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The papal Antichrist: Martin Luther and the underappreciated influence of Lorenzo Valla.


In 1522, the dramatic woodcut, attributed to Hans Holbein, depicting Martin Luther as the Hercules Germanicus first appeared (fig. 1). The woodcut was part of early pro-Luther propaganda. Dangling from Luther's nose hangs the pope. Screaming in Luther's mighty grasp is the inquisitor Jakob von Hochstraten. Lying at Luther's feet are the decapitated Hydra of scholastic miscellany: Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Okham, Aristotle, Nicholas Lyra, and Peter Lombard. The Hydra, of course, was only one of the first tests Hercules would face. Other more terrible tests awaited him. Hercules' final test was to face Cerberus, "a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, [who] eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades." (1) So too, Luther came to feel that he would have to vanquish not only the scholastic Hydra, but his own hound of Hades. In 1520, Luther came to believe that he was involved in an apocalyptic struggle against the Antichrist himself: the pope.

While earlier in his career Luther viewed the Antichrist as a figure to come in the future, in 1520 Luther came to view the pope and the papacy as the Antichrist. Luther's view of the Antichrist and of the papacy shifted suddenly, dramatically, and permanently. Scholars have often noted that the events of 1518 and 1519--the growing Indulgence Controversy, his appearance at Augsburg, and his forthcoming papal ban--all played a role in changing Luther's view. Not enough attention, however, has been paid to the influence of Lorenzo Valla's Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine. While others, including Scott Hendrix and Heiko Oberman, have noted that Luther read Valla in 1520, neither is particularly interested in Valla's influence on Luther. (2) More importantly, neither Hans Preuss, Remigius Baumer, nor William Russell mentions Valla in their extensive examinations of Luther's view of the papal Antichrist. This essay will examine what it was about Valla's Discourse that helped convince Luther that the pope was the Antichrist.



The Donation of Constantine has been called the "best-known forgery in history." (3) This is, perhaps, an overstatement. It is not an overstatement, however, to say that it was one of the best-known documents in the medieval era and that Valla's Discourse, although not the first to challenge the authenticity of the document, is one of the greatest examples of Renaissance scholarship. (4) The Donation of Constantine records the Emperor Constantine's gift of the Western Empire, the lands of Italy, and the primacy over other patriarchal sees, to Sylvester, Bishop of Rome, in 314 or 315. Lorenzo Valla wrote the Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine in 1440 while secretary to Alphonso, King of Aragon, Sicily, and Naples, as a part of Alphonso's attempts to delegitimize the papacy's claim to Sicily and Naples. It remained in manuscript form until published by Ulrich von Hutten in 1519. (5) It begins with a short introduction that lays out the argument that the Donation is a forgery. Following the introduction, Valla argues that Constantine was not the type of emperor to give away his empire, and Sylvester was not the type of churchman to accept it. (6) The discussion surrounding Constantine is very straightforward: Valla notes that Constantine fought many bitter battles to keep the part of the empire he was now supposedly willing to give away. Would it make sense to give it away? Valla finds such an assertion absurd. (7) His discussion of Sylvester takes a more poetic turn, and it is the section on Sylvester that will strike a chord in Luther.

Valla presents a speech he believes the honorable and pious Sylvester would have given had Constantine indeed offered him the empire. Sylvester begins by thanking Constantine for a very generous offer. Sylvester, however, must decline the offer. As pope, it is not appropriate for him to accept such a gift: he has a spiritual calling, not a calling to rule an empire. Just as the Old Testament prophet Elisha would have corrupted his ministry by accepting inappropriate gifts, so too Sylvester would corrupt his office by accepting that which is not appropriate to the pontiffs calling. (8) After four or five references to similar situations in the Bible where spiritually-called men refused inappropriate gifts, Sylvester turns to address the idea of ruling the empire directly:
 What! you want to make me king, or rather Caesar, that is ruler of
 kings! When the Lord Jesus Christ, God and man, king and priest,
 affirmed himself king, hear of what kingdom he spoke: "My kingdom," he
 said, "is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then
 would my servants fight." And what was his first utterance and the
 oft-repeated burden of his preaching, but this: "Repent, for the
 kingdom of heaven is at hand." "The kingdom of God is at hand for him
 for whom the kingdom of heaven is prepared." When he said this, did he
 not make clear that he had nothing to do with secular sovereignty? And
 not only did he not seek a kingdom of this sort, but when it was
 offered him, he would not accept it. For once when he learned that the
 people planned to take him and make him king, he fled to the solitude
 of the mountains. He not only gave this to us who occupy his place as
 an example to be imitated, but he taught us by precept: "The princes
 of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great
 exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but
 whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and
 whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant; even as
 the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to
 give his life a ransom for many." (9)

For Valla, accepting the empire would have been unthinkable for Sylvester because it would "ruin [his] honor and purity and holiness and that of all [his] successors and would close the way to those who are about to come to the knowledge of truth." (10) The problem with accepting the empire was that it would prevent the pope from doing his true and proper duty: leading sinners to "knowledge of truth." Luther, then, found in Valla a long and thoughtful discussion regarding the proper role and authority of the pope as a spiritual leader. Valla demonstrated that the abandonment of this role was not a current phenomenon but a longstanding pattern of behavior. The abandonment of the pope's spiritual office was important to Luther's conviction that the pope was the Antichrist because it is one of two markers for the Antichrist identified by St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians. The second marker is revealed by Valla when he explains why the Donation was forged.

