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St. Leo


CAT 77. Engraved by George Cooke. St. Leo. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 1. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1807. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Saint Leo, Italian pope, 440-461. From HG 1: “Saint Leo, surnamed the Great, according to some authors, received his birth in Rome, while others maintain that he was born in Tuscany. He was employed by the popes St. Celestinus I and Sixtus III when only deacon, in matters of the greatest intricacy and importance; and, upon the demise of the latter, exalted to the pontificate the 1st Sept. 440. . . . He repelled, by his firmness, the progress of heresy, and brought over many to his faith, by his impassioned exhortations.” In addition to “discovering the secret infamy of the Manichees” and “destroy[ing] in Italy the remainder of the Pelagians and Priscellianites,” he sent “a letter to Flavian, the Patriarch of Constantinople, which . . . developed the doctrine of the church with respect to the Incarnation. While this business was passing in the East, Attila ravaged the West . . . until St. Leo, by the majesty of his demeanor, and the power of his eloquence, produced such an effect on the mind of Attila, that he abstained from his meditated conquest." With Genseric, “who, in the year 455, took Rome by surprise, and abandoned it during fourteen days to pillage, he was not so successful.” St. Leo “died in the month of October, 461, universally regretted, leaving behind him the reputation of a saint, and of an enlightened pontiff. He is the first pope of whom we have any considerable works transmitted to us. Of his Letters and Sermons there have been several editions” (153-54).

Here we have a Roman pope rather than an Emperor. As with Cooke’s engraving of Julian, more of the body below the shoulder is shown, but without revealing a hand or arm. Whereas Julian the Apostate professed Christianity but entertained a variety of heresies, Leo the Great was a Christian consolidator who exposed and eradicated the Manicheans and other heresies. Each man was memorably engaged on the frontiers of his rule, Julian in Gaul, Leo in his dealings with Attila and Genseric. Each was a writer whose translated words, as well as engraved bust, survived into Melville’s day. Although Gibbon had, as a rule, little sympathy for popes or the Papacy, he granted that Leo “has deserved the appellation of Great by the successful zeal with which he labored to establish his opinions and his authority under the venerable names of orthodox faith and ecclesiastical discipline” (2: 292).