Portrait of Leo X
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Arty Fact

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Trying to be the life of the party and the head of a religion lead to a controversial tenure for Pope Leo X.

His love of excess and easy-going nature didn’t win him many friends, it just racked up an immense debt for the next Pope to deal with. Turns out that Catholics wanted words of wisdom from the head of their religion instead of being told to simply eat, drink, and be merry.

Depending on who you ask, Pope Leo X’s remarks upon taking office were either telling of his positive character or completely hedonistic. Simply put, God gave him the office of Pope so he intended to enjoy it. It’s unsurprising that a statement such as this would immediately divide the public opinion’s of him. Maybe some were initially fond of having an easy-going Pope but others felt a non-serious man didn’t merit such a coveted office.

Significant amount of debt aside, his legacy is still rather mixed. He is credited with dividing the Christian religion, but he was a great patron of the arts. He was a fan of Raphael, who he commissioned this portrait from. (Not so much Michelangelo; he was choosy with his ninja turtle namesakes.)

At the time this composition was completed it was viewed as unusual due to Pope Leo X’s inclusion of two cardinals in the frame. Portraits at the time, especially for someone in a high seat of power like the papacy, typically didn’t include extras.

One of the cardinals went on to become Pope Clement VII and left behind an arguably more infamous legacy. They had some similarities as both of their tenures were marred by controversial decision making, inadvertently causing the Protestant religion to grow, and they were both fans of Raphael.

In Pope Clement VII’s defense though, he had the misfortune of dealing with a certain unpleasant king known for separating from his wives or separating them from their heads. When said king asked for an annulment after a decade of marriage, Pope Clement VII wasn’t really having any of his crap. King Henry VIII then famously went on to make a new church and change religions to get a divorce.

Pope Leo X on the other hand, had Martin Luther as a contemporary and he greatly underestimated him. He was more focused on hosting lavish banquets and commissioning art than trying to combat a man spearheading a new sect of Christianity. For this reason Pope Leo X’s laissez-faire reign is credited with causing the Protestant Reformation.

This portrait, praised for its realism, is an accurate depiction of Pope Leo X as it shows his love of excess through his fine, expensive clothing and his full figure. But, this is only a portrayal of who he appeared to be at first glance, at least according to those that encountered him during his tenure. He was characterized as being unpleasant to look at, prone to excessive sweating and repeatedly wiping off his forehead with his hand while addressing crowds and then shaking their hands.

All of that supposedly faded away when he began to speak. He was said to have such a charismatic and powerful presence through his words that those around him would forget about their initial impression of disgust from his sweaty handshake. Unfortunately, unless this painting chooses to literally speak to us, there is no way for modern audiences to see this side of Pope Leo X.



  1. Doak, Robin S. Pope Leo X: Opponent of the Reformation. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2006.
  2. Löffler, Klemens. "Pope Leo X." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed March 25, 2019.
  3. Thurston, Herbert. "Pope Clement VII." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed March 25, 2019.
  4. Zappella, Christine. "Raphael, Pope Leo X." Khan Academy. Accessed March 25, 2019. rome/high-renaissance1/a/raphael-pope-leo-x.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Portrait of Leo X (Raphael)

The Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance master Raphael, c. 1517. It is housed in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.

In contrast to works depicting classical, idealised Madonnas and figures from antiquity, this portrait shows the sitter in a realistic manner. The Pope is depicted with the weight of late middle age, while his sight appears to be strained. The painting sets up a series of visual contradictions between appearance and reality, intended by Raphael to reflect the unrest of a period of turmoil for the papacy. Martin Luther had recently challenged papal authority, listing among other grievances, Leo X's method of selling indulgences to fund work on St Peter's.

The pommel on top of the Pope's chair evokes the symbolic abacus balls of the Medici family, while the illuminated Bible open on the table has been identified as the Hamilton Bible.

The cardinal to the left of the painting is surely identified as Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici (the future Pope Clement VII) while the other cardinal is usually identified as Luigi de' Rossi, who was a maternal cousin to both the other two portrayed.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Portrait of Leo X (Raphael).