Luther already knew that the Donation of Constantine had been used by medieval popes to justify their spiritual and secular preeminence. What he did not know until he read Valla was that it was forged in order to despoil (spoliare) the empire from "all [the] kings and princes of the West," to whom it rightfully belonged. (11) It was then fraudulently, and with malice aforethought, inserted into Gratian's Decretum, or Concordia discordantium canonum, in order to lend it authority. (12) Up to this point in his career, Luther had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that the pope had secular powers and authority: this growing feeling now found confirmation. After reading Valla, Luther writes:
 Therefore let every Christian believe that in these passages Christ
 does not give either to St. Peter or to the other Apostles the power
 to rule, or to soar so high. What then does He give? I will tell you.
 These words of Christ are nothing but gracious promises, given to the
 whole Church.... When these comforting words of Christ, given for the
 benefit of all poor consciences in the whole Church, are thus made to
 strengthen and establish papal power, I will tell you of what it
 reminds me. It reminds me of a rich, kind prince who threw open his
 treasure-house, and gave complete freedom to all the poor to come and
 take what they needed. Among the needy there came a rogue, who made
 use of the permission all by himself and allowed none to come in who
 did not bow completely to his will, and arbitrarily explained the
 words of the prince to mean that the permission was given to him
 alone. Can you imagine what the kind prince would think of this
 rogue? (13)

It was this insight into the papacy's avaricious nature, combined with the neglect of its proper spiritual role, that helped confirm for Luther that he faced not simply a corrupt and corrupting institution, but the very Antichrist itself: the Man of Sin and Son of Perdition predicted in 2 Thessalonians. (14)


The word Antichrist (antichristos) appears in the New Testament only five times, each time in the Johannine epistles: 1 John 2:18 (twice), 2:22, and 4:3; and in 2 John 7. None of these, however, played a significant role in Christian thinking regarding the Antichrist and the apocalypse; instead, 2 Thessalonians became the locus classicus. (15) In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul describes an eschatological battle between good and evil that was quickly linked with the image of the Antichrist. (16) Paul uses two terms for the Antichrist and highlights events that will precede or accompany his advent: the first term is ho anthropos tes hamartias, "the Man of Sin"; the second is ho huios tes apoleias, "the Son of Perdition." (17) The Man of Sin and Son of Perdition will overthrow worship and demand to be worshipped. He will declare himself God, but will ultimately be revealed (apokalupthasetai) and destroyed when Christ comes again (parousia). (18)

Theologians in the medieval era focused more of their attention on the events that would accompany the apocalypse than they spent discerning the identity of the Man of Sin. Blasphemy, the persecution of true believers, the usurpation of God's rightful worship, and the fomenting of lawlessness were all suggested as signs that the Antichrist was initiating the apocalypse. (19) For example, Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) saw the military and political aspirations of the Lombards as evidence that the Antichrist was at work in the world. Gregory internalized the Antichrist and argued that, in light of the Lombards, each Christian must become aware of the Antichrist within. (20) When attention did turn to identifying the Man of Sin, he was variously identified as the emperor, as heretical leaders, as Mohammed, and as a leader of the Jews. (21) Kevin Hughes argues, however, that identification of the Antichrist as an imminent threat was not a dominant trait of the early medieval era. (22) That would all change around 950 with the publication of Libellus de Antichristo by Adso of Montier-en-Der (d. ca. 992). The Libellus provided a "handy compendium [that] fulfilled a real need in medieval culture ... a summary of the teaching about the Final Enemy." (23) For a medieval manuscript, the Libellus was wildly popular and widely available. Almost 200 copies of the work exist in nine different versions, many of which identify the author as one of the major theologians of the era. In the Libellus, Adso provides what Bernard McGinn calls a vita of the Antichrist's work. (24) One could read through the Libellus, look at the external world, and then consult a checklist of the Antichrist's activities. Adso's ready-reference work came in handy for the impending millennium, which saw an explosion of apocalyptic themes.

One of the earliest identifications of the papacy with the Antichrist arose at this time. In the conflict between Hildebrand (ca. 1021-85; as Gregory VII, r. 1073-85) and Henry IV (1050-1106; as King of Germany, r. 1056; as Holy Roman Emperor, r. 1065), both sides accused the other of either being the Antichrist, or of being in league with him. For example, Cardinal Beno (d. 1088), a supporter of Henry, writes that "Hildebrand is either a member of Antichrist, or Antichrist himself." (25) Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1132-1202) was the era's most prolific writer on the Antichrist and comes very close to identifying the papacy with the Antichrist when he writes in his Expositio in Apocalypsim: "Just as the Beast from the Sea is held to be a great king from his sect who is like Nero and almost emperor of the whole world, so the Beast ascending from earth is held to be a great prelate [magnum prelatum] who will be like Simon Magnus and like a universal pope [universalis pontifex] in the entire world. He is that Antichrist of whom Paul said he would be lifted up and opposed to everything that is said to be God, or that is worshipped, and that he would sit in God's temple showing himself as God." (26) This identification continued to develop as the Cathars argued that the pope must be the Antichrist because he persecuted simple good Christians." Knowing the true heir of Christ would not persecute them, they believed the pope must be in league with Satan. At almost the same time, the Waldensians claimed that their preaching was prohibited and that they were persecuted by the church because it was in the grip of the Antichrist. The opulence of the papacy served as the necessary proof of this designation. Following quickly on the heels of the Waldensians and Albigensians, the Spiritual Franciscans also identified the pope with the Antichrist. The Great Schism seemed to confirm every prediction of a papal Antichrist, and mutual denunciations often included similar identifications. Finally, both John Wycliffe and Jan Hus claimed that the pope was the Antichrist. (27) Thus, as Luther turned to examine the papacy and the Antichrist, there was already a long tradition, though certainly not a dominant one, that connected the two.

