Pope Leo I the Great (400?–461) – defender of Rome and the man behind the power of the Church

Empress Licinia Eudoxia and Pope Leo I, Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, fragment

Empress Licinia Eudoxia and Pope Leo I, Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, fragment

This pope will be remembered in history, mainly as a defender of Rome, the one, who convinced Attila the Hun, to leave the city gates. However, that is not his only claim to fame. As no pope, prior to him, Leo I fully identified with Peter the Apostle, in his letters he often referred to himself as his unworthy successor and representative. He often used his figure and authority of “the rock upon which the Church was built”, to exercise his right to leadership over all of the earthly Church. That is why, he was the first bishop of Rome, to be buried, as the successor of Pete the Apostle, in the aura of sainthood on the Vatican.

Empress Licinia Eudoxia and Pope Leo I, Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, fragment
Pope Leo I, frescoes in the Hall of Constantine, Giulio Romano, Apostolic Palace, Musei Vaticani
Altar of St. Leo, Alessandro Algardi, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
Altar of St. Leo, Alessandro Algardi, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano

This pope will be remembered in history, mainly as a defender of Rome, the one, who convinced Attila the Hun, to leave the city gates. However, that is not his only claim to fame. As no pope, prior to him, Leo I fully identified with Peter the Apostle, in his letters he often referred to himself as his unworthy successor and representative. He often used his figure and authority of “the rock upon which the Church was built”, to exercise his right to leadership over all of the earthly Church. That is why, he was the first bishop of Rome, to be buried, as the successor of Pete the Apostle, in the aura of sainthood on the Vatican.

 

In times of popes who preceded him, Celestine I and Sixtus III, Leo supported them in administrative and doctrinal matters, in this way acquiring valuable experience in ruling Rome. As the archdeacon, an excellent speaker and catechist he also acquired the support of the Roman populace, which was not without significance, since its representatives at that time took part in the selection of the bishop of Rome. He was unanimously elected as such in the year 440 A.D. and exhibited strictness and strong dislike for all deviations from the orthodox line of the Church. He spoke out against the still lively and popular branches of Christianity – Manicheism, Monophysitism, or Pelagianism, at the same time defending his independent position in face of the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, which was nearing its downfall. This was visible by getting the right, in the year 445 A.D., to hold jurisdiction over all bishops of the Western Empire. The next step was to achieve the primacy of Rome over all bishoprics of the Eastern Empire. Leo I, with conviction, pointed to the martyr death – in Rome – of SS Peter and Paul, sort of legitimizing the primacy and the imperial title of pontifex maximus, which belongs to the bishop of the Eternal City.  At the Council in Chalcedon in 451 A.D., Leo with the help of his legates, unanimously set out his stance, raising firm opposition of other bishops of: Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople. Five hundered bishops, mainly from the Eastern Empire, showed up at the council. The prevalent doctrine of faith was announced, however the leading role of Rome was not recognized, which caused the Roman legates of Leo to file a protest.

The legendary, miraculous defense of Rome against the loot-thirsty Huns, led by the uncompromising Attila, took place in 452, but not at the city gates, but on the fields of the distant Mantua. The background of this legation is not fully known, the payment of a very high extortion, which saved the city from the barbarian invasion should probably be attributed to the delegation of the then emperor of the Roman Empire, Velentinian III. Three years later, the effect of this legation, was no longer as spectacular. Although, raping and bloodshed was prevented, this time the King of the Vandals Genseric, thoroughly plundered the deserted city. Nevertheless Leo, deservingly acquired the nickname of the savior of Rome and the love of its inhabitants. Since that time it was no longer the emperor, but the pope who was to be the support for the Romans, since 476 the only one, because at that time the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire - Romulus Augustulus, was forced to resign.

 

The earthly remains of Leo I were initially buried in the ambulatory of the Constantine Basilica, and later in its interior. Today in the new basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano) he is buried in the company of three other Leos – II, III and IV.

 

Buildings and structures created in Rome during the pontificate of Leo I the Great:

  • Church of San Stefano Protomartire at the former via Latina – presently preserved in ruin
  • Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano – decoration of the main nave of the Constantine Basilica with mosaics of Old Testament and New Testament themes (not preserved)
  • Renewal of the Basilica of Sao Paolo fuori la mura (after being struck by lightning), completing mosaic in the triumphal arch (Head of Christ Centered in Glory Surrounded by the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse Bringing him their Crowns, as well as representations of SS. Peter and Paul) and in the nave of the basilica (frieze with scenes from the Old and New Testament as well as portraits of the bishops of Rome, from St. Peter to Leo I), funded by Empress Galla Placidia, the sister of Emperor Honorius (not preserved, only partially authentic in the triumphal arch)
  • Decoration of the main nave in the Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano (not preserved)
  • Participation in the construction of the Church of San Clemente (lower church)
  • Construction of the monastery by the Basilica of St. Peter (not preserved)

Some paintings and sculptures commemorating Leo I:

  • Apostolic Palace (papal apartments) – fresco depicting the encounter of the pope with Attila (Stanza di Eliodoro) – the pope is accompanied by SS. Peter and Paul floating above his head with swords in hands; the work of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), 1511
  • Painting of the apse of the Church of San Pietro in VincoliEmpress Licinia Eudoxia Presenting Peter’s Chains to Pope Leo I
  • Basilica San Pietro in Vaticano – marble relief over the pope’s tomb, showing the frightened leader of the Huns, after the pope pointed to his allies coming out of the clouds – the armed SS. Peter and Paul; the work of Alessandro Algardi, 1646-1653