Renaissance Papacy

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Pope Leo X, the quintessential Renaissance pope Pope-leo10.jpg
Pope Leo X, the quintessential Renaissance pope

The Renaissance Papacy was a period of papal history between the Western Schism and the Protestant Reformation. From the election of Pope Martin V of the Council of Constance in 1417 to the Reformation in the 16th century, Western Christianity was largely free from schism as well as significant disputed papal claimants. There were many important divisions over the direction of the religion, but these were resolved through the then-settled procedures of the papal conclave.

Western Schism Split within the Catholic Church from 1378 to 1417

The Western Schism, also called Papal Schism, Great Occidental Schism and Schism of 1378, was a split within the Catholic Church lasting from 1378 to 1417 in which two men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope, and each excommunicated one another. Driven by authoritative politics rather than any theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418). For a time these rival claims to the papal throne damaged the reputation of the office.

Pope Martin V pope

Pope Martin V, born OttoColonna, was Pope from 11 November 1417 to his death in 1431. His election effectively ended the Western Schism (1378–1417).

Council of Constance synod

The Council of Constance is the 15th-century ecumenical council recognized by the Catholic Church, held from 1414 to 1418 in the Bishopric of Constance. The council ended the Western Schism by deposing or accepting the resignation of the remaining papal claimants and by electing Pope Martin V.


The popes of this period were a reflection of the College of Cardinals that elected them. The College was dominated by cardinal-nephews (relatives of the popes that elevated them), crown-cardinals (representatives of the Catholic monarchies of Europe), and members of the powerful Italian families. There were two popes each from the House of Borgia, House of della Rovere, and House of Medici during this period. The wealthy popes and cardinals increasingly patronized Renaissance art and architecture, (re)building the landmarks of Rome from the ground up.

College of Cardinals body of all cardinals of the Catholic Church

The College of Cardinals, formerly styled the Sacred College of Cardinals, is the body of all cardinals of the Catholic Church. Its current membership is 224, as of 8 October 2019. Cardinals are appointed by the Pope for life. Changes in life expectancy partly account for the increases in the size of the College.

Cardinal-nephew Nephew or relative of a pope appointed as a cardinal by him

A cardinal-nephew was a cardinal elevated by a pope who was that cardinal's relative. The practice of creating cardinal-nephews originated in the Middle Ages, and reached its apex during the 16th and 17th centuries. The last cardinal-nephew was named in 1689 and the practice was extinguished in 1692. The word nepotism originally referred specifically to this practice, when it appeared in the English language about 1669. From the middle of the Avignon Papacy (1309–1377) until Pope Innocent XII's anti-nepotism bull, Romanum decet pontificem (1692), a pope without a cardinal-nephew was the exception to the rule. Every Renaissance pope who created cardinals appointed a relative to the College of Cardinals, and the nephew was the most common choice, although one of Alexander VI's creations was his own son.

Crown-cardinal Title conferred upon a particular Cardinal by a Catholic monarch

A crown-cardinal was a cardinal protector of a Roman Catholic nation, nominated or funded by a Catholic monarch to serve as their representative within the College of Cardinals and, on occasion, to exercise the right claimed by some monarchs to veto a candidate for election to the papacy. More generally, the term may refer to any cardinal significant as a secular statesman or elevated at the request of a monarch.

The Papal States began to resemble a modern nation-state during this period, and the papacy took an increasingly active role in European wars and diplomacy. Popes were more frequently called upon to arbitrate disputes between competing colonial powers than to resolve complicated theological disputes. To the extent that this period is relevant to modern Catholic dogma, it is in the area of papal supremacy. None of these popes have been canonized as a saint, or even regarded as Blessed or Venerable.

Papal States Territories mostly in the Appenine Peninsula under the sovereign direct rule of the pope between 752–1870

The Papal States, officially the State of the Church, were a series of territories in the Italian Peninsula under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope, from the 8th century until 1870. They were among the major states of Italy from roughly the 8th century until the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia successfully unified the Italian Peninsula by conquest in a campaign virtually concluded in 1861 and definitively in 1870. At their zenith, the Papal States covered most of the modern Italian regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Romagna, and portions of Emilia. These holdings were considered to be a manifestation of the temporal power of the pope, as opposed to his ecclesiastical primacy.

Colonialism Creation, and maintenance of colonies by people from another territory

Colonialism is the policy of a nation seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of economic dominance. The colonising country seeks to benefit from the colonised country or land mass. In the process, colonisers impose their religion, economics, and medicinal practices on the natives. Colonialism is the relationship of domination of indigenous by foreign invaders where the latter rule in pursuit of their interests.

Papal supremacy is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the Pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as the visible foundation and source of unity, and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered: that, in brief, "the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls."