Luther's 1522 translation of, and introduction to, 2 Thessalonians 2 contains important clues to his thinking regarding the identification of the Antichrist. (28) Understanding these clues will allow us to put in context the 1520 connection between his reading of Valla and his developing view of the pope as the Antichrist. The first clue is his translation of the phrase that immediately precedes the announcement of the Man of Sin. St. Paul writes, "Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the Son of Perdition." (29) The key phrase for understanding Luther's anti-papalism is "he apostasia proton" (literally, "the apostasy [comes] first"). Luther translates this phrase as "das zuuor der abfall kome." In common parlance, the word Abfall has the sense of "fallen," like fallen leaves. In theology it is used to translate apostasy, which has the sense of falling away from the truth. But falling away does not completely capture the meaning of apostasia in the Greek, or Abfall in early modern German. In the Greek New Testament, apostasia means both a rebellion against God and an abandonment of faith. (30) In early modern German, Abfall likewise conveys both a falling away and the more political idea of revolt. (31) Erasmus captures this double meaning in his 1516 Latin translation of the text as "nisi uenerit defectio primu" (except the apostasy comes first), defectio here connoting a defection in war to the enemy's side. (32) Luther used Erasmus's 1519 Greek New Testament for his translation and often consulted Erasmus's Latin as he worked. (33) In both Erasmus and Luther, then, there is a sense that Christianity and the Church will be undermined by a rebellion that brings about a falling away from the faith. Thus, the Antichrist through his defection will cause the Church to fall. This fall will be a sign that the Man of Sin and the child of perdition has been revealed. (34)

The other clues to Luther's thinking are found in his preface to 2 Thessalonians. In a short four-sentence introduction, Luther briefly summarizes the book. The introduction allows Luther to create a proper theological frame for guiding the reading and interpreting of scripture. For our purposes, the key text is his summary of chapter 2: "Am andern leret er wie fur dem Jungsten tag das Romisch reych zuuor mus vntergehen vnd der Endchrist sich fur Got auffwerffen ynn der Christenheyt vnd mit falschen leren vnd zeychen die vnglewbige welt verfuren biss das Christus kome vnd verstore yhn dutch seyne herliche zukunfft vnd mit eyner geystlichen predigt zuuor todte." (35) There are three important things to note in this brief summary. First, Luther believes that the appearance of the Antichrist is an apocalyptic event: thus, he uses Jungsten tag to clarify the meaning of parousia in verse 3. A direct translation of parousia as the "return of our Lord Jesus Christ" (der zunkunfft vnssers herrn Jhesu Christ) would not carry the eschatological weight of the Last Day of Judgment that Luther believed Paul intended. Thus, he clarifies for the reader that what Paul means when he writes parousia is nothing less than the Jungsten tag (the Apocalypse). (36) In other words, Luther is telling the reader right at the beginning that Paul is speaking of the Apocalypse, not merely as a time of trial or tribulation. Luther continues by explaining that, before the Apocalypse begins, "the Roman Empire must be brought down" (das Romisch reych zuuor mus vntergehen). (37) Paul never mentions the Roman Empire in 2 Thessalonians, but a veiled reference to the "one who restrains the Antichrist" in verse 6 was, from the early Church on, assumed to mean the Roman Empire. (38) In 1520, in part through his reading of Valla, Luther came to believe that the papacy had for generations attempted to despoil and usurp the empire and that these actions could bring to an end the "one who restrains the Antichrist." Second, the Antichrist will mislead the people with "false doctrine and signs": this is clearly a reference to his critique of indulgences and the theological justification for them. The proof of this comes in the statement regarding how these false doctrines and signs will be destroyed. Will they be felled by force or retaliation? No, they will fall by spiritual preaching. (39) Finally, Luther declares that the Antichrist will raise himself up in Christendom in the place of God (der Endchrist sich fur Got auffwerffen ynn der Christenheyt). (40) Luther used two terms to describe the Antichrist: the apocalyptic Endchrist and the more direct translation Widerchrist. When referring to the papacy, Luther almost always uses Endchrist. (41) Oberman argues that Luther's understanding of the apocalyptic Day of Judgment began to coalesce around 1520 and that, "as the assiduous reader of Augustine and Bernard, Luther knew that after the first phase of persecutions in the Roman Empire, and the second phase of attacks by heretics assailing the Church from without, in the third phase the enemy would come from within, when the Antichrist would successfully disguise himself as the vicarius Christi." (42) Luther's continued use of Endchrist to designate the papacy from 1520 on signifies that Valla helped convince him that the third phase had in fact begun centuries earlier and had now reached its apex. (43)

Thus, by examining Luther's exegesis and translation of 2 Thessalonians, we have Luther's version of a curriculum vitae for the Antichrist. For Luther, the Antichrist will betray the Church from within, undermine the Roman Empire, take God's rightful place in the Church, and mislead through false doctrines and signs. As Luther looked about him in 1520, he believed only one figure in history fulfilled all these requirements: the pope.


Among the many wars that Luther did not intend to start, the one with the papacy certainly takes pride of place. Reflecting on his own opinion of the papacy in 1517, Luther writes in 1545, "I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist when I began the cause." (44) He was also shocked by how quickly the debate with Johannes Tetzel (1465-1519), Johannes Eck (1486-1543), and Sylvester Prierias (1456-1523) turned from a debate on the theological merits of indulgences to a debate on the actual authority of the pope: by the time of his meeting in October 1518 with Cardinal Cajetan (Thomasso de Vio, 1469-1534), the entire debate centered on papal authority. Despite Luther's best efforts to move the discussion back to theology, Cajetan would not budge. For Cajetan (like Eck and Prierias) papal authority was a theological issue. (45) The November 1518 papal bull Cum postquam--authored by Cajetan following his meeting with Luther--is framed around indulgences and papal authority.

The meeting with Cajetan and the issuing of the papal bull seem to be a turning point for Luther regarding the identification of the pope with the Antichrist. In a private letter of 11 December 1518 to Wenceslaus Link (1483-1547), Luther first reveals the nagging question of whether or not "the true Antichrist according to Paul is reigning in the Roman curia." (46) As he prepared for the debate at Leipzig, Luther expressed similar misgivings to George Spalatin (1484-1545): "And, confidentially, I do not know whether the pope is the Antichrist himself or whether he is his apostle, so miserably is Christ (that is, the truth) corrupted and crucified by the pope in the decretals." (47) What becomes obvious is that during this period Luther was beginning to believe that the pope's policies and decretals were fundamentally antichristian. He had also become convinced that the papacy was tyrannical. What he was not yet convinced of was whether the pope was the true Antichrist. The Leipzig Disputation would help him clarify this point.

