empire was collapsing around his ears, and Lombardy was a favorite place for transalpine kings to test their swords. It was a bad place for many things, but a good place to practice diplomatic skills, if one had any. Epiphanius had them in spades, and soothed many a disgruntlement, although the famous[1] flap between Anthemius and Ricimer proved unsoothable.

Wars and rumors of wars were the order of the day, and when the dust settled in about 491, Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths (large, flightless birds with black toenails and multiple face piercings), held both Pavia and Epiphanius’ sister Honorata, a nun at the monastery of St. Vincent in Pavia. A bunch of Ostrogoths kidnapping your sister can ruin the whole afternoon for most people, and Epiphanius was no exception. He was plucky, though, and went to the new overlord to beg for clemency for his people and freedom for his sister, both of which he won. He also won the privilege of going to Gundobad, King of the Burgundians, and asking for the return of some 6,000 Ligurians which he (Gundobad) had nabbed in one of his own military excursions while Theodoric’s back was turned. Did I tell you these were garrulous parts? Gundobad[2] liked Epiphanius so much that he sent him back to Theodoric to arrange a marriage between his son Sigismund[3] and Theodoric’s daughter, imaginatively named Ostrogotho. Sigismund later became a saint himself for repenting of assassinating his own son, but we’re probably about as convoluted here as our remit allows. These were some crazy, mixed-up families, let it go at that.

Epiphanius died from the “rigors” of his final winter journey (to Burgundy). His relics are either the ones officially moved to Hildesheim in 963, or the ones dug up in the eighteenth  century in Pavia. Bishop Tosia of Pavia in 1834 declared the latter to be the real deal (but he would, wouldn’t he?). One assumes the Hildesheimians would tell a different tale, but I was unable to reach any Hildesheimians to confirm this[3].


[1] Me neither.
[2] Named after Mount Gundabad, birthplace of Durin the Dwarf, whom he in no wise resembled.
[3] It must be admitted I didn’t try very hard. At all. I didn’t try at all.