|Andrea Vicentino, Battle of Lepanto|
Venice, Palace of the Doge
Pius, who reigned from 1566 – 1572, is one of those late 16th-century Counter Reformation popes remembered for helping to pull the Church out of the confusion and gloom that descended on it after the shock of the Reformation. After the frequent scandals that had accompanied the lives of the prince-popes of the High Renaissance (men like Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X) these were mostly pious men of purpose, who lead fairly austere lives. Pius himself, born Antonio Ghislieri, was a friend of the great St. Charles Borromeo, one of the leading figures of the Counter-Reformation.
Battle Standard Carried at Lepanto
Gaeta, Museo Diocesano
What Pius is not remembered for among English speakers is his leadership of the Holy League which gained a tremendous victory in the last great naval battle of the classical world. That is the last great battle between naval forces composed entirely of oar powered galleys. The foe was the previously all-conquering Muslim Ottoman navy.
Most people today know little of the Ottoman Empire, although they may have heard of it. From the 14th century the Ottoman Turks (the name comes from the founder of the ruling line, Osman) expanded their rule throughout the remains of the old Byzantine Empire, until, by 1400, all that remained of the Empire was the city of Constantinople itself and some tributary territories in the Balkans and Greece. In spite of desperate efforts by the Byzantines, their Empire, direct descendent of the ancient Roman Empire, fell to the Ottomans, led by their young Sultan, Mehmet II, on May 19, 1453. Mehmet imposed his religion on his empire, favoring those who converted to Islam and oppressing those who remained Christian, thus laying the foundation for much of the conflict in the region in the centuries that have followed.
|Anonymous, Battle of Lepanto|
Italian, after 1571
In 1570 they began their attack on Cyprus, then a possession of the Venetian Republic. Finally, the powers of Southern Europe became willing to follow the urgings of Pope Pius and to unite in the Holy League. They gathered a fleet to meet the Turkish navy. The command was given to Don John of Austria, an illegitimate son of the former Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and, therefore, half-brother to Philip II of Spain.
Spain, Genoa, Venice and the Papal States formed the backbone of the Christian fleet. On board the Spanish ship, Marquesa, was a young man who would later become known world-wide as the author of “Don Quixote”, Miguel de Cervantes.
|Martin Rota, Battle Formations at Lepanto|
Croatian, c. 1571 or later
Boston, Museum of Fine Arats
By all accounts, the battle was an extraordinarily ugly fight.2 The Turks lost not only a disproportionate number of ships, but huge numbers of sailors and soldiers, by some estimates as many as twice the Christian losses.
|Adriaen Collaert, the Battle of Lepanto|
Flemish, after 1571
London, Trustees of the British Museum
Contemporary or near-contemporary paintings and engravings suggest some of the ferocity of the battle and, especially, the rather tight engagements that were at its core.
|Andries van Eertvelt, the Battle of Lepanto|
|Johann Jakob Zeiller, Pius V Prays to the |
Madonna and Child During the Battle of Lepanto
Ottobeuren, Monastery Chuch of
Saints Theodore and Alexander
|Franz Martin Kuen, Thanksgiving Procession and |
Feast of the Rosary at Rome
After the Victory at Lepanto
Erbach Alb-Donau-Kreis, Church of St. Martin
|Titian, Philip II Offering the Infante|
Don Fernando to Heaven
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Many of the artists who have pictured the Battle of Lepanto were Venetian, quite appropriate since Venetian ships played a major part in the battle. Among them are the contemporary painters, Titian and Veronese. Whereas Titian’s picture “Philip II Offering the Infante Don Fernando To Heaven” is a predominantly secular image (Victory (or an angel) hands the palm of victory to Philip’s baby son, Ferdinand, as Philip holds him. In the background is a scene of the battle, in the foreground, a Turkish prisoner.
|Titian, Spain Comes to the Aid of Religion|
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Titian also painted an allegorical picture which promoted Spain's leadership in the struggle against both the Muslim Turks and the emerging heresies of Protestant Northern Europe, while recalling the role the Spanish monarchy had played in the reconquest of Spain from the Muslim Moors. Spain, personified as two warrior women (presumably representing the double crowns of Castille and Aragon), come to the aid of the near naked figure of Religion, who is beset and apparently wounded by serpents, which infest the tree stump behind her. On the left we can see the burning ships of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto. The two commissions together suggest how Philip II, who was the great-grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, wished to be seen by the world.
|Paolo Veronese, Battle of Lepanto|
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia
On the other hand, Veronese’s picture “The Battle of Lepanto”, while giving us a view of the battle, actually celebrates the miraculous intercession of the Virgin Mary. The upper portion of the picture presents a view of heaven, where among the clouds and choirs of angels, the city of Venice, la Serenissima herself, clad in white, kneels before Our Lady. Saints, including Peter, Rocco, Justine and Mark, join her in supplication, urging Mary to intercede. From heaven rays of light fall to earth, underlining the intercession that she grants.
However, like Titian, Veronese also painted another work that offers a slightly more secular view of the battle and its aftermath. This is The Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, painted by Veronese in the late 1570s or early 1580s and possibly repainted in part sometime later.
|Paolo Veronese Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto|
Venice, Palazzo Ducale
One might think that, because Lepanto is now a widely ignored event, no artist has represented it since those who were contemporaries. But, in 2001, the American artist, Cy Twombly, who lives in Rome, executed a twelve painting series , called “Lepanto” for the Venice Biennale.
Cy Twombly, Lepanto
Although abstract, the pictures do evoke the confusion and intensity of the battle and their bright colors recall both the rays of light from heaven in Veronese’s painting and the bloody decks of contemporary accounts. The cycle has since been exhibited in New York, Houston and Munich. So, there is still some resonance from the battle even in the secular world.
|Cy Twombly, Lepanto|
Cy Twombly, Lepanto
And so, every October 7th for the last 445 years Catholics have celebrated this victory that freed Southern Europe from a serious threat, guaranteed the continuing existence of Catholic Christianity and allowed a breathing space in which the arts could flourish.
© M. Duffy, 2008, 2016
* For an account of the Ottoman's second attempt to take Vienna, see The Holy Name of Mary
1. For a summary of the battle and its importance see https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Lepanto
2. For a description of the intense battle see http://www.nobility.org/2010/10/07/short-stories-on-honor-chivalry-and-the-world-of-nobility-no-14/