A tale of two whores: Dante, Luther and the Pope

I am preparing an introductory talk on Dante’s radicalism and I thought I would seize on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to offer a brief reflection on one of the hot issues in both Dante’s work and Luther’s ministry: the Papacy as the whore of Babylon, the prostitute enslaving the Church.

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Luther’s vituperation against the papacy is well-known. His critique developed over time, in stages, as Scott Hendrix noted, and found its best expression in the pamphlet The Babylonian Captivity of the Church published in 1520. Luther wrote:

But after hearing and reading the super-subtle subtleties of those coxcombs [i.e. Eccius, Emser and their followers], by which they so ingeniously set up their idol—my mind being not entirely unteachable in such matters—I now know and am sure that the Papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter.

(Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, trans. J. J. Schindel and C. M. Jacobs, intro. Albert T. W. Steinhaeuser, in vol. 2 of Works of Martin Luther with Introductions and Notes, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915), p. 179.)

In the New Testament book of Revelation, the whore of Babylon is a figure associated with the Antichrist: “Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters.” (Rev 17:1). A popular image in medieval apocalyptic writings as well as in the popular imagination, the Whore becomes, in Luther’s polemical works, synonymous with the papacy. Engravings in various early editions of the Luther Bible show the whore wearing the papal tiara, as in the above image.

More than 200 years earlier, the poet Dante Alighieri had expressed a similar, almost identical idea. Towards the end of Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy, after the pilgrim’s ascent to the top of the mountain and into the locus amoenus of the Earthly Paradise, Dante offers us a performance of God’s providential history and a mise-en-scène of ‘Apocalypse Now‘ as a cinematic procession: the Book of Revelation‘s whore of Babylon is sitting in a chariot surrounded by the beasts of the Apocalypse:

Just like a fortress set on a steep slope,
securely seated there, ungirt, a whore [puttana],
whose eyes were quick to rove, appeared to me;
and I saw at her side, erect, a giant,
who seemed to serve as her custodian;
and they—again, again—embraced each other.

(Purgatorio 32.148-50)

The strong allusion to the papacy was clear to most early readers of the Comedy. Earlier in Purgatorio, Rome was depicted as a widow, the papacy as a prostitute, and Italy as a whorehouse (6.76-90).

Nevertheless, the force of Dante’s condemnation was quickly weakened by a subsequent commentary tradition that emphasised the allegorical and biblical character of the imagery. It was not uncommon for the papal puttana to be scaled down to an embodiment of sin, as in the Holkham manuscript illustration above. In a sense, it was the early Lutherans who ‘recovered’ the radicalism of this idea and used as a weapon against their Catholic adversaries.

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