Christophe Masson (the lead on the ‘Ecclesiastical Courts as Cultural Hubs’ sub-project) looks at one of the most fraught periods of papal history to explain why there is a memorial inscription to ‘the former pope John XXIII’ in a medieval Florentine church.
When in Florence, you are permanently overwhelmed by art, and also, less enjoyably, by cohorts of badly-behaved tourists. Nevertheless, almost every street, square, corner or church should be visited, because there is so much to see: paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, astonishing pieces of architecture… It feels like you are outside time and away from the ordinary political concerns of the world. In fact, a lot of what you see displays a political message. The equestrian statue of Cosimo I of Medici is one well-known example, but the same could be said of the replica of Michelangelo’s David or the high tower of the Palazzo della Signoria. All of these pieces are not just beautiful, but meaningful.
In front of the cathedral and its exceptional dome stands the baptistry, where you may have been baptized, had you been born in the Middle Ages. Figures of Christ, Mary, and the apostles are on the ceiling, portrayed in one of the most marvelous thirteenth century mosaics conserved today.
Also in the baptistry, almost, but artistically, squeezed between two antique Roman columns, is a medieval tomb. Lying there at peace is a churchman, watched over by the Virgin and baby Jesus. But his epitaph might strike the reader as odd – Joannes quondam papa XXIII? The once pope John XXIII? Wasn’t pope John XXIII elected in 1958, before dying in 1963 and becoming canonized in 2014? In fact, this inscription refers to the 15th Century pope of the same name, and the explanation lies deep in the complex world of pontifical politics.
At the end of the Middle Ages, the Church experienced some of its worst days. Expelled from Rome and taken to the Rhône Valley by the French king Philipp IV the Fair, the papacy settled in Avignon. There, it developed its administration to a point never experienced before, profiting from pontifical taxation and the seizure of local ecclesiastical charges. But, in the meantime, people wondered why the popes were not returning to Rome where they belonged. Finally, in the late 1370s, they settled back. For a moment. Almost as soon as they elected a new pope, Urban VI, the cardinals faced his hard-tempered manner and concluded that the election—held under intense external pressure and terrible conditions—was not valid, electing Clement VII instead. After a failed attempt at crushing Urban’s military forces, Clement made his way back to Avignon, where he died in 1394. Two popes were fighting, and Europe was divided between obedience to Rome and Avignon.
In 1409, exhausted by what they considered a dead end, several cardinals, theologians, prelates, princes decided to hold a council in Pisa, to solve what is now known as the Great Western Schism. They elected a new pope, Alexander V, But the other two existing popes, Benedict XIII (Avignon line) and Gregory XII (Roman line), refused to capitulate. Alexander (the first pope of the Pisan line), was succeeded by Baldassare Cossa, a Neapolitan churchman who was one of the main characters of the Pisan council. He was a fighting pope, who was known before his election for his effective, yet harsh, manner. He ruled the Romagna province from Bologna and defeated several more Roman adversaries in Northern Italy. Having taken the name of John XXIII, he took Rome in 1410, signed alliances with some of the main rulers of Western Europe, and condemned the heresy of Jan Hus and John Wyclif, gaining, albeit briefly, the position that in those days was expected to be the Pope’s. But the odds were against him. With too many enemies (mainly Ladislas of Duras, the king of Naples, and the king of the Romans and future emperor Sigismund of Luxemburg) and not enough supporters, he finally had to leave Rome.
When a new council opened in Constance, he joined it, only to resign his papacy. Truth be told, he had no other choice. Seized by some of his fiercest opponents, he confessed his faults and resigned the papal tiara, leaving for four years of captivity in the Empire. In 1419, finally freed, he met the new, and only, pope, Martin V. He was on the move to regain a position of importance in Italian politics when he died in Florence, on the 27th December of that year.
The Medici, whom he had helped to enter the pontifical financial administration, and thus to make lots of profits, paid him back, so to say, by ordering his tomb from two of their best artists: Donatello and Michelozzo. It remains a masterpiece of the early Renaissance and a testimony to the interest of Florence in pontifical matters. One century later, that same Medici family would have given two popes to the Christian world…
The top banner image is courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum –
Master of the Getty Froissart (Flemish, active about 1475 – 1485), Pope Urban VI and the Anti-Pope Clement VII, about 1480 – 1483,