A Successful Pope, a Less-Than-Successful Papal Portrait

Today is the feast-day of Pope Saint Marcellus I, whom you’ve probably never heard of. That’s partly because Marcellus reigned less than one year. He led the Church during part of its last and most horrendous persecution, launched by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D.

San Marcello al Corso

When his predecessor, Pope Saint Marcellinus, was martyred in the year 304, there was an interval of a couple of years before a new Bishop of Rome was elected. Marcellus took the helm while Christians all around him were being brutally hunted down and slaughtered by the Roman government. As if that wasn’t bad enough, fear led significant numbers of Christians of weaker faith to promptly fall away, causing the size of the Christian community to plummet. Pope Marcellus was directly involved in determining the pastorally correct way to handle these apostates, many of whom later sought to be re-admitted to the faith which they had previously denied in order to avoid torture and death.

It was only a matter of time before Diocletian’s successor in Rome, Emperor Maxentius, arrested Marcellus and ordered him to sacrifice to the gods. When of course the Pope refused, he was sentenced to work as a slave in the Emperor’s stables, tending the horses. Marcellus was not actually martyred; but the cruel mistreatment which he received at the hands of his pagan oppressors directly hastened his death in early 309. For this reason, he was considered by the early Christians to have merited the title of “martyr,” even though he was not executed for the faith.

Today, the body of Pope Saint Marcellus I lies under the main altar of the church dedicated to him here in Rome, San Marcello al Corso. Above that altar is a large oil painting of the saint, completed by Silverio Capparoni in 1867. You don’t have to be an expert in art to recognize that Capparoni’s work is less than inspiring–one historical writer described it as “mediocre”–especially when compared to so many other, first-rate altarpieces adorning scores of churches here in Rome.

As disappointing as this painting is, we can safely assume that Pope Marcellus is content with it! Having “endured until the end” (Matt. 24:13), he now stands before God, Whom he sees face to face, and he will enjoy that sight for all eternity.