In 1223, a remarkable young German, small in stature but gigantic in brain power, was drawn to join the [Dominican] Order by Jordan of Saxony. He was St. Albert the Great, one of the most extraordinary geniuses of all time. He had attended the University of Padua, the greatest center for the study of the natural sciences. There he was in his glory, for he had, since his early years, an insatiable curiosity about the world about him. He poked into and tried his hand at just about everything.
His greatest contribution to human knowledge, however, was to theology. Before his time, Christian theology was based on the philosophy of Plato or, following the leadership of St. Augustine, on Neo-Platonism. Strange to say, the philosophy of Aristotle had been forgotten and his works lost in Europe. They had been kept alive in Moslem countries, especially in Moorish Spain where many learned commentaries had been written on them. In the early twelve hundreds Aristotle’s works were once again becoming known in Europe.
Albert saw in Aristotle’s philosophy a better and stronger basis for Christian theology and he hastened to take advantage of them. He utilized those translations from Greek into Latin that had already been made and commissioned the others from William of Moerbeke, a Dominican Greek scholar. He also produced a series of commentaries on most of the writings of Aristotle along with works of his own. During all this time he was founding a Dominican House of Studies in Cologne, serving as Provincial of the German Province and, later on, as the Bishop of Ratisbon, a position he resigned after two years to return to the discipline of the Order. St. Albert, incidentally, was canonized by a Moto Proprio of Pope Pius XI, who named him a Doctor of the Church and made him the patron of natural scientists.
In 1243, a bulky, lumbering giant of a young man received the habit of the Order. He was Thomas Aquinas, the one who was destined to bring Albert’s pioneering work to its fruition. Albert and Thomas so completely dominated this period that other outstanding theologians, such as Roland of Cremona who died in 1259, Robert Kilwardby who died in 1280, Hugh of St. Cher who died in 1263 and others of their caliber are almost forgotten. (cont.)
Engraving by Theodorius de Bry (1528-1598)