The Leipzig Disputation is important for two reasons. First, Luther was forced by Johannes Eck to acknowledge that some of what he was arguing was similar, if not identical, to the positions held by Jan Hus. This charge had first been leveled at Luther by Tetzel in early 1518. (48) When Luther declared that Hus was "Christian and evangelical," it clearly put him at odds with the papacy in a concrete and verifiable way. In late 1519, Luther would begin to read Hus in earnest: he was shocked by how much he did hold in common with the condemned heretic. In mid-February 1520, Luther revealed this surprise in a private letter to Spalatin: "I have taught and held all the teachings of John Hus, but thus far did not know it. John Staupitz has taught it in the same unintentional way. In short we all are Hussites and did not know it. Even Paul and Augustine are in reality Hussites. See the monstrous things into which we fall, I ask you, even without the Bohemian leader and teacher. I am so shocked that I do not know what to think when I see such terrible judgments of God over mankind, namely, that the most evident evangelical truth was burned in public and was already considered condemned more than one hundred years ago." (49) Second, as a result of the debate and his reading of Hus, Luther was forced to discern what a godly papacy would look like. (50) When he compared his list of positive attributes to Leo X and many of his predecessors, he found them lacking.

Thus, in early February 1520, Luther found the pope severely wanting: he was tyrannical, he was antichristian, but Luther was not yet convinced he was the Antichrist. (51) Most interpreters of Luther's stance regarding the papacy see the weight of the events of 1519 and his impending excommunication in 1520 as the reasons for Luther's newfound clarity. Bernard McGinn writes, "Still, it was primarily the pressure of events rather than scholarly study that moved Luther to the point of rejecting the papacy." (52) However, Luther actually had some cause for optimism in late 1519 and early 1520: on 12 January 1519, Emperor Maximilian I died. Luther's prince now stepped into the role of imperial caretaker until the next emperor was elected. On 28 June 1519, Charles V was elected to replace his grandfather. This was a positive development for Luther on a number of fronts. First, Charles's election promises assured that Luther would be given a hearing in Germany rather than in Rome. (53) Second, Charles was a very well-educated prince with distinct humanist appreciations: for example, Charles was a lifelong supporter of his former tutor Erasmus, and, in 1519, Luther and Erasmus were still writing positive things about each other. (54) Third, Charles had a personal affection for Frederick the Wise. Fourth, Charles was not, nor would he ever really become, an ally of the pope. (55) He had his own dynastic reasons to stymie the pope. All these factors would have led Luther to see 1520 as a time of possibility, rather than of impending doom. An example of Luther's hopes regarding Charles can be found in a letter he wrote to the emperor on 30 August 1520 requesting a hearing of his case. This is not a naive letter, nor is it dishonest fawning. Luther genuinely believed that Charles would grant him a fair and open hearing. He also believed if he got such a hearing, he would prevail. (56) Thus, the events of 1519, and even the possibility of a papal ban, cannot alone account for Luther's change of opinion. One piece of the puzzle was still missing: this would come when he read Lorenzo Valla.

In late 1519, Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) published his second edition of Valla's Discourse. A copy of Hutten's edition was given to Luther in early 1520 and he began to read it in February. (57) As we have already noted, Valla helped convince Luther that papal claims to secular authority were unfounded. Further, the attempts by the papacy to secure those claims through treachery and deceit proved that the pope sought to overthrow the emperor and rule in his stead. After reading Valla, Luther again wrote to Spalatin. In the letter he refers specifically to Valla's treatise, and all the earlier equivocation regarding the papal Antichrist is absent: "I have here at my disposal Hutten's edition of Lorenzo Valla's Confutation of the Donation of Constantine.... I am greatly tormented, I do not even doubt that the pope is properly the Antichrist, that even the whole world's popular opinion expects; everything which he does, lives, speaks, and declares fits perfectly." (58)

Luther would never again return to his hesitant position. Soon afterward he would respond to the taunts of the pro-papal Franciscan Augustine von Alveld (ca. 1480-1535) with the pamphlet On the Papacy at Rome: Against the Most Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig. He began work on the document in early May 1520 and it was published on 26 June. (59) He would not read the papal bull banning him for another five months, and yet, the change of position is already apparent here. (60) Luther writes, "Why then does the Roman see so furiously desire the whole world? Why did it steal and rob country, city, indeed, principalities and kingdoms, and now dares to produce, ordain, dismiss, and change as it pleases all kings and princes, as if it were the Antichrist [Endchrist]? Where is the figure fulfilled here?" (61) In this denunciation, we also hear an echo of Valla. We have already noted Valla's contention that the papacy sought the "whole West." The similarity between Luther and Valla on this point is more striking when one sees Valla's full text: "They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. So all these are yours, supreme pontiff? And it is your purpose to recover them all? To despoil all kings and princes of the West of their cities or compel them to pay you a yearly tribute, is that your plan?" (62)

Luther's quotation above comes in the middle of a long discussion about the duties and responsibilities of Aaron and the high priests of the Old Testament. Likewise, Valla contains a discussion on the role of the chief priests in ancient Israel. Using the first chief priest as his example, Valla sardonically asks, "Did Aaron and others of the tribe of Levi take care of anything except the tabernacle of the Lord?" (63) Luther seems to have such a question in mind when he writes, "Again, in the Old Testament the high priest was not allowed to own any part of the land of Israel, but instead lived just from the contributions of the people of Israel.... The old high priest was a subject ruled by kings. Why then does the pope allow his feet to be kissed, and why does he want to be king of all kings--something even Christ himself did not do?" (64) He would continue this line of argument in the later treatises of 1520: On the Babylonian Captivity, (65) To the Christian Nobility, (66) and The Freedom of a Christian. (67)

