The same week Thomas Jefferson was solidified as the third president of the fledgling United States of America, General Napoleon Bonaparte deemed himself Emperor Napoleon I in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Before there were official photographers, important moments were captured in paintings. Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s official painter, chronicled the coronation ceremony in his oil on canvas painting, “The Coronation of Napoleon.” In it, Napoleon is depicted hoisting the gold crown over the kneeling new empress, his wife, Josephine. Behind Napoleon, a bemused Pope Pius VII observes the absurdist pageantry.
The rule of Napoleon would last another ten years. And within five years, that same pope, Pius VII, would become Napoleon’s prisoner. His Holiness was captured from the Vatican and taken over the Alps into lands then hostile to the spiritual and temporal influence of Catholicism.
It’s a history few Catholics are aware of today. While the French Enlightenment is often viewed as a catalyst that propelled secularism to undermine the truths of Catholicism, the age of Napoleon—a direct result of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Cult of Reason—and his intention to completely ruin the primacy of the Church and the Chair of St. Peter failed because of the very resilience of the Vicar of Christ himself, the pope. We can thank the papacy for preserving Catholicism in one of the West’s darkest hours.
Actually, we can thank two popes—both of whom in their own way stymied Napoleon’s ruthless quest for glory. Pius VI (1775-1799) and Pius VII (1800-1823) not only defied Napoleon but also guided the Church for a combined forty-seven years. They both endured imprisonment, temptations to acquiesce, and other challenges during the Napoleonic era when the pope was still temporal ruler of the Papal States. Pius VI, for example, refusing to surrender his temporal authority to Napoleonic forces, was taken prisoner to northern Italy, where he died a few months later.
At this point, Catholicism was effectively outlawed in France as a result of the 1789 French Revolution. The Cult of Reason, a civic religion that essentially deified man over God, turned Notre Dame Cathedral into a temple for the Cult of the Supreme Being. Led by Robespierre, the ensuing two-year Reign of Terror saw an explosion of de-Christianization and anti-clerical violence around the whole of France. The church in France was effectively sliced in half—one loyal to Rome, the other bowing to the wishes of the state by means of a required oath from bishops and priests. Church property was appropriated, divorce was legalized, and, it goes without mention, the Catholic monarchy was abolished—Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were sent to the guillotine in 1793.
While Napoleon eventually outlawed the Cult of Reason and Cult of the Supreme Being after his rise to power, he only appeared to be friendly to the Catholic Church—a political strategy still employed by politicians today. In actuality, Napoleon knew total conquest could not be achieved without vanquishing the authority of Holy Mother Church. What the military genius and power hungry emperor did not expect was that the successor to Pius VI would prove to be so formidable a foe.
“[A]lmost unnoticed, there slid slowly down the canal a gondola bearing the Cardinal Chiaramonti,” writes E.E.Y. Hales in the book The Story of Napoleon and Pius VII, describing the arrival of the future Pius VII onto the Venetian island San Giorgio Maggiore for the 1799-1800 conclave. Due to Rome being occupied by French forces, the surviving College of Cardinals had to meet clandestinely for the conclave in the monastery of San Giorgio. Cardinal Chiaramonti, the current Archbishop of Imola, was a Benedictine monk who yearned for the cloistered life.
Was he aware his destiny was to become a modern day Saint Peter in chains? The significance of the Carpaccio painting looming in the monastery did not go unnoticed by Chiaramonti: the depiction of Saint George, on horseback, amid a wasteland of skulls and bodies, slaying the dragon; a woman figure not unlike the Blessed Mother, in a prayerful pose behind the warrior saint. By choosing the name “Pius VII,” indicating a spiritual link to his predecessor arrested by Napoleon, it appears this mild-mannered monk was indeed preparing for spiritual combat with the worldly forces seeking to crush the lone divinely-ordained office on earth.
Upon his election, the new Pius VII was crowned with a papier-mâché tiara donated by local Venetian women.
