Pope Pius VII, prisoner of Emperor Napoleon

Pope Pius VII, prisoner of Emperor Napoleon

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  • Pius VII refusing to sign the Concordat, January 25, 1813.


  • Return of Pius VII to Rome.


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Title: Pius VII refusing to sign the Concordat, January 25, 1813.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown: January 25, 1813

Dimensions: Height 18.4 - Width 12.2

Technique and other indications: Etching.

Storage place: National Museum of the Château de Fontainebleau website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot website

Picture reference: 07-529793 / N2352

Pius VII refusing to sign the Concordat, January 25, 1813.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

To close

Title: Return of Pius VII to Rome.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown: May 24, 1814

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Lithography.

Storage place: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot website

Picture reference: 04-509139 / 50.39.725D

Return of Pius VII to Rome.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: February 2009

Historical context

By agreeing to ratify, on August 15, 1801, the Concordat concluded between Rome and the French government, Pope Pius VII embarked on the path of a relative normalization of relations between the Holy See and the French Republic. These articles stipulate in particular that “the popes cannot depose sovereigns nor release their subjects from their obligation of fidelity, that the decisions of ecumenical councils take precedence over pontifical decisions, that the Pope must respect national practices, that he does not finally dispose of of no infallibility. "Thus Gallicanism is partly restored, but the Holy Father cannot accept the subordination of the Church of France to the State.

It was in an attempt to obtain the repeal of the Organic Articles that the Pope agreed to come and consecrate Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor of the French at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804, but he returned to Rome unsuccessfully. The Emperor wants to include the Papal States in his continental system directed against England: “Your Holiness is sovereign of Rome, but I am the Emperor; all my enemies must be his ”, he wrote to the Pope on February 13, 1806. Imperial repression was not long in coming and went crescendo: the States of the Church were soon reduced to the patrimony of Saint-Pierre (1806-1808 ); Rome is occupied militarily (February 2, 1808); the Papal States are annexed to the Empire (May 17, 1809); the Pope is kidnapped by General Radet on the night of July 5 to 6, 1809. Napoleon then plans to fix the seat of the papacy in France, Avignon or Paris.

Image Analysis

The two works proposed clearly belong to the register of Catholic propaganda. They highlight the inflexibility of Pius VII in the face of the demands of the Emperor Napoleon I and the final triumph of the sovereign pontiff.

The first image is a German engraving which represents Pius VII prisoner of Napoleon at the castle of Fontainebleau and refusing to sign the Concordat, known as Fontainebleau, January 25, 1813. The Pope is seated under a canopy, his left arm resting on a table which supports a Christ on the cross, a religious image, a writing desk and the text of the Concordat. In front of him, the Emperor is standing, in uniform, wearing the famous cocked hat. He stretches out his left arm towards the Holy Father, in an extremely imperious and authoritarian attitude. Between the two sovereigns, a prelate - perhaps Cardinal Pacca - serves as an intermediary. In the corridor leading to the Pope's apartments, a grenadier stands guard. The historical truth is not fully respected since, after several days of resistance, Pius VII precisely agreed to sign the Concordat on January 25, 1813.

The second engraving represents Pope Pius VII entering Rome triumphantly on May 24, 1814. Standing in his carriage, the Sovereign Pontiff blesses the joyous crowd which throngs around the papal procession. In the foreground, a man and three women are kneeling while a fourth woman holds the reins of the team pulled by a fifth figure. In the background, to the left, stands St. Peter's Basilica; on the right, the rocky island lost in the midst of the waves could just as easily symbolize the island of Elba as Saint Helena, the work being after the fall of the Empire; it would then evoke the captivity of the fallen monarch, thus marking a strong contrast with the regained freedom of the pope. The disrespect for elementary proportions attests to the popular origin of this image.


Prisoner of Napoleon, dispossessed of his states, Pius VII responded to force by striking the canonical institution of bishops appointed by the Emperor. He excommunicates the “usurpers, instigators, advisers, executors” of the violation of the temporal sovereignty of the Holy See. Many bishoprics are found de facto without legitimate holder, which forced Napoleon to convene at Notre-Dame, in 1811, a national council chaired by his uncle Fesch, archbishop of Lyon. The said council decides that after a papal refusal of six months, a bishop can obtain the canonical investiture of the metropolitan or of the oldest bishop of the province, but the council fathers subordinate the application of the decrees they have voted to the acceptance of the Pope who, of course, does not adhere to the decisions of the National Council.

On January 25, 1813, after six days of discussion, the Emperor succeeded in extorting from the sovereign pontiff a new Concordat which settled the question of the canonical investiture, but on January 28, Pius VII canceled his signature and formally retracted in a note. dated March 24, 1813. A deep malaise won over the French clergy and the faithful. Wars and conscription deepen public disaffection with the imperial government. The defeats at the end of the Empire force Napoleon to give his captive freedom: the Pope triumphantly enters Rome on May 24, 1814

The refusal of investitures, the excommunication resulting from the occupation of Rome, were spiritual weapons which ensured the resistance and the victory of Pius VII. The papacy emerges from the struggle which opposed it to the emperor of the French. Devoid of any spirit of vengeance, the Pope will refuse to exercise political reprisals against the fallen Emperor: he will welcome his family in Rome and intercede with England and the courts of Europe to soften the prison regime. of the captive of Saint Helena.

  • Concordat of 1801
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Pius VII


Jacques-Olivier BOUDON, Napoleon and the cults, Paris, Fayard, 2002.Yves-Marie HILAIRE, History of the Papacy, Paris, Le Seuil, collection “Points Histoire” 2003. Jean LEFLON, The Concordat and Imperial Church, Paris, Maison de la Bonne Presse, 1947.Bernardine MELCHIOR-BONNET, Napoleon and the Pope, Paris, The Contemporary Book, 1958.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "Pope Pius VII, prisoner of the Emperor Napoleon"

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