The Young Pope: 9 paintings from the series deciphered

“The Young Pope” (frame from the series)

The Young Pope series by Paolo Sorrentino is one of the most incredible TV movies ever filmed. It is a masterpiece. It combines the beauty, and the deep message, and the creator’s mastery.

The main character Pope Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo) is an extremely controversial person.

He smokes like a chimney. Drinks Diet Coke. Sends persona non grata in exile to Alaska. Does not want to make public appearance. At first, he even seems to be a sociopath.

But no. After all, he does miracles. Shows unprecedented piety. That makes even the hardest boiled Vatican intriguers to fall on their knees.

However, the series is also interesting due to intriguing selection of paintings. These are a series of canvases the Pope passes in the credits.

It is obviously that each of them appears in the movie not for nothing. I will try to decipher, why Sorrentino demonstrates them to us.

1. Honthorst. Adoration of the Shepherds. 1606

 Honthorst. Adoration of the Shepherds
Gerrit Van Honthorst. Adoration of the Shepherds. 1606. The Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The first painting of the series, the newly-elected Pope passes by, is Adoration of the Shepherds by Honthorst.

It announces that the God’s son came into the world. But what it has to do with Lenny Belardo?

The series repeatedly tell us that Pius XIII is a saint. His teacher sister Mary believes that he is Jesus Christ, because he does miracles.

A childless woman got pregnant. A dying woman was healed in an instant. And all these is due to miraculous prayers of Pope Pius XIII. By the end of the series, almost everyone believes in his sainthood.

However, it is not clear why the director chooses the work by Honthorst out of thousands of paintings dedicated to the adoration of the shepherds. Moreover, not the most famous one.

To my mind, it has something to do with the tragic history of the painting. It was housed in Florence in the Uffizi Gallery. Once, a bomb exploded in a car parked next to the gallery wall.

The painting was almost destroyed. It couldn’t be restored completely. Perhaps, this story has something in common with Lenny’s life.

When he was 9, his parents left him at a monastery shelter. Forever. For a child, it’s a mental trauma that cannot be healed. Even being 47, he keeps suffering and doesn’t lose hope to find parents.

2. Perugino. Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter. 1482.

Perugino. Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter
Perugino. Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter. 1482. A fresco at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

The second painting we see in the credits is a reproduction of the fresco by Perugino (the Raphael’s teacher).

Christ gives the keys to heaven to his disciple, thus, giving him the right to decide whom he can give absolution and who doesn’t deserve it. Who can be admitted to Paradise, and who can’t.

In the second episode, Pius XIII speaks in front of believers for the first time. And laments, since believers decided that it’s easy to get to paradise.

Now, he is not going to give absolution upon first request. From now on, people will have to do their best to get to Paradise. Because now he has the keys.

Besides giving the keys, the painting contains the scene of “Stoning of Christ”. Lenny has gone through his own “stoning” as well. But it was a modern one.

Do you remember feminists lined up in the pope’s garden with “Bastard” inscription on the naked bodies?

In the distance, on the left side of the painting we can also see a Biblical story about Caesar’s denarius.

The famous response of Christ – give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s – for two thousand years has been treated as a symbol of division of spiritual and secular power.

In one of the episodes, we can see a wonderful scene related to this topic. When Pius XIII meets with the Italian Prime Minister. And of course, they compare decisiveness of their powers. The Pope wins the dispute.

As you might remember, he had a brilliant game changer, against which the prime minister had nothing to put up. And had to retreat in astonishment. Just like the Pharisee from the Biblical story after hearing Christ’s words.

3. Caravaggio. The Conversion of Saul. 1600.

Caravaggio. The Conversion of Saul
Caravaggio. The Conversion of Saul. 1600. The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

The third painting in the credits is “The Conversion of Saul” by Caravaggio. Saul opposed Christianity. But one day, when he was riding a horse, God addressed him. Being stunned, Saul fell from his horse.

God ordered him to stop persecuting Christians. After that, Saul believed in God and later became known as St. Paul.

At the beginning of the series, Lenny admits that sometimes he doubts that God exists. He is going through a faith crisis. He is searching for God again. Perhaps, he expects the same direct message as Saul once got.

4. Fresco “The First Council of Nicaea”. 14th century.

The First Council of Nicaea the fresco
The First Council of Nicaea. 14th century. A fresco in Megala Meteora monastery, Greece.

The fourth painting is a reproduction of a fresco from a Greek monastery, dedicated to the First Council of Nicaea.

It was held in the 4th century. It was the event that laid the basic canons of Christianity, according to which clergymen live up to now.

For example, it was also decided during this council when Easter should be celebrated.

Of course, we see this picture not without a reason. Its appearance is related to Popolo Tonino – a shepherd with stigmata. Do you remember him coming home. Turning around. And seeing the Pope, surrounded by cardinals, sitting in his kitchen.

