Sunday, April 27, 2014

Papal Iconography

St. Peter and His Successors from Fleur des histoires
by Jean Mansel
France, 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque  nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol. 159v
On this day we experienced an amazing and historic event, the canonization of two Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, by the currently reigning Pope Francis, in the presence of Benedict XVI, his own still-living predecessor, a man who was a close collaborator of one of the new saints.   The new saints are men both of whom we of the older baby boomers cohort have known through television and may even have seen with our own eyes.  Nothing exactly like this has ever happened in the nearly 2,000 year history of the Church.   Thinking about this convergence of four Popes, two living and two newly proclaimed saints, I found myself pondering the question of papal iconography.  Is there such a thing? 

Certainly our new saints, Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II, will not have anything approaching an iconography.  No modern saint does, with the possible exception of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Following the advent of the photograph in the late 19th century, the actual face of a saint is generally available and it is this that forms what iconography there is for the majority of modern saints.  But has there ever been a distinctive papal iconography?  So, I set out to take a look at what did exist.  What I found was surprising.

Apart from the papal keys, the symbolic “triple tiara” and the distinctive papal apparel of white and red that has prevailed since the middle ages there is almost no specifically “papal” iconography, i.e., an iconography that is applicable to all popes across time.  Most images of popes from the middle ages up to the advent of the photograph fall into a few specific categories, none of which can really be considered to be an iconography.

The Portrait
Popes Innocent and Callixtus with St. Lawrence
from Apse Mosaic
Italian, 1140-1143
Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere

The portrait is at once both the most ubiquitous and the least interesting image of the popes.  Medieval images are nearly identical whether they attempt to present an idealized image of a long dead pope or an attempt at actual portraiture in the case of a contemporary pope .

No one actually expected a portrait that looked exactly like an actual human being.  All the “portraits” were idealized in large measure.  So we cannot say for certain what any early or medieval pope really looked like. 

Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle
St. Gregory the Great from Book of Hours
Netherlands (Delft), 1415-1420
New York, Morgan Library
MS M866, fol. 146v
Sandro Botticelli, St. Sixtus II
Italian, 1481
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

The situation changes with the Renaissance.  Actual resemblance to the living person was expected for portraits of living popes, as for any other person.   Consequently, from about the middle of the fifteenth century we have a pretty good idea of what a then living pope looked like.
Melozzo da Forli, Foundation of the Vatican Library
Italian, 1477
Vatican, Pinacoteca
This fresco, commemorating the foundation of the Vatican Library, actually includes the portraits of two popes, one of them current, the other a young man who became pope.  We see Pope Sixtus IV seated as he appoints the humanist Bartolomeo Platina as the first Librarian of the newly founded Library.  Standing between them is the Pope's nephew, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, famous as the patron of Michelangelo.

Raphael, Pope Julius II
Italian, 1512
Florence, Uffizi Gallery
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pope Urban VIII
Italian, 1632
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

Diego Velazquez, Pope Innocent X
Spanish, ca. 1650
Rome, Galleria Doria-Pamphili

Carlo Maratti, Pope Clement IX
Italian, 1669
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Anton Raphael Mengs, Pope Clement XIII
German, 1758
Venice, Museo del Settecento Veneziano
Jacques-Louis David, Pope Pius VII
French, 1805
Paris, Louvre

But, apart from the distinctive papal clothing, there is virtually no difference between these portraits and those of contemporary secular persons.

A subcategory of portraiture is tomb and monument sculpture.  The same general observations apply here as in painting. 
Antonio Pollaiuolo, Tomb of Sixtus IV
Italian, 1384-1493
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica
Antonio Canova, Tomb of Clement XIII
Italian, 1792
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Ignazio Jacometti, Pope Pius IX in Prayer
Italian, 1880
Rome, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Historical scenes
Probably the largest number of images of popes fall into a category that we might call the historical.  
Giotto, Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, San Francesco, Upper Church

Given the importance of the papacy for the Church and, subsequently, for post-Roman Imperial European history, this is not surprising.  
Jean Fouquet, Coronation of Charlemagne
from Grandes Chroniques de France
French, 1344-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de Paris
MS Francais 6465, fol. 89v

Since the first century popes have borne the burden of representing Christ in the world.  Some have been martyred, some have crowned emperors, others have had important roles to play in the approval of new religious orders, some have founded famous monuments, others have been peacemakers in conflicts, and some have preached the need for Crusades.  

