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  • Olivi and the Church of Martyrs
  • Marco Bartoli (bio)

Among the accusations raised against Peter of John Olivi, during the Council of Vienne, one of the strongest concerned de ecclesia vocata Magna meretrix. The Council Fathers were concerned about the identification of the great prostitute of the Apocalypse with the Roman See. This interpretation, as we know, was well weighed by Ubertino de Casale, and the pope, Clement the fifth, preferred to leave the question aside and it disappeared in the final texts of the Council.1

The recent “double” publication of the Lectura super Apocalipsim2 now permits us reconsider the question of the conciliar fathers of Vienne regarding the identification between the Church and the great prostitute of Apocalypse. In addition, we can review Olivi’s ecclesiology in general.

The ecclesiological reflection of Olivi, who was frequently considered an enigmatic person,3 was the long time object of specific attention from prominent scholars like Yves Congar4 and Raoul Manselli.5 During the last fifty years, scholars focused especially on Olivi’s reflections about the higher echelons of the ecclesiastical structure, that is, on the Pope and Roman See. I compiled an edition of Olivi’s Questiones de Romano pontifice. [End Page 125] An interesting discussion arose about the Questio de inerrabilitate papae, published by Michele Maccarone in 19496 and later studied by Brian Tierney (in 1972).7 In a study published in 1994, I calculated more of 50 responses to Tierney’s work from all around the world.8

Recently it appears that interest in ecclesiological themes is declining, while other subjects linked to Olivi’s theological production, like economics and ethics, are more popular. It seems possible to come back to the study Olivi’s ecclesiology from a new perspective. Here I propose a different approach: I will describe how Olivi considers the Church by beginning at the bottom with the martyrs and not at the top with the Roman Pontiff. Martyrs are the foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Church even at the symbolic level, since fifth century. Indeed, the Council of Carthage in 438 was decreed to place relics of martyrs at the base of newly constructed altars.9

When persecutions stopped a new theology of martyrdom was born in which martyrdom was re-interpreted from an ascetic-monastic perspective. The following quotation from Raban Maur illustrates this shift: “there are two kind of martyrdom: the first in open persecution, the second in the exercise of virtues in the secret of soul. Indeed, many resist to all the desires of the flesh, supporting dangers and offering themselves in sacrifice to God almighty in their heart. They are martyrs also in time of peace, because, if they lived in a persecution time, they would be martyrs.”10

One of the authors in the Middle Ages who deeply explored the subject of martyrdom was of course Joachim of Fiore. Despite the fact that he came from Cistercian monasticism, he did not emphasize the ascetic approach to martyrdom, but chose to return to the traditional idea of martyrdom. [End Page 126]

While he spoke on martyrdom in many texts11, he treated the theme at length in the Expositio in Apocalypsim.12 Joachim suggested that the text of the Apocalypse be divided in seven parts, and that each part corresponded to an age of history of the Church. In the second part, dedicated to the vision of seven seals, he linked each one, as Richard of San Victor did in his commentary, to the age of martyrs. According to Raoul Manselli, it is possible:

…to view all the history of the Church from the point of view of multiform persecutions that the Church had to suffer. Each opening of the seven seals of the Liber clausus intus et foris represents a persecution: the red horse is the Roman political force that engaged early Christians in bloody fights; the black horse is Arianism which spread everywhere against the Catholic Church; the pale horse is the Saracens, one of the most important factors of history according to Joachim of Fiore, who often recalled that they massacred Christians, forced them to abjuration and narrowed the geographical extension of...


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