They came to judge heresy pronounced by the pseudo prophet. Who also dares to call his sheep Madonna. The same way, on the fresco the first Council of Nicaea defined what is heresy (the heretic is at their feet).

Unfortunately, Sorrentino hasn’t shown what happened to Tonino after he met the Pope. We look forward to seeing it in the next season.

5. Francesco Hayez. Peter the Hermit

Francesco Hayez. Peter the Hermit
Francesco Hayez. Peter the Hermit. 1820. Private collection.

In the series, Pius XIII tells a preacher that he wants to start a revolution.

But instead of making a breakthrough to the future, he wants on the contrary to return to the former traditions. To the former glory of the church, when its power was almost boundless.

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And who was one of the most ardent revolutionaries in the history of Catholicism? Of course, Peter the Hermit. He even provoked a Crusade. Thanks to him, the Catholic Church became even more powerful than ever before.

Thus, it is no coincidence that we see the painting about this ardent Catholic.

6. Gentile da Fabriano, St. Francis Receiving Stigmata. 1419.

Gentile da Fabriano, St. Francis Receiving Stigmata
Gentile da Fabriano, St. Francis Receiving Stigmata. 1419. Magnani-Rocca Foundation, Parma, Italy.

Next, we see the painting by Fabriano “St. Francis”. Perhaps, this is an explicit reference to the current Pope Francis.

After all, the Pope from the series in many ways resembles the real Pope. First of all, he is extremely conservative. The current Pope strongly opposes both abortion and gay lobby as well.

7. Mateo Cerezo Jr., St. Thomas of Villanueva

Mateo Cerezo Jr., St. Thomas of Villanueva
Mateo Cerezo Jr., St. Thomas of Villanueva. 1660. Louvre, Paris.

Then, we see a painting depicting St. Thomas, who was famous for his eagerness to dispense charity.
It is not very clear, why we see this image.

In the series, there are no many motifs devoted to charity. Perhaps, it is related to the tiara, which we see in the very centre of the painting.

Do you remember that in the first place, Pius XIII ordered the return the papal tiara from the National Gallery in Washington?

8. Domenico Cresti. Michelangelo Presenting the Model of St. Peter’s to Pope Pius IV. 1618.

Domenico Cresti. Michelangelo Presenting the Model of St. Peter’s to Pope Pius IV
Domenico Cresti. Michelangelo Presenting the Model of St. Peter’s to Pope Pius IV. 1618. Villa Buanorotti, Florence, Italy.

Pope Pius IV was a benevolent person. Unlike his tough and proud predecessor Paul IV.

However, after coming to power, he turned into a completely different man. Thus, he cruelly disposed of the cardinals, who were appointees of the previous Pope. One of them was even suffocated, although he voted for Pius IV at the Conclave.

Cardinals also voted for Lenny Belardo, thinking that he would be easily to control. But their expectations were clearly missed. The state secretary was nearly fired. Another cardinal was sent into exile to Alaska.

9. Francois Dubois. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew. 1572.

Francois Dubois. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew
Francois Dubois. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew. 1572. The Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne, Switzerland.

St. Bartholomew’s Night is one of the most terrible episodes in the history of Catholicism. The night, when massacres were committed in the name of God.

What is it? A precaution to the Pope that the ends not always justify the means? That his revolutionary attitude will end badly? Perhaps, we will find it out in next season.


What is a general meaning of the paintings in the credits?

When the Pope is passing the paintings, a meteorite is following him. It is flying through the canvases. On its way, it sets a chaplet of an angel next to St.Thomas on fire. Burns an umbrella of Pius IV. And then, houses in the painting “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew” start burning as well.

Then, the meteorite breaks free into space outside the paintings. And crashes into Pope John Paul II. He falls down. As a result, we can see the scandalous work by Cattelan “The 9th Hour”.

Maurizzio Cattalani. The 9th hour
Maurizzio Cattalani. The 9th hour. 1999.

The old-aged Pope John Paul II dolefully performed his duties until he died. Cattelan shows that the meteorite “mercifully” stops his torments.

The same way as the torment of Christ was stopped by God the Father after 9 hours.

So, it is likely that the director’s idea is that Pius XIII personifies this meteorite, which will put an end to the old principles of the church. The church that was already dying of old age. The fact that the cardinals admitted in the movie.

He is a young Pope. He came to replace the old Popes. Like a deafening meteorite effect. After all, no one usually expects that a meteorite will fall…


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “The Young Pope: 9 paintings from the series deciphered”

    1. You mean a baby crawling over a pile of other babies in the beginning? this scene was created based on the biblical story “The Massacre of the Babies”

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