This curious image comes from a 15th-century manuscript of the Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors), originally written by Martinus Oppaviensis (d. 1278 or 1279). Featured in this image are the juxtaposed figures of Pope Sylvester II (on the left, of course) and the Devil (on the right). Intriguing tales and legends about the pontificate’s reign inspired this odd drawing. As is shown in the image, Sylvester II (r. 999-1003) was said to have been able to communicate with the Devil and compel the demonic being to do certain tasks, such as foretelling the future. One such tale about the pontiff was recorded by a Norman-English monk named Orderic Vitalis (c. 1075-1142), who wrote, “It is related that when Gerbert [i.e. Sylvester’s name before he became pope] was master of a school, he had a conference with the devil, and inquired of him what his future career was to be. He immediately received the following ambiguous answer:—Translated from R, you still will be R, and as pope shall be R” (Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, I.24). This prophesy was deemed to be accurate, for Gilbert/Sylvester held three ‘R’ titles during his life: Archbishop of Rheims (r. 991-997), Archbishop of Ravenna (r. 998-999), and Pope of Rome (999-1003).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis, translated by Thomas Forester. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.