Master Francois, Eleanor of Aquitaine,
Queen of England, Before Clement III
French (Paris), ca. 1475
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS MMW 10A11, fol. 181v
Pope Benedict XII Preaching the Crusade
from Chronicles of Froissart
French (Paris), 1425-50
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 2675, fol. 37v

Jacopo Zucchi, Founding of St. Mary Major
Italian, 1580
Vatican, Pinacoteca
Raphael and assistants, Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attila
Italian, 1514
Vatican, Apostolic Palace, Stanza di Eliodoro
Since the fourth century all the popes have been important statesmen.    The interaction of various popes with the world, both the secular and religious spheres, has offered artists plenty of opportunities to present many stories.

Spinello Aretino, Pope Alexander III Receiving an Ambassador
Italian, 1407
Siena, Palazzo Publico

Master of the Mazarine and assistants
Benedict XII Receiving Messangers from China
French (Paris), 1410-1412
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 2810, 134v

Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena Before the
Pope at Avignon
Italian, ca. 1460
Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Legendary Events

In addition to real, historical, events in which the popes have participated, there are legendary ones that also offered opportunities for an iconography to develop.

Carpaccio, St. Ursula and Pilgrims Meet the Pope
Italian, ca. 1482
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia

Such are images from the legend of St. Ursula (which never happened), 

Simon Marmion, Mass of St. Gregory
from Book of Hours
New York, Morgan Library
MS M6, fol. 154r

the Mass of St. Gregory (which may have happened)

and the apparition of the Archangel Michael on top of the tomb of Hadrian (thereafter known as the Castel Sant’Angelo).
Jacopo Zucchi, Procession of St. Gregory
Italian, 1580
Vatican, Pinacoteca


Allegorical images form yet another category.  
Anonymous, Pope Nicholas III Presented
to Christ by Saints Peter and Paul
Italian, 1278-1279
Rome, San Giovanni in Laterano
Sancta Sanctorum
Raphael and Assistants, Pope Urban I
Between Justice and Charity
Italian, 1520-1524
Vatican, Sala di Constantino

Giorgio Vasari, Tribute of Nations to Paul III
Italian, 1546
Rome, Palazzo della Cancellaria
These allegorical images may be either positive or negative.  The negative ones remind us that everyone, even popes, can be either saints or sinners.  

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
Ghent Altarpiece (detail)
Flemish, 1425-1429
Ghent, Cathedral of St. Bavo
In this image three popes are counted among the saints in adoration of the Lamb of God in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Triumph of Death from Danse macabre
French (Paris), 1500-1510
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 95, fol. 23
This image, dating from the period in which the
plague was a frequent event, reminds the viewer
that death comes for popes, kings and cardinals
as well as for others.
Master of Coetivy, Scene from Inferno
from Divine Comedy of Dante
French (Paris), 1450-1466
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Italien 72, fol. 1
This pope is in Hell, paying the penalty for a bad life.

And some negative images, dating from the time of the Reformation, are actual attacks on the Catholic Church.
Albrecht Duerer, Passional Christ and Antichrist
German, 1521
London, British Library
Duerer's picture echoes one of the original complaints of the early "Reformers".  In the image Jesus chasing the money-
changers from the Temple is contrasted with a pope overseeing the counting of money while signing what are probably to be understood as indulgences.
The Bridge

A final category is one that I call the Bridge.  After all, one of the titles of the popes is “Pontifex Maximus” (Greatest Bridgebuilder), a title borrowed directly from ancient Roman religion when it was borne primarily by the Roman Emperor in his role as a high priest of the pagan cult.

Guercino, Pope St. Gregory the Great with
Saint Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier
Italian, ca. 1626
London, National Gallery
Master of the Duke of Bedford
St. Gregory the Great Inspired by the Holy Spirit
from Grandes Heures of Jean de Berri
French (Paris), 1409
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
Latin 919, fol. 100


The popes as a bridge connect the earth and heaven.  These are the images of popes shown among other saints, or as an adorer of the Lord, as an inspired writer or as a supporter for a presentation of a donor figure to a divine one. 
Titian, Alexander VI Presenting Jacopo Pesare to St. Peter
Italian, 1506-1511
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Albrecht Duerer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity
German, 1511
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity
Italian, 1737-1738
Munich, Alte Pinakotek

Raphael, Disputa
Italian, 1510-1511
Vatican, Apostolic Palace, Stanza della Segnatura
We do not expect to see one of our new papal saints presented as part of a legend or in an allegory, but perhaps we may see them in their papal role in historical events and most definitely as bridges between our own earthly reality and their current heavenly reality.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II pray for us.

© M. Duffy, 2014

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