The connection between the papal Antichrist and Valla is also portrayed visually in Lucas Cranach's pamphlet Passional Christi unnd Antichristi. (68) The pamphlet was printed in May 1521 and reflects Luther's new understanding of the papacy. On thirteen paired woodcuts, Cranach the Elder dramatically depicts the difference between the passion of the true Christ and that of the papal Antichrist. Luther and Cranach designed the work and collaborated with Philipp Melanchthon and Johann Schwerdtfeger, who together wrote the Latin descriptions to accompany the pictures, while Luther wrote the German descriptions. (69) Allusions to Valla's work are abundant. In the first pairing, Christ flees those who would attempt to make him king (fig. 2). Cranach shows Jesus fleeing up the mountain and, in the accompanying text, uses the exact quotations from John 6:15 and 18:36 that Valla used: "For once when he learned that the people planned to take him and make him king, he fled to the solitude of the mountains." (70) By contrast, the Antichrist is prepared to defend his kingdom with cannon and infantry; the text quotes a decree by Pope Clement V (1264-1314; r. 1305-14) claiming that should the imperial throne ever fall vacant, the pope would automatically succeed to the crown. For Luther, the pope's claim to the vacant imperial throne was both absurd on its face and a confirmation of his role as the Man of Sin. (71)

In the second pairing, Christ is crowned with thorns and beaten by the authorities. At the same time, bishops crown the Antichrist with a tiara while other bishops kneel at his feet and bring him gifts: in the background, his army makes war (fig. 3). The accompanying text is significant because it refers specifically to the Donation of Constantine to support the position that the pope is the Antichrist: "The Emperor Constantine has given to us the imperial crown, ornaments, jewelry, the purple tunic, the [imperial] raiment, and the [imperial] scepter. Donation of Constantine. Such lies they invent to preserve their tyranny; against all history and records! It was not customary for the emperor to wear such a crown." (72) Valla's discussion of this event drips with sarcasm: "'Then the diadem'; and as though those present would not know, he interprets, 'that is, the crown.' He did not, indeed, here add 'of gold,' but later, emphasizing the same statements, he says, 'of purest gold and precious gems.' The ignorant fellow did not know that a diadem was made of coarse cloth or perhaps of silk.... This fellow does not imagine but that it is of gold, with a gold band and gems such as kings now usually add. But Constantine was not a king, nor would he have dared to call himself king, nor to adorn himself with royal ceremony. He was Emperor of the Romans, not king. 'And at the same time the tiara and also the shoulder-band, that is the strap that usually surrounds our imperial neck.' Who ever heard 'tiara' [phrygium] used in Latin? You talk like a barbarian and want it to seem to me to be a speech of Constantine's or of Lactantius'." (73)



Perhaps the most visually dramatic expression of the pope trying to supersede the emperor is the third pairing (fig. 4). The first picture portrays Jesus kissing the feet of the disciples after he washed them on the evening of the Last Supper. The Antichrist, in contrast, has princes and kings kneeling before him, kissing his feet. (74) The image of the pope's feet being kissed by princes is a reference to the Dictatus Papae (1075) of Pope Gregory, in which Gregory declares that princes were to kiss the feet of the pope. The image would have immediately brought to mind the most famous example of a prince being forced to kiss the foot of a pope: the humiliation of Frederick Barbarossa by Pope Alexander III. (75) As Barbarossa knelt to kiss the foot of the pope, he declared that he was paying homage to Peter and not Alexander. Alexander took the opportunity to step on the emperor's neck and quote Psalm 91: "You will walk over the asp and basilisk and trample the lion and the dragon." We now know that the story is apocryphal, but it was believed to be true in the sixteenth century and was quite well known among Germans. To them, the humiliation of not just an emperor, but a heroic German as well, confirmed their belief that the papacy was hostile to Germans and would abuse them at every opportunity. (76) This hostility is reinforced in the fifth pairing (fig. 5), which quotes the Glossa Ordinaria: "Thus says the Glossa, which is so very true of all fools, 'The harsher one is with German fools, the more they pay us.'" (77) Valla, of course, does not mention either humiliation because his king was in just as much competition with the Holy Roman Empire as he was with the papacy. That Luther uses this image, and not one from Valla, is not as significant as one might first think. For Valla, the papacy attempted to despoil Sicily, Naples, and other kingdoms. Luther has merely moved the major context of the discussion from Valla's Sicily and Naples to Germany. The actions of the papacy remain the same: the humiliation of rightful kings and the usurpation of their kingdoms. (78) For Luther, Valla's unmasking of the Donation forgery helped confirm a long-held suspicion among Germans that the papacy sought to despoil and overthrow the empire.



Most commonly, there are two types of evidence historians use to determine whether or not one individual was influenced by the work of another. The first is external evidence: does the later individual cite, or allude to, the earlier? On the other hand, internal evidence requires that the form and content of one work bear some resemblance, beyond that of mere happenstance, to another. In the case of Luther and Valla there are both types of evidence. In 1520, we know that Luther cited Valla's writings as a key factor leading him to believe the pope was the Antichrist. (79) This essay has also demonstrated the internal influence that Valla had on Luther in 1520. Just as important, however, is the knowledge that Valla's influence continued long after 1520. In 1537, Luther decided to publish an edition of the Donation. In this work Luther again praised Valla directly. (80) Further, Luther published his edition in German in an attempt to popularize the critiques first laid out by Valla. Though he put his own stamp on the document--throughout which he refers to the pope as the devil's rogue, the Antichrist (Endchrist), and other equally derogatory epithets--this cannot mask his dependence on Valla. For example, the Donation states that Constantine gave "supremacy over the four seats [patriarchal sees], Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth." (81) Of this supposed gift Valla writes, "How in the world--this is much more absurd, and impossible in the nature of things--could one speak of Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees, when it was not yet a patriarchate, nor a see, nor a Christian city, nor named Constantinople, nor founded, nor planned!" (82) Following Valla, Luther writes, "Another decree states, namely, that the patriarchal sees, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem shall be under the authority of the bishop of Rome. Such lies are articles of faith in the Holy Papal Church.... How can it speak of Constantinople, which was not yet even planned much less a patriarchal see? That I would have liked to have seen!" (83)


In the end, Hercules could not defeat the Cerberus alone. He had to travel to Eleusis and seek the help of the priest Eumolpus, who initiated Hercules into the Eleusinian Mysteries so that he might survive his battle with the hound of Hades. In a similar sense, Lorenzo Valla became Luther's Eumolpus. (84) As Luther read Valla's Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine, he became convinced that the papacy had neglected its true calling and had maliciously attempted to despoil the Roman Empire. From 1520 onward, Valla's critique of the papacy would help frame Luther's understanding of the pope as the Antichrist. As Luther wrote and worked against what he believed was his own hound of Hades, he adopted many of Valla's arguments and made them his own.



