St. Leo the Great

Pope St. Leo I (The Great), 35" x 60," Oil on Panel, by Melissa Carmon

Pope St. Leo I (The Great), 35" x 60," Oil on Panel, by Melissa Carmon


First part.  When he met with Attila the Hun, rescued Italy, and saved the city

Saint Leo and Attila

Man with a lion heart, and yet
for Peace
Saint Leo, your sun is shining on us
by the waters of Lake Garda

Man of war, man of blood whose very
hair smelled of blood
The man who drank the blood of

Met face to face with a man of washed
a man of early morning rising
a man whose hours, divided by
solitary reflection

On a plain you met
and the man of blood wept
for that is what it means to turn— 
to turn aside from all that pillaging
to leave the watching world behind you

To turn aside from the long
forked path, to leave untouched
those glistening grape vines
those green hills rising like bread loaves
their gentle curves stretching into
the blue distance
Those wine cellars
And Italy lay before you like a rich robe.

Attila of the bent road,
The earth could not hold you
could not satisfy you
whether you were too big for it
or whether it spat you out
we could not tell

But it was there that God, 
the patient God, who
handles men with steady eye
and a patient hand
arranged a meeting for you
with a lion heart

And what did you tell your war-hungry men
Hungry for the what mankind’s stomach
cant’t hold, men looking off into the blue green distance?

In a moment of true strength
You stayed your hand. 


Second part, after the Ransack of Rome by the Vandal King, Genseric

Saint Leo, 
the roof is falling
the grey timbers are
the wood folds in like paper

Saint Leo
Europe is groaning
the Roman roads break like
beams the riders cut
one from another, the seams
of our sides are ragged,
ripped, and there is
no one, no one to help

in the round mound of rubbish
the cold courtrooms are bare
and beyond the last house a
baby is crying

the soft curves of women have
been pierced, and for
the men— to their disgrace, they
lay dying

Saint Leo,
man who mends,
You did not leave the grey timbers
Saint Leo,
man who sends
for help from afar,
and says, "Build a mosaic in the ceiling,"
You have given the four walls of the earth a new sky
—a gift from an empress. 

In the grey dawn, 
the children’s children of forty generations
bless you for saving St. Peter’s
And like them,
the old domes of antiquity, 
still rise
to greet the morning sun

Historical Background: 

Pope St. Leo the Great (ca. 400 CE-461 CE) was extremely gifted in diplomacy.  Perhaps his most famous interaction was with Attila the Hun, who was sacking Italy in 452 CE.  No one knows what happened in that crucial meeting in the Hun's camp on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy, but Attila suddenly withdrew his campaign of devastation.  Later, Leo was not able to prevent the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. In the midst of the pillaging, he met with the invaders and their leaders under Geneseric, and was able to mitigate the extent of the damage.  He persuaded them not to burn the city, and as a result, many lives were saved.  Several notable ancient landmarks were also spared.  His ongoing work toward restoration was unflagging, even though the damage done to Rome was severe during this period of extreme crisis.

Melissa Carmon