The Devil’s in the detail: The anonymous and peculiar Parisian handbill of Pope Alexander VI

We are pleased to introduce the latest post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Katie Fellows. Katie had her doctorate awarded from St Peter’s College, Oxford, at the end of last year. Her thesis examined the early ecclesiastical career of Rodrigo Borgia before his election as Pope Alexander VI in August 1492. (Twitter: @KatieFellows1)

Since the Synod of Reims in 991, pontiffs have at times found themselves portrayed closer to the devil and the diabolic than the godly.[1] Why is this and why has such an idea found representation in a number of different forms?

This idea reveals a lot about the popular sentiments of the time and the growing tide of discontent towards the papacy. Dissatisfaction stemmed from a number of different factors including unpopular policies, nepotism, avarice, simony and sexual misconduct. Whilst researching my doctoral thesis on the Catalan Rodrigo Borgia’s early ecclesiastical career, I was struck with how popular these ideas were, particularly in explaining his election to the papacy in August 1492.

Contemporaries openly voiced their dissatisfaction at another Catalan pontiff who promoted his kinsmen to both religious and secular offices ahead of Italians. Similarly, his religious beliefs were questionable with contemporaries claiming he was either a Marrano or a Jew. This, along with Alexander’s relative tolerance of the Roman Jewish population and the Jewish migrants who arrived after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the turn of the sixteenth century. In 1515, an anonymous pamphlet argued that his election was due to a pact with the devil and that as a Moor or a Jew and that he did not possess the morality to withstand the devil’s temptation. As Nathan Johnstone argues, from the eleventh century onwards the ‘Devil had become a focus of Christian discourses of scapegoating and othering’.[2] It is therefore not hard to see how images such as the one in this article were created.

Another possible explanation for such images were the tensions following the earlier French invasion (1494–1498) of the Italian Peninsula and the ongoing tensions between King Louis XII of France and Alexander. From contemporary letters to cheap broadsides and even a Jacobean play, these examples have helped form the Black Legend of the Borgias.

The most intriguing example of Alexander and diabolism is this Parisian Anti-Catholic satirical handbill (c.1500). With the advent of the printing press, ideas such as this one could reach and influence a greater portion of society.

Anti-Catholic caricature of Pope Alexander VI, depicting the pope as a devil, Ego sum Papa ‘I am the Pope‘, sixteenth century. Alamy Stock Photo.

The image depicts Alexander holding a staff with the phrase ‘Ego Sum Papa’ in the top left corner. This image is one of several depicting Alexander as a monstrous being. Diabolic compositions such as these had been in circulation since the Council of Toledo in 447 which had described the devil as a ‘tall black creature with horns, claws and had an ass’ ears and gnashing teeth’. Over time such ideas would become embodied in works including the twelfth-century The Vision of Tundale, the writings of Dante and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

If we deconstruct the image, we can see a grotesque face in the stomach. To medieval commentators this symbolized greed. The Devil devoured the property of the living and the dead, the rich & poor, widows & orphans, nobles & commoners. His greed threatened to consume the entire world. Gluttony also had connotations of simony, a charge consistently levelled against Alexander, particularly when he had served as vice-chancellor (1457-92).  

Moving to the figure’s feet, they are concealed in papal slippers. These slippers  would be kissed in adoration (osculum pedis) by monarchs, clergy, and other visitors when paying respect to the pontiff. However, if we are to apply the anatomy of the devil noted in Revelation 13:2 they were those of a bear, a greedy animal with an enormous appetite. By contrast, Alexander was notoriously abstemious to the extent that his sons Cesare and Juan reportedly refused to dine with him.

Possibly the most eye-catching part of the image is the sinuous naked nature of the creature’s upper body. The creature’s body is presented as a twisted ugly distortion of what angelic, or even human, nature ought to be. To quote Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies,

‘skin encloses and enshrines the body’s complex internal workings in a way that makes them both safe and mysterious … but it also faces outwards, projecting issues of identity and race forward from the surface to create a public facade of the person it simultaneously secures’.[3]

The one notable absent feature from the creature is a tail. In Isaiah 9:15 the tail was inculcated with ideas of falsehood, ‘and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail’.

Overall, diabolical creatures were usually portrayed in diametrical opposition to Christ’s goodness. For example, Christ was truth whilst the devil was false. Christ was humble, while the devil lacked all humility. Alexander was not the only pontiff depicted as a monstrous being. Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, r. 1513–1521) was depicted as a lion with a long protruding tongue in a pamphlet depicting the five opponents of Martin Luther. Images of the pontiff became a canvas onto which monstrous components of animals could be projected. Such images were the results of growing religious tensions and became popular outlets to criticize and denounce the papacy. Similarly, the appearance of ‘monsters’ like that in Rome could be interpreted as precursors to the apocalypse, a result of God’s displeasure and his forthcoming judgment on the world. Images of pontiff’s and the diabolic continued to circulate long after the death of Alexander VI in 1503. Examples such as the 1680’s anti-Catholic broadsheet prints such as Babel and Bethel in their true colours became common place. The Pope has a forked tongue and a puff of smoke issues as he speaks, which the verses identify as being ‘a reeking stream of pride’.


[1] Here I refer to the examples of Pope Sylvester II (c. 946-1003). (r. 999-1003), Eugene IV (1383-1447) (1431-1447) and Alexander VI (1431-1503) (r. 1492- 1503).

[2] Nathan Johnstone, ‘The Protestant Devil: The Experience of Temptation in Early Modern England’, Journal of British Studies 43/ 2 (April 2004), pp. 173–205.

[3] Jack Hartnell, Medieval Bodies (London: Wellcome Collection, 2018), p. 45.

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