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Christendom Saved at Lepanto: October 7, 1571

The Council of Trent had been called to deal with a threat—Protestantism—that had arisen from within Christendom. Yet, throughout the 18 years of the council, all Christendom continued to face the common threat of the Ottoman Turks. Though the Ottoman Turks had been prevented from conquering Vienna, they had not gone away. That even Protestants felt this threat is indicated in the first lines of a “children’s song” by Martin Luther:

Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work,

Restrain the murderous pope and Turk,

Who fain would tear from off Thy throne

Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.

Sultan Selim II

It was Catholic and Orthodox Europe, however, that continued to bear the brunt of Turkish attack. When the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent died in 1566, he was succeeded by his son, Selim II. Wanting to imitate his father’s conquests, Sultan Selim began in 1570 to launch ambitious plans to expand the Turkish Empire across Europe. By 1571, Ottoman forces had conquered the Orthodox island of Cyprus, where they killed thousands of Cypriot Christians and sold many of the women and young men into slavery.

The same year he conquered Cyprus, Selim II plotted another invasion, this time of Italy. The sultan began to assemble a large fleet that, when launched, would carry an invading force of nearly 50,000 soldiers and sailors.

Pope Pius V

In response to the gathering threat, Pope Pius V sent out an appeal to Europe’s mon­archs to unite in a Holy League against the Turks. But of all the Christian kingdoms, only Genoa, Venice, and Spain responded with ships and men. These, joined with ships from the Papal States, were placed under the supreme command of Don Juan of Austria, the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. Don Juan received from the pope’s repre­sentative a huge banner bearing the figure of Christ Crucified, to unfurl on the day of the battle. The pope asked all of Christian Europe to pray the rosary for victory. When the assembled fleet sailed from Messina harbor (on the northern tip of Sicily) on September 16, sailors and soldiers alike car­ried rosaries.

On October 7, 1571, the Christian and Turkish fleets clashed in a great sea battle on the western coast of Greece, near the Gulf of Corinth, then called Lepanto. The Turkish ships sailed in a crescent for­mation in hopes of flanking the Christian fleet. However, the Christian admirals at Lepanto, seeing this maneuver, avoided the trap.

Even though the Christian ships were outnumbered by the Turkish fleet, they were much more heavily armed with can­non and musketry. As the Turkish ships approached, they met a hailstorm of can­non fire and musket volleys. On board the Christian ships, priests said Mass and gave general absolution. Don Juan went from ship to ship holding a crucifix and telling the men, “Live or die, we are here to conquer or to die, as heaven chooses.” Then he hung the crucifix on the mast of his flagship, the Ciudad Real.

The banner of the Holy League

The Turks held hundreds of Christian captives chained to the oars of their galleys in a horrible and terrifying captivity. When a galley went down, the chained slaves went down with it. It appears that at Lepanto, the galley slaves helped prevent their Turkish masters from attaining the speed they needed to ram the Christian ships; the slaves rowed only half-heartedly and fouled the oars as much as they could get away with.

These captive Christians could hear the sounds of the chanted rosary coming across the water, for the crews of the Christian ships sang as they fought. It was said that a vision of the Blessed Virgin appeared above the Turkish fleet as the Christians drew close to it. Inspired by this vision, the Christian mariners charged over the rails against the foe.

Don Juan’s ship sailed straight toward the Sultana, the flagship of the Muslim commander, Ali Pasha. The Sultana was the first to be boarded after the two ships collided, and a two-hour struggle began. On decks awash with blood, the Spanish sailors and marines pushed the surviving Turks over the ship’s rails and then raised the banner of Christ Crucified on the Sultana’s mast.

Fresco from the Vatican Library depicting the order of battle at Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto ended at 4 p.m. when what remained of the Turkish fleet sailed away toward Istanbul (Constantinople). The Christians, who had lost only 17 ships, captured 177 Turkish ships and destroyed 15 others. Twelve thousand Christian galley slaves were liberated; many more may have been lost to the seas as their ships sank.

Don Juan of Austria’s fleet had won a great victory against the Turks and halted their invasion of Europe. The Turkish fleet was not destroyed at Lepanto, but thereafter it was no longer the threat it had been. Europe had once more been saved from Ottoman conquest.

Music from the Time of Lepanto

Andrea Gabrieli (ca. 1532-1585) was the organist at St. Mark’s basilica in Venice and a composer in his own right. Following the Battle of Lepanto, Venice commissioned him to compose music in honor of the victory of the Christian forces. The following is a selection of pieces by the composer.

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