|Pope Saint Leo I, the Great|
from Chronologia Summorum Romanorum Pontificum
London, British Museum
To really appreciate Saint Leo’s world, you need to use a little imagination and think yourself back into a very different world the world of late antiquity, the time of the Christian Roman Empire. He appears to have been born in Italy around the year 400 (the actual date is not known). The world he entered was seriously unsettled and, in some ways, a good deal like our own.
- Only 24 years before Leo’s presumed birth the first wave of barbarians had forced their way across the Danube River border of the Empire and had carved out semi-autonomous areas within it for their own tribes instead of integrating into the general population of the Empire, which had been the rule for earlier barbarian groups. Perceived bad treatment by the Roman governor resulted in a revolt within two years. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378 a Roman army led by the Emperor of the East, Valens, was defeated and Valens himself was killed.
- When he was a small child of about 5 or 6, a second and far more devastating, invasion began when multiple barbarian groups forced their way across the Rhine River frontier. They poured into the provinces of the western Empire, spreading through what is now the Low Countries, France and Spain, destroying a good deal of the infrastructure of the Western Empire as they moved south.
- In 410, a group of Goths, led by Alaric,
besieged and ultimately sacked the city of Rome itself. (This event was of great symbolic importance, though less important politically, as the capital of the Western Empire had already been moved to the more strategically placed city of Milan.)
- In 429, when Leo was still a young man, the Vandals, one of the groups that had crossed the Rhine in 405-406, after traveling the entire length of Europe from Germany to southern Spain, invaded and conquered the important Roman provinces of North Africa, the area of today's Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Their conquest deprived the western half of the Roman Empire (with its capital at Milan) of its most profitable tax base.
- The resulting inability to properly fund its own defense ultimately resulted in the end of the Western Empire (476) not long after Leo’s death on October 10, 461.1
Religiously times were equally bad. Many of the barbarian invaders professed to be Christian, but their Christianity was of a variant kind, called Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. Further, other variants also had significant followings. In regions where the rulers professed Arianism or other variations of Christianity the orthodox, Apostolic faith was frequently persecuted.
After his election as Pope on September 29, 440, Leo tirelessly battled for the Apostolic Tradition against these variations and was especially influential at the Council of Chalcedon (451), which defined the nature of the person of Christ that has been professed ever since by both the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most Protestant churches.2 This definition insists that in one person Christ is both human and Divine with a human nature and a Divine nature that are separate, yet unified in one person. As the Council stated “We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. the distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.”3 It is the letter that Leo sent with his envoys to this Council that provided the framework for the definition.
Politically, Leo was also very active, working to resolve internal troubles of the Empire in this extremely difficult period.
He is most often remembered for one of his diplomatic missions. In 452 he traveled north as part of a peace mission to intercept Attila the Hun. The previous year Attila, known as the “Scourge of God” for his fierce and destructive raids, had been stopped in his rampage through what is now France at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.4 He was defeated by an army composed of Roman soldiers under Aetius and barbarian troops under the Visigothic king, Theoderic I. In 452, after regrouping his army, Attila made a move into Italy, heading for Rome. Along the way he sacked many of the cities of the Po plain and even the capital city of Milan. It is at this time that the inhabitants of the Veneto region fled to some islands in the off-shore lagoon and founded the city of Venice.
Leo and his companions set out to attempt to turn him away from wrecking these same horrors on Rome. They met Attila in northern Italy, near Mantua. At this meeting Attila was persuaded to turn aside in his advance. No one today really knows what happened at the meeting but, whatever it was, it had the desired effect. Attila did turn away, retreating into what is now Hungary, where he died the following winter. With their great war leader dead, the Huns ceased to be a major threat to what was left of the western Empire.
Above all the events of Leo’s active life, this episode is the one which has been most often remembered by artists. Two of the greatest of these works are found, not surprisingly, in the
Vatican. One is the monumental fresco by Raphael in the . Vatican Palace, now the Vatican Museum
|Raphael, Meeting of Leo I and Attila|
Vatican State, Vatican Museums, Stanza di Eliodoro
The other is a huge and impressive relief carving in St. Peter’s Basilica by the sculptor Alessandro Algardi.
|Alessandro Algardi, Meeting of St. Leo and Attila|
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica
Although a century separates them, they are remarkably similar and obviously different.