The period from end of the Western Schism in 1417 to the Council of Trent (1534–1563) is a rough approximation used by scholars to date the Renaissance Papacy and separate it from the era of the Counter-Reformation.

Council of Trent 19th Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trent, was the 19th ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. Prompted by the Protestant Reformation, it has been described as the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation.

Counter-Reformation Catholic political and religious response to the Protestant Reformation

The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival, was the period of Catholic resurgence that was initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation. It began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and largely ended with the conclusion of the European wars of religion in 1648. Initiated to preserve the power, influence and material wealth enjoyed by the Catholic Church and to present a theological and material challenge to Reformation, the Counter-Reformation was a comprehensive effort composed of apologetic and polemical documents, ecclesiastical reconfiguration as decreed by the Council of Trent, a series of wars, and political maneuvering. The last of these included the efforts of Imperial Diets of the Holy Roman Empire, exiling of Protestant populations, confiscation of Protestant children for institutionalized Catholic upbringing, heresy trials and the Inquisition, anti-corruption efforts, spiritual movements, and the founding of new religious orders. Such policies had long-lasting effects in European history with exiles of Protestants continuing until the 1781 Patent of Toleration, although smaller expulsions took place in the 19th century.

Pope Eugene IV Italian pope

Pope Eugene IV, born Gabriele Condulmer, was Pope from 3 March 1431 to his death in 1447. He is the most recent pope to have taken the name "Eugene" upon his election.

Pope Nicholas V Pope of Catholic Church from 1447 until 1455

Pope Nicholas V, born Tommaso Parentucelli, was Pope from 6 March 1447 until his death. Pope Eugene made him a cardinal in 1446 after successful trips to Italy and Germany, and when Eugene died the next year Parentucelli was elected in his place. He took his name Nicholas in memory of his obligations to Niccolò Albergati.

Pope Callixtus III Pope from 1455 to 1458

Pope Callixtus III, also known as Alfonso de Borgia, was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 8 April 1455 to his death in 1458. He is the most recent pope to have taken the pontifical name of "Callixtus" upon his election. A member of the powerful Borgia family, Callixtus III was the uncle of Pope Alexander VI, whom he appointed to the College of Cardinals.


In 1420, the papacy returned to Rome under Pope Martin V. Generally speaking, the Renaissance Popes who followed him prioritized the temporal interests of the Papal States in Italian politics. [1] In addition to being the head of the Holy Roman Church, the Pope became one of Italy's most powerful secular rulers, signing treaties with other sovereigns and fighting wars. In practice though, much of the territory of the Papal States was only nominally controlled by the Pope, and in actuality was ruled by minor princes. Control was often contested; indeed it took until the 16th century for the Pope to have any genuine control over all his territories.

Numerous popes during this period used Papal finances and armies to enforce and expand upon the longstanding territorial and property claims of the papacy as an institution, e.g. Pope Julius II and the League of Cambrai; Pope Clement VII and the War of the League of Cognac. [2] Before the Western Schism the papacy derived much of its revenue from the "vigorous exercise of its spiritual office;" however, during the Renaissance, popes were largely dependent on financial revenue from the Papal States themselves. [3] In attempting to increase the territory of the Papal States, Pope Julius II became known as "the Warrior Pope" for his ongoing military campaigns. [1] He continued the consolidation of power in the Papal States and continued the process of rebuilding Rome physically. His most prominent architectural project was the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica.

Certain Renaissance popes used papal finances and armies to enrich themselves and their families; for example, Pope Alexander VI used the power of Papal patronage to fund his son Cesare Borgia's wars throughout Italy. [4] [5] Likewise, Pope Leo X embroiled papal armies in fighting the protracted War of Urbino, an effort to secure the Pope's nephew Lorenzo II de Medici's rule over that city. The War of Urbino contributed, in large part, to driving the papacy into deep debt. [6]

With ambitious temporal agendas ranging from military campaigns to the arts, Renaissance popes widened the scope of their sources of revenue. Famously, Pope Leo X expanded the sale of indulgences and bureaucratic and ecclesiastical offices to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. [3] Controversy over these practices reached their zenith in 1517, when Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation, ultimately splintering Western Christendom into many denominations. [7]

The popes of this period ruled as absolute monarchs, but unlike their European peers, they were not hereditary rulers, so a plurality of them promoted their family interests through nepotism. [8] (The word nepotism originally referred to the practice of Popes creating cardinal-nephews, when it appeared in the English language about 1669). [9] According to Duffy, "the inevitable outcome of all of this was a creation of a wealthy cardinalatial class, with strong dynastic connections." [10] For example, in 1517, Pope Leo X made his cardinal-nephew Giulio de Medici vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church (second-in-command); and ultimately, following the former's death in 1521, in 1523 the latter became Pope Clement VII. [11]