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*An early version of this paper was presented in the seminar on eschatology at the 2006 North American Forum for Luther Research. I am indebted to my seminar colleagues, Greg Miller, Russell Kleckley, and Austra Reinis. I would also like to thank the two anonymous RQ reviewers, Scott Hendrix, Carter Lindberg, and Larry Welborn for their helpful comments. For the Weimar Ausgabe edition of Luther's works (Luther, 1883-), I use the following standard abbreviations: WA for the writings in general; WADB for the Luther Bible (Deutsche Bibel); and WABr for the letters (briefe). For the St. Louis Luther's Works (Luther, 1955-86), I use LW.

(1) Hesiod, 28, 29 (book 1, line 310).

(2) Hendrix, 98; Oberman, 1989, 42.

(3) Cantor, 176. Cantor, of course, is not the only person to make this claim. There are literally hundreds of similar claims made about the Donation.

(4) See Backus, 36-39.

(5) Valla, 1519. A short publication run was done in 1517, then a more extensive run in 1519. It was later incorporated into Opera editions of Valla's works: see Valla, 1922, 3.

(6) See Valla, 1922, 30-47 (for Constantine), 49-62 (for Sylvester).

(7) Ibid., 33: "Now I ask, do they not seem of a base and most ignoble mind who suppose that Constantine gave away the better part of his empire? I say nothing of Rome, Italy, and the rest, but the Gauls where he had waged war in person, where for a long time he had been sole master, where he had laid the foundations of his empire? ... What incentive could there be so strong and urgent that he would ignore all this and choose to display such prodigality?"

(8) Ibid., 49-51.

(9) Ibid., 55.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid., 27.

(12) Ibid., 75: "And first, not only must I convict of dishonesty him who tried to play Gratian and added sections to the work of Gratian, but also must convict of ignorance those who think a copy of the deed of gift is contained in Gratian; for the well-informed have never thought so, nor is it found in any of the oldest copies of the Decretum. And if Gratian had mentioned it anywhere, he would have done so, not where they put it, breaking the thread of the narrative, but where he treats of the agreement of Louis [the Pious]. Besides, there are two thousand passages in the Decretum which forbid the acceptance of this passage; for example, that where the words of Melchiades, which I have cited above, are given. Some say that he who added this chapter [the Donation of Constantine] was called Palea, either because that was his real name or because what he added of his own, compared with Gratian, is as straw [palea] beside grain. However that may be, it is monstrous to believe that the compiler of the Decretum either did not know what was interpolated by this man, or esteemed it highly and held it for genuine. Good! It is enough! We have won! First, because Gratian does not say what they lyingly quote; and more especially because on the contrary, as can be seen in innumerable passages, he denies and disproves it; and last, because they bring forward only a single unknown individual, of not the least authority, so very stupid as to affix to Gratian what cannot be harmonized with his other statements."

(13) PE, 1:378 (On the Papacy at Rome [1520]); WA, 6:312. Luther uses the phrase schalckhafftige Knecht to describe the rogue; he uses the same adjective, schalckhafftiger, to describe the devil as well: for example, see WA, 32:491. Luther read Valla in February and wrote On the Papacy in early May; for a full chronology, see Hendrix, 95-96.

(14) Valla, 1922, 179, nicely sums up these two aspects of the papacy--avarice and negligence--in his conclusion to the Discourse: "The Pope both thirsts for the goods of others and drinks up his own: he is what Achilles calls Agamemnon, 'a people-devouring king.' The Pope not only enriches himself at the expense of the republic, as neither Verres nor Catiline nor any other embezzler dared to do, but he enriches himself at the expense of even the church and the Holy Spirit as old Simon Magus himself would abhor doing. And when he is reminded of this and is reproved by good people occasionally, he does not deny it, but openly admits it, and boasts that he is free to wrest from its occupants by any means whatever the patrimony given the church by Constantine; as though when it was recovered Christianity would be in an ideal state, and not rather the more oppressed by all kinds of crimes, extravagances and lusts; if indeed it can be oppressed more, and if there is any crime yet uncommitted!"

(15) Pelikan, 74.

(16) Chrysostom, 13:386: "Paul discusses the Antichrist ... but calls him the 'Son of Perdition' because he will be destroyed.... He will abolish all the gods and will order men to worship him instead of God."

(17) Stephanus, Giiiir (2 Thessalonians 2:3). There is a textual variant to this text, ho anthropos tes anomias, "the man of Lawlessness." Though this reading has since been determined to be the more authoritative, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, "the Man of Sin" was considered authoritative. Stephanus is one of the most important editions of the Greek New Testament because it is the first early modern Greek New Testament to incorporate a critical textual apparatus. Stephanus has the variant in a marginal note and connects it to manuscripts.

(18) Ibid. (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

(19) Emmerson, 83-95.

(20) McGinn, 81.

(21) For example, Procopius (d. ca. 562) used Antichrist motifs to describe Justinian in the sixth century CE: see ibid., 83-84.

(22) Hughes, 240.

(23) McGinn, 101.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Beno, 2:383: "Cui contrarius Hildebrandus aut membrum Antychristi fuit, aut ipse Antychristus."