First, and most obvious is the difference in medium. Raphael’s version is a fresco, painted on a flat wall. Algardi’s is a piece of sculpture, carved in marble. However, it is in relief, the most painterly kind of sculpture.
Because it is painted, Raphael was able to use color to differentiate his figures. Algardi can only use sculptural techniques, cutting deeper or lighter, as he differentiates them, so that his major figures stand out in high relief, while minor characters are shown in various depths of low (or bas) relief.
What may seem like a disadvantage to the sculptor may actually be seen as an advantage. Algardi focuses our attention more on the major figures by cutting them in higher relief. Their actions press out of the plane of the relief to intrude into our space. He also concentrates only on the major figures, using only a few minor ones. So we see primarily Pope Leo and Attila in the lower area of the composition, and Saints Peter and Paul descending in the upper section. The story is immediate and easily understood.
Raphael, on the other hand, tells his story with many more characters and a more defuse and slower impact. In addition to the Pope we see several members of his entourage, barely hinted at by Algardi. We also see a great many Huns, so many in fact that it is a bit difficult to identify Attila without hunting for him. He is actually situated a little to the right of center, in the middle distance, seated on a horse just in front of the man holding the red flag. He is wearing a crown, barely visible, and throwing his arms out toward the right as he looks up to see the figures of the saints advancing toward him. Raphael’s Peter and Paul are shown as moving at a slower tempo than in Algardi’s version.
Raphael’s version is richer in detail, giving us glimpses of the landscape around their meeting place, including glimpses of the city of Rome itself. The outline of the Colosseum is visible. He also shows us more of the reaction in the ranks of the Huns, where men are trying to escape to the right, even as trumpets are calling them to make a stand.
Both images are dramatic, but their drama is subject to the conditions of their own time.
Raphael, Meeting of Leo I and Attila
Vatican State, Vatican Museums, Stanza di Eliodoro
Detail of Left Side of Painting Showing Attila
Raphael was painting at the apex of the High Renaissance, almost as it begins to tilt into early Mannerism. Therefore, he created a balanced, calm composition in a naturalistic landscape setting, but with certain elements that, beginning in this mature style of his, begin to tilt toward the complexity and agitation of Mannerism. The left hand side of the painting, showing the Pope, the Cardinals and other attendants, along with Saints Peter and Paul in the sky overhead has all the calm and clarity of the High Renaissance. On the other hand, the right side, showing the Hun army, has all the exaggerated and complex movement and violence which would become typical of Mannerism in the decades to come.
Alessandro Algardi, Meeting of St. Leo and Attila
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica
Algardi, however, was carving his monumental scene in the full flush of the Baroque. He was one of the sculptors who assisted Gianlorenzo Bernini in the great task of seventeenth-century Rome, the decoration of the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica. His composition is full of the dynamism and clarity of the high Baroque. As I mentioned above, there is no doubt here as to who the most important figures are. Pope Leo, Attila and the two saints stand out clearly from the background. Their movements can be clearly read and are full of exuberance. There is a sense of explosive action that seems to bring the figures out of the background and into the space we inhabit. Standing in front of this huge marble altarpiece engenders a sense of anxiety not conveyed by the Raphael painting, where we seem to be separated from the action by the imposition of painted architectural elements as well as real ones. This eruption of the figure into the space of the viewer, whether it is accomplished through the explosion of high relief, or the outward thrust of a wall, or by the extreme chiaroscuro of the early Baroque painters, like Caravaggio, is a hallmark of the Baroque sensibility.
Saint Leo AloneOther imagery for Saint Leo focused on typical “saint” types, especially those types that belonged to the class of saints that were episcopal (appropriate since, in addition to other things, the Pope is the Bishop of Rome). So Leo is shown as an enthroned bishop, sometimes wearing the simple miter and sometimes the unique triple crown of the Popes.
