The Pope, the Emperor, and the Venice Myth

The Pope, the Emperor, and the Venice Myth July 2, 2021

I sometimes fantasize about writing a book called Famous Moments in Church History That Never Happened. Examples of such mythological non-events are easy enough to find, but here is a prime example, and one that for several centuries was incredibly well known and discussed.

My current work concerns the reception and (very sizable) impact of Psalm 91 through history. By far the most cited part of that text is verse 13, which promises the believer that “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet,” or in the Latin Vulgate, Super aspidem et basiliscum ambulabis. (Don’t worry about the exact sequence of monsters to be subjugated). That implied the power to trample down evil forces, whether they were imagined as demons, or as worldly foes. Whether as text or image, that phrase is incredibly commonplace in medieval and early modern art, architecture, and literature. As an expression of raw power, the verse was the proud possession of kings and emperors, but during the high Middle Ages, the Popes appropriated it for their own. Very successfully, the Popes claimed trampling rights, and that boast was reflected in many visual works.

During the long series of wars that set popes against emperors, a critical moment came in 1177, when the mighty German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was forced to conclude a peace with the Pope, Alexander III, at Venice. So much is true, but a mythology then grew up about the event, namely that the Pope had insisted upon imposing a ritual act of humiliation on the Emperor, setting his foot upon his neck, while reciting that verse of arrogant domination. In the words of the sixteenth century English Protestant polemicist John Foxe (he of Foxe’s Martyrs):

“The proud pope setting his foot upon the Emperor’s neck, said the verse of the Psalm: Super aspidem & basiliscum ambulabis & conculabis leonem & draconeum: That is: Thou shalt walk upon the adder and the basilisk: and shalt tread down the lion and the dragon, &c. To whom the Emperor answering again, said: Non tibi sed Petro, that is, not to thee but to Peter. The pope again, Et mihi, & Petro. Both to me & to Peter. The Emperor fearing to give any occasion of farther quarrelling, held his peace & so was absolved, & peace made between them.”That is the story, and it is just a story: it never happened. But that did not prevent it being told and retold through the centuries. The story’s appeal was obvious, in showing how totally out of hand Papal pretensions had become, and how the Popes had forfeited any right to connection with the apostles and the humble fisherman, Peter. In the Book of Acts, we hear how the centurion Cornelius falls at the feet of that original Peter, who is shocked: he “took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.” (Acts 10.26). The contrast could not be more pointed. (A similar Papal domination story was told of the submission of an earlier emperor to a pope, in the notorious confrontation at Canossa in 1077).

German Humanists recounted the Venice legend frequently, and it became a mainstay of early Protestant polemic. Martin Luther certainly knew and repeated it. As an added bonus, the story was a superb weapon if a Protestant reformer was struggling to win over the support of some secular ruler: the Pope did what to a legitimate emperor? Not to mention the nationalist appeal: an Italian priest did that to a German emperor?

It is hard to overstate just how frequently that Venice tale appears in Protestant and anti-clerical writing all the way through the nineteenth century and beyond. Any English or German or Dutch author writing about Italy or specifically Venice recounts it, and the site of the dreadful act was an essential stop on the tourist route through Italy. Just read any nineteenth century travelogue to Venice, and it is there.

Even William Wordsworth told the tale in one of his Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1836). Wordsworth, by the way, lived from 1770 to 1850, and he was an object lesson in the statement that “the good die young.” Unlike Byron and Shelley, he had the misfortune to linger into advanced age, but sadly never gave up writing, and much of his later work is, well, not great. Much of the Ecclesiastical Sonnets can be characterized as an anti-Catholic rant. His poem “Scene in Venice” tells the pope and emperor story according to the harshest vision of anti-papal horrors:

Black Demons hovering o’er his mitred head,
To Caesar’s Successor the Pontiff spake;
“Ere I absolve thee, stoop! that on thy neck
“Leveled with earth this foot of mine may tread.”
Then he, who to the altar had been led,
He, whose strong arm the Orient could not check,
He, who had held the Soldan at his beck,
Stooped, of all glory disinherited,
And even the common dignity of man!
Amazement strikes the crowd: while many turn
Their eyes away in sorrow, others burn
With scorn, invoking a vindictive ban
From outraged Nature; but the sense of most
In abject sympathy with power is lost.

I do like the opening line, which sounds admirably Gothic, if not heavy metal.

As I say, the event itself never happened, but as a myth, it wielded astonishing power for half a millennium. That makes it ideal for a chapter in that notable Philip Jenkins book, Famous Moments in Church History That Never Happened. I am sure you have your own candidates for other such mythical moments?




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