John VII


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(1 Mar. 705–18 Oct. 707)

A Greek by birth, he was son of Plato and Blatta, his father being the highly placed official responsible for the maintenance of the imperial palace on the Palatine; he was the first pope to be son of a Byzantine official. A man of learning, eloquence, and artistic sensibility, he had earlier been the administrator (rector) of the papal patrimony on the Appian Way; as such he composed an epitaph in graceful verses for his father, and erected a memorial to both his parents with a touching, very human inscription.

As pope he enjoyed excellent relations with the Lombards, which were reflected in the return by King Aribert II (701–12) to the holy see of valuable estates in the Cottian Alps (Liguria) which it had lost when King Rotari (625–43) occupied the Ligurian coast. In 706Emperor Justinian II, who had been overthrown in 695 but dramatically restored to the Byzantine throne in 705, dispatched two bishops to Rome with copies of the canons of the anti-Roman second Trullan or Quinisext council (692), which Sergius I had flatly refused to endorse, and requested John to convene a synod and confirm such of them as he approved while rejecting the ones he found unacceptable. Terrified of offending the notoriously ruthless monarch, John did not dare take advantage of the apparently reasonable compromise proposed, but returned the canons to Constantinople without signifying assent or dissent, thereby earning a rebuke for cowardice from his biographer in LP. His readiness to comply with official Byzantine policy is borne out by the church decorations he had executed. Thus his artists' portraits of Christ tended to be modelled on the type favoured by Justinian's coinage, while in the Adoration of the Lamb they represented the Lamb in human form, as prescribed by canon 82 of the Quinisext council, and not as a lamb.

A devotee of the BVM who delighted to call himself her servant, John was a notable builder and patron of the arts. He began constructing a new papal residence (episcopium) at the foot of the Palatine, close to the Greek quarter and to the old imperial palace, now the residence of the deputy to the Byzantine exarch. His complaisance to Justinian was sharply criticized, and he perhaps felt the need for additional security.

In addition to building and restoring churches (Sta Maria Antiqua in the Forum, in particular), he liked adorning them with mosaics and frescos; not infrequently, as his biographer sardonically noted, he included representations of himself, and one such striking portrait in mosaic, originally designed for a chapel of the BVM which he added to St Peter's, is today preserved in the Vatican Grottoes. He died in his new palace, and was buried in his chapel of the BVM.

Further Reading

JW i. 246 f.LP i. 385–7P. J. Nordhagen, The Frescoes of John VII in S. Maria Antiqua (Rome, 1968)J. Breckenridge, ‘Evidence for the Nature of Relations between Pope John VII and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II’, BZ65 (1972), 364–74Caspar ii. 630–37DBI lv. 557–9 (L. Becto)DTC viii. 600 f. (É. Amann)DACL vii. 2197–2212, xiii. 1243 f. (H. Leclercq)EThC 71 (G. Schwaiger)Levillain ii. 835–6 (J. Durliat)NCE vii. 922 (H. G. J. Beck)Mann i/2, 109–23Bertolini 410–12Seppelt ii. 85JR 211 f., 226, 244, 267, 270


Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) — Christianity.

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