Napoleon recognized the election of the new pope and Pius was allowed to return to Rome. A concordant was signed. A few years later, Pius would journey to Paris to oversee the infamous coronation of Napoleon as emperor. But if there appeared to be a détente between Napoleon and the Roman Church, tensions would escalate by 1809. Napoleon, as “King of Italy,” having controlled nearly all of Italy except for Rome, wanted the Papal States. Pius refused. He simply could not surrender Rome. Napoleonic forces surrounded the Vatican, including occupation of Castel Sant’Angelo, its cannon pointed directly towards the pope’s living quarters.
Early on July 6, 1809, Pope Pius VII extinguished his light at 2AM. It was then the French invaded the apostolic palace. The pope was now a prisoner to Napoleon, but not before Pius excommunicated Napoleon. The French general in charge of the raid, Radet, later lamented: “[W]hen I saw the pope, I saw myself once more at my first Communion.” It is a strange consistency of history how some of the most vitriolic anti-Catholic regimes are largely made up of fallen away Catholics.
Initially, Pope Pius was transferred to Savona off the Riviera coast near Genoa. For a time, he was allowed to hold audiences and give blessings; there have even been documentations of healings that occurred attributed to Pius’ prayers. By now, the excommunicated Napoleon, having divorced Josephine, married Austrian archduchess Mary Louise. Napoleon invited Pius’s formidable secretary of state, Cardinal Consalvi, and other cardinals to the wedding. They refused. Napoleon thus banished them to different parts of the French realm, labeling them the “black cardinals.” All of this only fortified Pius’s intent to stand firm. Suspicious the British might plan a papal rescue, Napoleon ordered Pius undertake an arduous journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers over the Alps to Fontainebleau, just south of Paris. The pope became very ill along the way. “May God pardon him since, for my part, I have already pardoned him!” he is said to have pleaded at this time.
But, good Catholic that he was, Pope Pius knew the graces of patience and fortitude—particularly when it involves the whim of politics and power. Things for Napoleon were beginning to crumble. Having decided to invade Russia, he found himself unable to conquer it. The Russians knew well Napoleon’s mistreatment of the Pope, referring to the ruthless emperor as “Napoleon the excommunicate” and his French troops were labeled “heretics.” His retreat from Moscow was a moral and military humiliation for the proud emperor. He returned to France, in the pope’s presence at Fontainebleau, to lick his wounds and plot his next move, but even Napoleon could not escape the reality he was on the defensive, a gnawing realization he himself was the victim of his own pride.
Soon, Russian, Swiss, Austrian, and Prussian forces would be heading his way. The subsequent Battle of Leipzig, the largest European battle before World War I, was also Napoleon’s first decisive defeat. Within a year, Russian forces entered Paris. The Napoleonic Age had come to a whimpering end. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, and the resilient Pope Pius VII was allowed to return to Rome. Though Napoleon would mount his “100 Days” comeback, his defeat was secured, and he died in exile at St. Helena’s in 1821.
Speaking to members of the Benedictine order 200 years after a Benedictine monk became the pope who defied an emperor, Pope Saint John Paul II noted how devoted, even in imprisonment, Pius was to the Blessed Mother, describing how in his journeys, first from Venice to Rome and then later from France to Rome, Pius would stop and venerate Marian shrines. Perhaps the lingering image of St. George slaying the dragon remained with Pope Pius during his tribulations. “He shed light on how persecution and misunderstanding were not new to Vicars of Christ,” the Polish pope related. “At the same time, he urged Christians to persevere courageously in the midst of adversities, trusting in God and staying firm in their Gospel witness. He well knew what the mission of the Successor of Peter is: to strengthen his brethren in the faith [cf. Lk 22:32].”
Visiting the first location of Pius’s imprisonment, Savona, Benedict XVI in 2008 recalled his predecessor’s trials at the hands of Napoleon: “[T]hat dark page of Europe’s history has become rich in graces and teachings for our day too. It teaches us courage in facing the challenges of the world: materialism, relativism, secularism without ever yielding to compromises, ready to pay in person while remaining faithful to the Lord and his Church. The example of serene firmness set by Pope Pius VII invites us to keep our trust in God unaltered in trials, aware that although he permits the Church to experience difficult moments, He never abandons us.”