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March 14, 2013 by Gail Armstrong

You may have heard they picked a Pope today. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to review some papal depictions from the past, and specifically images from an interesting little book with the catchy title Vaticinia de Pontificibus, attributed to Joachim of Fiore and originating in Florence in the second quarter of the 15th century.

If you were going to pick a pope, which would be your choice? For a start, I’d highly recommend it not be this fellow:

Harley 1340, f.8

I just don’t think the optics of a scaly pope with wings, a tail and especially horns is quite what you want. Nothing personal, Urban IV… (The British Library website tells me this miniature of a human-headed dragon represents the papacy of Urban VI, whose election was contested and resulted in the appointment of the anti-pope Clement VII.)


Even less appropriate would be this fellow:

Harley 1340, f.13v

Near-naked popes sitting on benches near young people are DEFINITELY not what the church needs right now! (The BL website, alas, gives me no guidance on what this image represents, except to say “Miniature of a youth, approaching a seated half-naked elderly man”. Let us hope it represents a youth offering to assist the poor…)


I respectfully suggest this is more what you’re looking for in the supreme leader of a respectable church:

Harley 1340, f.3

Fully clothed, praying, friend to the animals, and apparently actually a witness to the hand of God…oh yes, much better. He’s in the running for sure. (This is Pope Celestine V, kneeling in prayer.)


At first I thought this fellow had potential:

Harley 1340, f.3v

After all, you can’t go wrong with a bird-watcher…wholesome pursuit, outdoors a lot, healthy interest in nature. But then I got a bit worried about that pitchfork…holding it a little too close to the dove, if you ask me. The symbolism can’t be good. So he’s out. (He being Pope Boniface VIII.)


Here’s one with potential:

Harley 1340, f.4

As opposed to being a scaly reptile, like Candidate 1 above, this one appears to be trying to talk sense to a scaly reptilian emissary of evil…”You can change,” I hear him saying. “It’s not your fault. God loves all his creatures, even two-headed serpent-dragons, as long as they truly repent.” Seems like the dragon’s at least giving him a listen. Yes, this one’s got potential. (He is Benedict IX.)


Not sure about this guy:
Harley 1340, f.4v

That had better be his sister’s house he stayed at last night. But she looks a little love-sick for a sister, and he looks just a little bit too self-satisfied. To be safe, I’d give him a miss. (I’m now slandering Clement IV.)


Speaking of self-satisfied, here’s another one I’m wary of:
Harley 1340, f.5v
Too big a crown collection. Strikes me as vain. Even his pet raven seems to be sporting some sort of fancy head-gear…and I don’t really approve of dressing your pets. He’s out. Sorry, Benedict XII.


Here’s another non-starter:

Harley 1340, f.6

Re standing in the font, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was probably chased in there by the snake (who seems to have quite a grip and may have been terrorizing his pet rooster as well). But there’s the inescapable matter of the deer-head on the ground. Explain that one, buddy. I sense a connection to organized crime… You’re out, Clement VI.


This pope-picking is harder than it looks. Wait, here’s a good one:

Harley 1340, f.2

Calm in a stressful situation is definitely a good quality in any spiritual leader. Having someone run at you with a club, in close proximity to a disembodied head, counts as seriously stressful in my book. Good on ya, Honorius IV.


This guy’s just weird:

Harley 1340, f.8v

What’s with the bears, Boniface IX? Seriously.


Another no:

Harley 1340, f.10v

It’s just not pope-like to wield a scythe. And I don’t even want to ask about the manacles or the golden thigh-high boot…sorry, John XXII, thanks for your application. We’ll call you.


Hold on, hold on – what’s this? What have we here?

Harley 1340, f.2v

Why, it’s Nicolas IV of Ascoli and, if I’m not mistaken, he’s having an audience with two women – one an advocate for the ordination of women and the other a spokesperson persuading him of the need for the church to accept the right to divorce and to utilize contraception. “You speak sense,” I hear him saying, “and it’s time for the church to move forward to recognize the complexities and realities of life in the world now”. Folks, we have a winner!


I wish I could give more info on what the images were really meant to portray. All I could learn with quick online research was that the images represent mystical prophecies presented by means of a chronology of popes, with each prophecy consisting`of four elements, an enigmatic allegorical text, an emblematic picture, a motto, and an attribution to a pope`. It seems to have been created originally as a form of propaganda, to influence a papal election. (Source: Wikipedia)


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