St. Leo the Great
from a Breviary
Italian (Apulia), 1350-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M.200, fol. 49v
|Michael Hoenel & Johann Seitlinger|
St. Leo the Great and St. Thomas Becket (in the upper tier) with
St. Luke and St. John the Evangelist (in the lower tier)
Gurk, Church of the Assumption
|Francisco Herrera the Younger, St. Leo the Great|
Spanish, c. 1670-1680
Madrid, Museo national del Prado
|Johann Lossau, St. Leo the Great|
Saint Leo As Patron
He is also seen in the typical guise of a patron, presenting a donor to the central figure of a painting, frequently a Madonna and Child or Apostle Saint, or in a scene invoking him as an intercessor.
|Leon Conseil presented to the Virgin by St.Leo|
French (Paris), c.1499
Paris, Musee de Cluny, Musee national du Moyen Age
|Claus Seman, Pope St. Leo|
London, British Museum
Saint Leo As Doctor of the ChurchIn addition, since Leo is a Doctor of the Church, he may be shown as a scholar, surrounded by books or in the act of writing.
|St. Leo the Great|
Letters of Pope Leo I with the Life of Leo
by Marcus Michael of Cortona
Italy (Florence), 1450-1475
London, British Library
MS Harley 3268, fol. 2
Saint Leo With OthersHe might also be included in images of the communion of saints, or of groups of important figures in Church history.
|Ludwig Moralt and collaborators, Community of Saints|
Saints Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Leo, John Chrysostom,
Romauld, Dominic, Bernard, Francis and Ignatius Loyola
Saint Leo's HandIn addition, Leo has a special few images that focus on a unique iconography that is attached to him and is not a common type. These are a few images that revolve around a miracle related to his hand. The story behind this is a fabulous tale from the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (James de Voragine), the 13th-century collection of saints’ tales, some real, some the product of fantasy, that was one of the bestsellers of the middle ages. The section on St. Leo is a mix of real events, such as the work St. Leo did to help resolve the Christological controversies through the Council of Chalcedon and flights of fantasy.
One of the fantasies relates that Leo cuts off his hand when “he was tempted vehemently in his flesh” after it was kissed by a woman.
Antoniazzo Romano, Virgin Invoking God
to Heal the Hand of Pope Leo I
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
Saint Leo and Attila Before and After RaphaelPrior to the work of Raphael at the Vatican images of the confrontation of Pope Leo with the barbarians seem very limited and, in at least one instance, the barbarian is mis-identified as Gaiseric, leader of the Vandals, instead of Attila, leader of the Huns.
Master Francois,, Leo Persuades Geiseric, King of the Vandals, From Sacking Rome
from City of God by St.Augustine
French (Paris), c.1475
The Hague, Museum Meermano-Westrianum
MS MMW 10 A 11, fol. 15r
However, once the image by Raphael was completed and became widely known through the medium of printmaking, it became more common in the iconography of the saint.
|Hendrick Bloemart, Leo I and Attila|
|Lucas Valdes Carrasquilla, St. Leo Turns Attila from the Gates of Rome|
Seville, Hospital of Los Venerables, Chapel
|St. Leo confronts Attila|
Vatican City, Vatican Museums
|Luca Giordano, Leo the Great Confronting Attila|
Naples, Museo di Capodimonte
|Sebastien LeClerc, The Meeting of Leo I with Attila|
London, British Museum
|Francesco Solimena, The Meeting of Pope Leo and Attila|
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
© M. Duffy, 2016
* A third Pope may be on his way to becoming a “Great”. Pope Saint John Paul II, who died in 2005 and was canonized in 2014, has begun to receive this title. Whether the title will stick is a matter for the future to reveal. Discerning a “Great” is something that usually takes the passage of time to determine.
- For the historical background of Saint Leo’s life see the following:
Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Heather, Peter. Empires and Barbarians, The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, New York, Oxford University Press, 2010.
Ward-Perkins, Brian. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750, New York, Norton, 1989.
- It is not accepted by the Oriental Orthodox churches, such as the Coptic and Armenian Apostolic churches and by a minority of Protestant churches.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993, Part I, §2, Chapter 2, Article 3, ¶1, #467. This text may be accessed at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P1J.HTM#$HC
Another translation reads: “This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same...” Source: Philip Schaff et al., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II, Volume XIV, The Fourth Ecumenical Council, New York, 1885-1893. This may be accessed at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_XIV/The_Fourth_Ecumenical_Council/The_Definition_of_Faith
- The site of the battle is unknown. It was most likely in the region of Chalons-en-Champagne, near Troyes in northeastern France.
- The GOLDEN LEGEND or LIVES
of the SAINTS, Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275.
First Edition Published 1470. ENGLISHED
by WILLIAM CAXTON, First Edition 1483, VOLUME FOUR. From the Temple
Classics Edited by F.S. ELLIS, First issue of this Edition, 1900 Reprinted
1922, 1931. This may be accessed