Leo the Great and Attila; the meeting that saved Rome

March 13, 2023
Leo the Great and Attila; the meeting that saved Rome

In the Vatican Museum we find four fantastic frescoes painted by the skilful hand of Raphael. Among them is the famous ‘Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila‘. In this painting, the master of the Renaissance depicts a very famous moment which took place in 452 near the Mincio river.  It represents Leo the Great and Attila; the meeting that saved Rome. This encounter prevented Attila and the Huns to sack Rome (again!). Take one of our TOURS. Come to Rome and find out more about the fresco which represents Leo the Great and Attila: the meeting that saved Rome.

The Fresco

Raphael depicts Attila the Hun in royal robes, with a crown on his head. You can notice that Attila seems to be almost falling off his horse in surprise and fright. What could have caused this? Raphael motivates this with the presence of St. Peter and St. Paul, patron saints of Rome, who, sword in hand, descend from the heavens to support Leo the Great. It is interesting to note the turmoil in Attila’s ranks (look at the white horse bolting in the foreground), in sharp contrast to the calm of the papal procession.

Attila and Leo the Great - Raphael's fresco

Attila and Leo the Great – Raphael’s fresco (detail)

Two curiosities

The first curiosity about this work concerns its setting. It is striking how Raphael set the scene in Rome (you can see the Colosseum in the background for example) when in fact it was not. Why did he do so? Simply because the Pope who commissioned the fresco, wanted to give a message of stability and strength, as if to say that the Church is always helped by God, even in the darkest and blackest moments such as an attack.

There is also another curiosity about this: do you see the two cardinals, riding behind the Pope? The first man, the one in the foreground, is… the Pope himself! Yes, because when Raphael began the fresco, Leo the Great was only a cardinal. Then, in the process, Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work from Raphael, died, leaving the throne to Leo the Great .

How did Leo the Great save Rome from Attila?

Attila seemed unstoppable and Leo the Great , also mindful of the sacking suffered by Rome in 410 when he was a boy, tried everything to stop him. He met Attila near the Mincio River and there, no one knows how, convinced him to turn back and save Rome.

How did Leo the Great manage to convince Attila, king of the Huns? Raphael’s work is intended to reinforce the idea of divine intervention. But we do not yet know. Perhaps he donated a large sum of money. Perhaps Attila’s soldiers were tired of wars and raids, or Attila (as Christian sources tell us) had a nightmare in which he saw the two patron saints of Rome forcefully confronting him. Other sources say Attila did not want to fall victim to malaria or other epidemics that struck Rome and the whole of Italy in those years.

In any case, this encounter between Leo the Great and Attila, prevented him from invading Rome. The fresco is amazing and is worth alone a trip to Rome. Come and visit the Eternal City. Take one of our Vatican Tours. Come and #feeltheessence!