Remembering the Battle of Lepanto: 450 Years Ago

COMMENTARY: Our world today would look very different if not for Our Lady of Victory’s miracle at Lepanto 450 years ago this October.

'The Battle of Lepanto' by Paolo Veronese
'The Battle of Lepanto' by Paolo Veronese (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

On Aug. 2, 1571, at Famagusta — the besieged and last remaining Christian outpost on the island of Cyprus — Marcantonio Bragadin and Astorre Baglioni, two Venetian commanders, surrendered to the Ottoman Turk commander, Lala Mustafa Pasha. 

The battle at Famagusta had been a bloodbath, all too typical of the era, with a Christian force of fewer than 10,000 utterly overwhelmed by a Muslim force of more than 100,000. The Christians fought to the death, suffering upward of 90% casualties.

Bragadin and Baglioni had been assured honorable terms of surrender, with promises that they and the survivors would keep not only their dignity but their lives. When they went to Mustafa’s tent, they instead were immediately arrested. Baglioni was beheaded on the spot. Bragadin, the governor general of Famagusta, would not be so lucky. He would be turned into an example.

Mustafa himself pulled out a blade and cut off Bragadin’s right ear. He then ordered his lieutenants to slice off Bragadin’s left ear and nose. Bragadin’s plight would only get worse. For nearly two weeks he was stuffed in an open cage and exposed to the intense sun without food and little water. He was offered freedom on the fourth day of his captivity — if he converted to Islam. He refused. Historian Roberto de Mattei explains what happened next to Bragadin:

On August 17 he was hung from the mast of his own ship and scourged with over one hundred lashes, then he was forced to carry a heavy basket full of stones and sand on his shoulders through the streets of Famagusta until he collapsed. He was then brought back to the main square of the city and chained to a column, upon which a Genoese renegade begun to slowly flay him alive from the shoulders down. The Venetian commander endured the martyrdom with heroic courage, continuing to recite the Miserere and to invoke the name of Christ until, after his arms and torso had been skinned, he cried out: “In manus tuas Domine commendo spirituum meum,” and expired. It was three in the afternoon on August 17, 1571. Bragadin’s body was then quartered, and with his flayed skin stuffed with straw and cotton and clothed with the garments and insignia of command, was carried in a macabre procession through the streets of Famagusta and then hung from the mast of a galley, which carried him to Constantinople as a trophy, together with the heads of the other Christian leaders.

In his fascinating new biography of Pope St. Pius V, Italian historian Roberto de Mattei presents the case of Bragadin and Famagusta for an important reason: When the news of the massacre reached Pope Pius V and fellow Christians several weeks later, there was outrage. This was the final straw. There was a commitment to do something about it. There was also prayer. The Pope increased his prayers and his fasting, dedicating many hours per day to prayer and three days per week to fasting.

Pius V had been pope for only one year, coming in just a year after the Siege at Malta, where the heroic and extraordinary Knights of Malta had defended not only their island but much of the Mediterranean and Europe. Had the Knights failed at Malta in 1565, all of Europe could have faced a series of episodes like Famagusta. Pius V became pope the next year, in 1566, the start of a short but utterly pivotal papacy.

Pius V knew how precarious this moment was. Various supreme pontiffs had ordered Crusades to try to defend Christians from Muslim attacks dating back 500 years to the late 11th century. Virtually all of them ended in failure. The Ottomans had reveled in a long run of conquests under Suleiman the Magnificent, who since the 1520s had wiped out Christians and captured their territory, killing and enslaving many. 

This had to be stopped. And now was the moment. 

Pius V, in a remarkable display of diplomacy as much as piety, strove to assemble a counterforce to stop the Ottomans. Not all of Europe’s Christian leaders were on board, with more of them (such as Charles IX of France) spurning the Pope rather than supporting him, to his great frustration. The Pope did, however, manage to pull together a force that become known as the Holy League, which included the Spanish Empire, the Papal States, Venice, Genoa, Tuscany and (among others) the Knights of Malta. They were led most notably by the great Marcantonio Colonna and Don Juan of Austria.

The two sides were ready for battle, which came at dawn on Oct. 7 at the entrance of the Gulf of Patras. More than 100,000 men and hundreds of ships squared off in the water. As de Mattei relates, the supreme Turkish commander, Ali Pasha, stood aboard his flagship, the Sultana, in the center of an alignment of Muslim ships shaped like a massive crescent moon. His Sultana flew a massive banner brought from Mecca with the name of Allah embroidered in gold letters 28,000 times. His opponent, Don Juan, wore around his neck a relic of the True Cross given to him by Pius V. 

That morning the Christian forces all attended Mass on their respective ships and received absolution. The Pope had delegated Capuchins to the papal ships, Jesuits to the Spanish ships, and Dominicans and Franciscans to the others. 

This was truly a spiritual battle.

The two sides engaged in a vicious exchange. What literally turned the tide for the Holy League was a sudden shift in the wind deemed nothing less than miraculous. After about five hours of battle, the Turks were defeated. 

“The sea was full of dead men, tables, clothes,” wrote one eyewitness, “the sea was mostly bright red [with blood].” Among those freed were more than 15,000 men who had been held as slaves by the Turks.

“For the first time in a century the Mediterranean was free,” writes de Mattei. “From that day forward the Ottoman Empire began its long decline.”

It did indeed. That was the crucial bigger picture. Between the Christian victories at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the Siege of Malta in 1565, Europe was spared. Had the Christian defenders lost those battles, my relatives from Calabria in Italy, not to mention the people of Sicily and a much larger area, would either have been killed, taken into slavery or forced to convert to Islam. And Rome — that is, the Vatican itself — would have been next in the crosshairs. Many of us today would not be Christians but Muslims.

The victories were celebrated throughout Europe by Catholics and Protestants alike. Though the two had been pitted against one another most of the century because of the bitter split caused by Martin Luther and the Reformation, all Christians were united in gratitude for the epic defense of their faith and way of life. 

As for Pius V, he credited the Lord and the intercession of the Blessed Mother, in the dual roles of Our Lady of Victory and Our Lady of the Rosary. As de Mattei details, at the very hour of the victory on Oct. 7, far away from the high seas, Pius V had had an inspiration — something had filled him a certain sense that the Holy League had persevered. “Let us go and thank God,” he told his cardinals assembled, “because at this very moment our armada has obtained victory.” 

It had indeed, though official confirmation did not arrive until two weeks later, late at night via courier. Awakened in the middle of the night, the Pope broke out in tears of joy and invoked the words of Simeon: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29).

Six months later, the 68-year-old Pontiff, only six years into his papacy, departed this life in peace.

The whole ordeal took its toll on the Pope as well as the world. And our world today would look very different if not for what happened at Lepanto 450 years ago this October.

Faithful gather in front of the Vatican's Basilica of St. Mary Mayor in Rome, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, to lead a prayer for peace in the Middle East. A prayer vigil will take place at 6 p.m. in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 27, where the faithful will join the Pope to participate in ‘an hour of prayer in a spirit of penance to implore peace in our time, peace in this world.’

Prayer and Fasting

EDITORIAL: Just as European Christians prayed the Rosary and fasted to be freed from the repressive Ottoman Empire, we need to employ the same strategy for peace in the Middle East and elsewhere.