According to Eamon Duffy, "the Renaissance papacy invokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon's Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone." [10] Exemplary of the time and place, Pope Leo X is said to have famously remarked: "Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it." [8] Several of the Renaissance popes took mistresses, fathered children, engaged in intrigue, and even murder. [10] For example, Alexander VI had four acknowledged children, including the infamous murderer Cesare Borgia. Not all historical commentators take such a grim view of the Renaissance papacy though, noting that the "misdeeds (largely exaggerated) of some of the pontiffs of this era have caused many people to dismiss all of the “Renaissance Popes” as corrupt and worldly when, in fact, their ranks included men who were personally upright, modest and virtuous." [12] The author goes on to cite Clement VII as "a very upright man, devout and not at all licentious, lavish or cruel as so many of his fellow “Renaissance Popes” are often thought of as being;" likewise, he praises Adrian VI's "holiness and moral integrity." [13] [14]

The Renaissance papacy began to decline when the Protestant Reformation splintered Western Christianity into denominations, and as nation-states (e.g. France, England), began asserting varying degrees of control over the Church in their territories. [15] Other factors contributed as well; for example, by the early 1520s, after years of immoderate spending, the Holy Roman Church was nearing bankruptcy; in 1527, the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome, causing the city's population to dwindle from 55,000 to 10,000 in a single year; and in 1533, Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, initiating the English Reformation. [16] Cumulatively, these events changed the complexion of the Church, moving it away from the humanistic values exemplified by Popes like Leo X and Clement VII, toward the religious orthodoxy that would become synonymous with the Counterreformation, and Roman Inquisition. Following the Council of Trent in 1545, the humanism once encouraged by the Renaissance papacy came to be regarded as against the teachings of the Church. [17] [18]

Art and architecture

Because the popes had been in Avignon or divided by schism since 1309, Rome remained architecturally underdeveloped from both a utilitarian and artistic perspective. [19] According to Duffy, "Rome had no industries except pilgrimage, no function except as the pope's capital." [19] The patronage of arts and architecture was both a matter of papal policy – to increase the prestige of the institution as a whole—and the personal preferences of individual popes. [8] Pope Leo X is well known for his patronage of Raphael, whose paintings played a large role in the redecoration of the Vatican. Pope Sixtus IV initiated a major drive to redesign and rebuild Rome, widening the streets and destroying the crumbling ruins, commissioning the Sistine Chapel, and summoning many artists from other Italian city-states. Pope Nicholas V founded the Vatican Library.


The execution of Savonarola Savonarola Being Burnt at the Stake.jpg
The execution of Savonarola

The "inquisitorial machinery" to deal with heresy remained largely unchanged from the thirteenth century. [1] The two main movements unsuccessfully suppressed during this period were John Wycliffe's Lollardy and Jan Hus's Hussitism. [1] Voices critical of the worldliness of the papacy—such as Savonarola in Florence—were excommunicated. [20] Critics such as Desiderius Erasmus, who remained committed to reform rather than schism, were treated more favorably. [21] The revival of Greek literature during this period made Platonism fashionable again in Catholic intellectual circles. [10]

This was a period of declining religiosity among popes. Although Adrian VI said mass every day for the year he was pope, there is no evidence that his two predecessors—Julius II and Leo X—ever celebrated mass at all. [22]

The reforms of the Council of Constance were unambitious and unenforced. [1] Conciliarism—a movement to assert the authority of ecumenical councils over popes—was also defeated; papal supremacy was maintained and strengthened at the expense of the papacy's moral prestige. [1] The role of the College of Cardinals in theological and temporal policy making also declined during this period. [23] According to Duffy, "the one place where the cardinals were supreme was in Conclave." [10]

The perceived abuses of this period, such as the selling of indulgences, were piled upon pre-existing theological differences and calls for reform, culminating in the Protestant Reformation. [24] Leo X and Adrian VI "failed utterly to grasp the seriousness" of the support of Martin Luther in Germany, and their response to the rise of Protestantism was ineffective. [25]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Spielvogel, 2008, p. 368.
  2. Duffy, 2006, p. 190.
  3. 1 2 Duffy, 2006, p. 194.
  8. 1 2 3 Spielvogel, 2008, p. 369.
  9. Oxford English Dictionary. September 2003. "Nepotism"
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 Duffy, 2006, p. 193.
  17. Duffy, 2006, p. 206.
  19. 1 2 Duffy, 2006, p. 178.
  20. Duffy, 2006, p. 197.
  21. Duffy, 2006, p. 197-198.
  22. Baumgartner, 2003, pp. 97–98.
  23. Duffy, 2006, p. 192.
  24. Duffy, 2006, pp. 201–203.
  25. Duffy, 2007, pp. 203–204.

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