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The significance of Utrecht’s only Pope

Last updated 4 months ago by UtrechtCentral.com

At the turn of the 18th century, a series of engravings were used as standard texts for the education of Dutch schoolchildren. The below poem, in its original Dutch, appears in the lot as the first woodcut on Famous Dutch Men and Women.

“In Utrecht they still show the stranger this house,
And call it the house of pope Adrian,
Still his bust stands in its façade. Less elevated
Was the ancestry of this pope, the son of a boat builder,
His name is still proudly spoken by thousands of tongues,
Short of time, but with honour, he wore the papal crown.”

The lines tell us about Pope Adrian VI, who remains the only Dutch pope till this day. In fact, Adrian Florensz, whose papacy began in January 1522 and ended with his untimely death in September 1523, was the only non-Italian pope for 455 years, till the Polish John Paul II assumed his role in 1978.

There is another rather rare trivia associated with Adrian VI’s papacy. Along with Marcellus II, he remains the only pope of the modern era to retain his given name after being elected to the order.

The boat-builder’s son

The Utrecht-born son of a carpenter and boat-maker, Adrian was born in Utrecht in 1459 and raised in a house at the corner of the Brandstraat and Oudegracht. He studied at the University of Leuven where he became a professor of theology, and thereafter the rector.

Adrian’s birthplace in Utrecht. Photo credit: Fruggo on Wikipedia under the Creative Commons license.

In November 1506, Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy, became Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. She chose Adrian as her advisor. The following year Margaret’s father Maximilian I, who would become the Holy Roman Emperor in 1508, appointed him as tutor to his seven-year-old grandson, Charles. When Maximilian I passed away in 1519, this young lad succeeded him as Emperor Charles V.

By 1512 Adrian was acting as Charles’s advisor. The demands of this role were taxing enough for him to resign his position in the university.

It was Charles who sent Adrian to Spain as emissary. While the future Emperor was still a minor, Adrian acted as regent of Spain. However, according to the inscription Adrian arranged to be put on his monument, the period as a co-regent was not really the most satisfying: “Here lies Adrian the Sixth, who was never so unhappy in any period of his life, as in that in which he was a Prince.”

Later in 1516, as King of Castile and Aragon, Charles appointed Adrian bishop of Tortosa, Spain, and shortly thereafter Grand Inquisitor of Aragon and Castile. The following year, Adrian was created one of his 31 cardinals by Pope Leo X. He was named Cardinal Priest of the Basilica of Saints John and Paul on the Coelian Hill.

The only Dutch pope

When Pope Leo X died of bronchopneumonia in December 1521, Adrian was elected his successor by near unanimous vote.

It was not an easy period to assume papal responsibilities. Martin Luther’s reformation movement had complicated matters in the north, and the Ottoman Turks were rampaging in the east.

Adrian’s efforts as a unifying peacemaker among the Christian princes was not successful. Hence, there was no united front against the Turks and by 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent had conquered Rhodes.
He was also a bit slow to understand the seriousness of the Lutheran revolt. Adrian came across as strongly opposed to any change in doctrine, demanding that Martin Luther be punished for teaching heresy.

However, one should not conclude he was rigidly orthodox. At the Diet of Nuremberg in December 1522, where he was represented by Francesco Chieregati, the message from the pope was that the Church was in disorder. He further admitted that it was perhaps the fault of the Roman Curia itself. There were serious attempts towards reform, with major curb on indulgence

Adrian’s efforts of reform were, however, futile. He was resisted by most of his Renaissance ecclesiastical contemporaries. Also, was not blessed with enough time, dying only a year and eight months into his papacy.

His death on 14 September 1523 came rather suddenly.

Mystery and drama

In 2013, Dutch writer Jan Paul Schutten and comic book illustrator Paul Teng took the subject of Adrian’s death as the backdrop of both an exhibition in the Utrecht Centraal Museum and an 80-page graphic novel. Both the exhibition and the resulting book are titled Jan van Scorel, Sede vacante 1523.

Jan van Scorel was a famous Dutch artist of the Romanist style, appointed court painter and superintendent of antiquities by Adrian. Scorel’s many paintings include the famous one of Adrian that you see at the top of this article.
In the plot spun by Schutten and Teng, van Scorel suspects that Adrian, his fellow- Dutchman, has been murdered. The work puts together several intriguing threads—the supposed contradiction between Adrian VI’s reputation as a pope who wanted the Church to live humbly and his personal history of a large number of lucrative appointments, the art treasures of the Vatican, the mystery surrounding his death —and weaves together a rather fascinating historical mystery.

Before that, in 1995, Italian writer Luigi Malerba used the unexpected election of Adrian as the backdrop for his novel The Masks.

However, Pope Adrian VI appeared in fiction long before these modern reincarnations. He had been famously made into a character by Christopher Marlowe in his 1604 play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Arunabha Sengupta
Arunabha Sengupta
Arun is a freelance writer, sports correspondent, statistician and a tour guide. He has lived in The Netherlands for the last 12 years and is in love with the country. He is especially fascinated by the way the country combines fascinating history with modern liberalism, the busy touristic hub with the quaint peaceful countryside.


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