(26) Joachim of Fiore, 168r; English translation in McGinn, 141-42. Joachim refers to 2 Thess. 2:4 at passage's end.

(27) Interestingly, Luther would publish a preface to a commentary on the Book of Revelation that he received in either 1527 or 1528. He believed that it originated among the Hussites. It was actually written in the 1380s or '90s by John Purvey, a colleague and close associate of Wycliffe. He published the commentary in order to prove that, "we are not the first to consider the pope the Antichrist." Luther does not mention Valla in his preface, but he does continue the two themes of neglect and avarice: see Luther, 1528, 2v.

(28) Roldan-Figueroa is excellent on the paratexts and introductions to 2 Thessalonians in the early modern era: I appreciate the opportunity to have seen a prepublication version of his article.

(29) WADB, 7:254 (Das Neue Testament 1522), translates the verse: "Last euch niemant verfuren ynn keynerley weyse, Denn er kompt nicht, es sey denn, das zuuor der abfall kome, vnd offinbart werde der mensch der sunden vnd das kind der verderbung."

(30) Bauer, s.v. apostasia; Kittel, s.v. apostasia. In classical Greek, the sense of apostasia as "revolt, rebellion" can be found, for example, in Polybius, 100, 101 (Histories, 5.41.6).

(31) Though this sense has largely died away, one can still find it being used in the early twentieth century: see, for example, Lauff,; also Grimm and Grimm, s.v. Abfall.

(32) Erasmus, 1986, K3r. Interestingly, Erasmus, 1522, Mm6v, reinforces his idea defectio in his 1522 paraphrase of the New Testament. There, instead of using the more literal phrase homo ille peccati to translate anthropos tas hamartias, he uses "homo ille scelerosus": this is not just the "Man of Sin," but the "wicked, wretched, deformed, and turning against man." Tacitus, 396, 397 (Annals 2.8) describes the revolt of the Angrivarii as "Angrivariorum defectio" (the Angrivarian uprising).

(33) Brecht, 46.

(34) Bugenhagen, 62r, continues this line of thinking with a marginal notation identifying the one who will lead this defection: "In regnu Papae"; see also Oecolampadius, 40v.

(35) WADB, 7:252: "In the second chapter [lit., 'in the next'], he [Paul] teaches that before the Day of Judgment [i.e., the Apocalypse], the Roman Empire must be brought down. The Antichrist will raise himself up in Christendom in the place of God and with false doctrines and signs seduce the unbelieving world; until Christ shall come and destroy him by his glorious return, slaying him with spiritual preaching."

(36) Grimm and Grimm, s.v. Tag (14., der jungste tag). For a discussion of Luther's apocalypticism, see Barnes.

(37) In the American edition of Luther's Works (LW 35:387), the phrase is translated, "the Roman Empire must first pass away." This construction, though elegant, does not completely capture Luther's thinking in this regard. Must first pass away implies a sense in which the empire simply ceases to exist. The verb construction mus untergehen literally means "must go down," "must go under," or "must sink," but implies a destructive end.

(38) See, for example, Tertullian, 32 (Apology): "For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth--in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes--is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman Empire."

(39) WA, 10/3:18; LW, 51:77 ("Second Sermon after Invocavit," 22 May 1522): "In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself for an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything."

(40) Luther, WADB, 7:252.

(41) In fact, in his entire corpus, Luther uses Endchrist (213 instances) more than three times as often as Widerchrist (62).

(42) Oberman, 1988, 440.

(43) In 1541, Luther created a chronology of world history, the Supputatio annorum mundi, which has two columns divided by a yearly calendar down the middle. In each column, Luther marks significant events. In the year 1000, Luther writes, "The Millennium of Salvation is over. The Millennium of the Satan is unleashed: the Bishop of Rome is the Antichrist, likewise it is a time of the Sword": WA, 53:152, col. 1. Beginning with Gregory VII, Luther inverts the names of popes he believed were acting as the Antichrist. They are the only names that he presents upside-down, and they visually reinforce Luther's position that the papacy had turned its calling on its head. For Hildebrand he writes, "Hellbrand, the larva of the devil, also called Gregory VII, is the Monster of Monsters, the very first Man of Sin and Son of Perdition": WA, 53:154, col. 1.

(44) LW, 34:328; WA, 54:179.

(45) Lindberg, 1972, argues that Luther's understanding of papal authority was clarified by Prierias and that Prierias played a significant role in Luther's developing thought regarding the papal Antichrist.

(46) WABr, 1:270.

(47) LW, 48:111; WABr, 2:48-49.

(48) See Grane, 21.

(49) LW, 48:151; WABr, 2:41-42.

(50) Hendrix, 93. Hus does contain a description of four signs for an erring pope; though a pope who stubbornly persisted in these errors could be considered the Antichrist, Hus never made this claim. For a discussion of Hus, see Leff, 662-707.

(51) See Preuss, 111-14.

(52) McGinn, 203.

(53) Deutsche Reichstagsakten, 1:865-76; see the English translation in Hillerbrand, 87: "We will also see to it and in no way allow that henceforth anybody, or high or low estate, elector, ruler, or otherwise, is without cause and without having been heard declared an outlaw. In all such cases a regular proceeding according to the statutes of the Holy Roman Empire is to be held and administered."

(54) Charles, in fact, guaranteed Erasmus a life pension: see Erasmus, 1992, 58-59 (epistle 1380). This epistle clarifies Charles's intention. Luther's and Erasmus's mutual appreciation continued into 1520: for example, in November 1520, while the imperial court met in Cologne, Erasmus met with Frederick the Wise. This meeting led to the publication of Erasmus, 1993, the Axiomata Erasmi Roterodami pro causa Martini Lutheri.

(55) For example, the papacy sought the election of Francis I of France over Charles. In early 1519, the curia reversed its earlier position demanding the immediate arrest and transport of Luther to Rome. In an attempt to swing Frederick to their side, they dispatched an envoy with a famous gold rose and a modified response to Luther: rather than his arrest, Luther would be allowed to meet with the papal envoy in Augsburg. The original letter to Cardinal Cajetan demanding Luther's arrest (23 August 1518) and the revised letter of 11 September 1518 are discussed in WA, 2:23-25; LW, 31:286-89.

