Most denominations of the world’s largest religion—Christianity—organize themselves through networks of bishops. Their role evolved from the ministry of oversight (episkopē) exercised in the very early days of the Church’s life. The earliest ‘person specification’ for this episcopal role (and also for that of deacons) can be found in 1 Timothy 3. Historically attributed to St Paul, this text reflects the realities of the first-century Church, when bishops and deacons could marry and have children.
How they ran their households was one of the key credentials the candidates for either role had to have. Only those who managed their households well could ‘care for God’s church’ (1 Timothy 3:5). Further emphasis is placed on temperance in wine drinking and lack of greed for money, while kindness, composure, and seriousness are also identified as desirable personality traits. In this early period, women could be deacons. A female deacon, Phoebe, is recorded at Cenchreae (modern Kechries near Corinth) in Romans 16:1–2, and two more were mentioned by Pliny the Younger in the early second century (Madigan 2011: 26).
While 1 Timothy 3 does not state who appoints bishops, it seems clear that the selection does not rest with lay authorities. However, once Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313 CE and Theodosius I proclaimed it the state religion in 380 CE, the state began to get involved. By the eleventh century there was a full-blown struggle for power known as the Investiture Controversy.
The Germanic rulers of the Holy Roman Empire frequently appointed family members as bishops (something popes started to object to from the 1070s). Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, who commissioned The Bernward Gospels, is a perfect example. Related as he was to the ruling Saxon dynasty, it is no surprise that the precious gospel book he donated to the abbey of St Michael is imbued with privilege. Bernward had founded the abbey himself and he wanted to be buried in it.
By the twelfth century, the papacy gained the upper hand in the conflict over the appointment of bishops. But, since many bishops were de facto princes of the state with wives, children, and large estates, their attention was often turned to worldly matters at the expense of spiritual ones. The First Lateran Council, held in 1122, codified the separation of ecclesiastical and lay affairs and forbade clerical marriage.
This was more easily said than done. Nevertheless, the Second Lateran Council, held in 1139, reiterated the main points of the First. This council was convened by Pope Innocent II who was responsible for the rebuilding of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the area of Rome he was from. He had himself depicted next to the deacon St Lawrence, a popular Roman saint, in the new apse mosaic. St Lawrence’s commitment to the poor cost him his life. His inclusion in the apse mosaic of the Santa Maria in Trastevere by Pope Innocent II cements him as a model for all deacons to follow in a time of religious reform.
The primary role of a deacon, as it evolved, was to assist a bishop or priest in the performance of the liturgy. The fresco from the church of St Sophia at Ohrid shows the saintly bishop Basil of Caesarea officiating before an altar while assisted by deacons in what is the inauguration of the liturgy he wrote. But this, too, is a visual appeal to saintly prototypes in a time of turbulent religious politics.
The works of art in this exhibition originated in the individual efforts of three very different bishops. The instructions from 1 Timothy 3:2–3 that a bishop must be temperate and gentle instead of quarrelsome and materialistic do not seem to have been ideals that were easy to embody in their respective contexts. Rival popes and contested elections, such as that of Innocent II, were at odds with the specification that ‘a bishop must be above reproach’ (1 Timothy 3:2). The election of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim had more to do with his privilege than with him desiring a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1), and the wealth he was surrounded with is evident from his portrait in The Bernward Gospels. Archbishop Leo of Ohrid did not refrain from quarrelling with his Western peers despite honouring Basil of Caesarea—who himself had adhered strictly to the stipulations from 1 Timothy 3:2–7—in his frescoes.
What drove all of them, though, was the canonical vision of the Church as ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15) to whose service they were bound.
Kingsley, Jennifer P. 2014. The Bernward Gospels: Art, Memory, and the Episcopate in Medieval Germany (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press)
Kinney, Dale. 2002. ‘The Apse Mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere’, in Reading Medieval Images: The Art Historian and the Object, ed. by Elizabeth Sears and Thelma K. Thomas (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press)
Madigan, Kevin. 2011. Ordained Women in the Early Church (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press)
Todić, Branislav. 2012. ‘Arhiepiskop Lav—tvorac ikonografskog programa fresaka u Svetoj Sofiji Ohridskoj’, in Vizantijski svet na Balkanu, ed. by Bojana Krsmanović, Ljubomir Maksimović, and Radivoj Radić (Belgrade: Vizantološki institut), pp. 119–37
3 The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. 2Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. 4He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; 5for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; 7moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
8 Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; 9they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. 11The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; 13for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, 15if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. 16Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.