(56) LW, 48:177; WABr, 2:175-76 (Letter to Emperor Charles V, 30 August 1520): "I come, helpless and poor; as the most worthless of men, I am prostrate before the feet of Your Most Serene Majesty, yet I bring forward a most worthy cause.... Humbly and on my knees, therefore, I beseech Your Most Serene Majesty, Charles, foremost of kings on earth, to deign to take under the shadow of your wings not me but this very cause of truth, since it is only by this truth that authority is given you to carry the sword for the punishment of the evil and for the praise of the good."

(57) Hendrix, 98.

(58) WABr, 2:48.

(59) WA, 6:280. During this same time, Luther would also publish a foreword to Sylvester Prierias's anti-Luther tract, Epitoma responsionis ad Martinum Luther, in order to refute it. Where earlier responses to Prierias attacked his reasoning and his distortions of Luther's writings, now, in this preface (WA, 6:328), Luther connects Prierias's understanding of papal power with the papal Antichrist (the word Antichrist does not appear in any of the previous writings between Prierias and Luther): "Quid est Antichristius, si talis Papa non est Antichristus?" (Who is the Antichrist, if such a pope is not the Antichrist?).

(60) Luther received the bull, Exsurge Domine, on 10 October 1520. His responses to the banning continue the Antichrist polemic. He began work on the first, Adversus execrabilem Antichristi bullam (WA, 6:595-612), on 4 November 1520; it was published on 1 December. Luther expanded this tract and translated it into German later in the month, Widder die Bullen des Antichrists: WA, 6:614-29.

(61) LW, 39:84; WA, 6:308 (On the Papacy in Rome: Against the Most Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig, May 1520). Translation altered.

(62) Valla, 1922, 27.

(63) Ibid., 53.

(64) LW, 39:84; WA, 6:308 (On the Papacy in Rome [May 1520]). translation altered.

(65) WA, 6:537; LW, 36:72: "[T]he papacy is truly the kingdom of Babylon and of the very Antichrist. For who is 'the Man of Sin' and 'the Son of Perdition' but he who with his doctrines and his laws increases the sins and perdition of souls in the church, while sitting in the church as if he were God? [2 Thess. 2:4]."

(66) WA, 6:429; LW, 44:193: "There sits the man of whom St. Paul said, 'He shall exalt himself above you, sit in your church, and set himself up as God, that Man of Sin, the Son of Perdition.'"

(67) WA, 7:49; LW, 31:375: "By these snares numberless souls have been dragged down to hell, so that you might see in this the work of Antichrist."

(68) For discussion of the Passional, see Fleming; Oelke.

(69) All references and quotations come from the German edition.

(70) Valla, 1922, 55.

(71) See LW, 44:165-66; WA, 6:434 (To the Christian Nobility, 1520). The text of Clement's proclamation is found in Clementinarum, lib. ii, tit. XI, C. II. CIC 2, cols. 1151-58 (LW, 44:165, n. 132).

(72) Luther and Cranach the Elder, Aiiir. The text refers to Valla, 1922, 14-16: "And to our Father, the Blessed Sylvester, supreme Pontiff and Pope universal, of the city of Rome, and to all the Pontiffs, his successors, who shall sit in the seat of the Blessed Peter even unto the end of the world, we by this present do give our imperial Lateran palace, then the diadem, that is, the crown of our head, and at the same time the tiara and also the shoulder-band, that is, the strap that usually surrounds our imperial neck; and also the purple mantle and scarlet tunic, and all the imperial raiment; and also the same rank as those presiding over the imperial cavalry, conferring also even the imperial scepters, and at the same time all the standards, and banners, and the different ornaments, and all the pomp of our imperial eminence, and the glory of our power."

(73) Valla, 1922, 105-07.

(74) Similar images of Christ washing the feet of the disciples and of the Antichrist being kissed on the feet were produced by Hussites in the fifteenth century. Whether Luther saw them is not known: see Preuss, 68. The images are reproduced on unnumbered pages at the end of the book.

(75) This connection was reinforced in 1545 in Robert Barnes's anti-papal tract, prefaced by Martin Luther. In a woodcut created for the tract, Barbarossa wears the same crown as the prince kissing the feet of the pope in the Cranach pamphlet.

(76) Stadtwald.

(77) Luther and Cranach the Elder, Biir.

(78) Luther knew, of course, that Valla's main concern was Sicily and Naples. In LW, 44:166 (To the Christian Nobility), while discussing the "impossible lie" of the Donation of Constantine, Luther writes, "The pope should restrain himself, take his fingers out of the pie, and claim no title to the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. He has exactly as much right to that kingdom as I have, and yet he wants to be its overlord. It is property gotten by robbery and violence, like almost all his other possessions."

(79) See n. 52 above.

(80) See WA, 50:73 (Einer aus den hohen Artikeln des Allerheiligesten Bepstlichen glaubens genant Donatio Constantini, 1537): "This is from that learned and accurate man, Lorenzo Valla."

(81) Valla, 1922, 13.

(82) Ibid., 95.

(83) WA, 50:84 (Einer aus den hohen Artikeln).

(84) In 1521, Luther received a pamphlet from Ulrichus Velenus, in which Velenus uses Cerberus as an illustration to argue that the pope was the Antichrist. Velenus suggests that Valla cut off Cerberus's first head, Luther the second, and now he himself has come to lop off the last head. Luther was not convinced by Velenus's argument regarding the pope as Antichrist. It is interesting, however, to note that in Luther's 1537 edition of the Donation (WA, 50:69-89) he refers to the Roman devil and his hellhound ("der Romische Teufel und seine Hellhunde," ibid., 73).
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Author:Whitford, David M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Author abstract
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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