Pope Alexander III: A Bull Signed by Him in 1177, with Additional Signatures of 3 Future Popes

Pope Alexander III: A Bull Signed by Him in 1177, with Additional Signatures of 3 Future Popes

Pope Alexander III: A Manuscript Signed in 1177 by Him & 3 Future Popes
Pope Alexander III: A Manuscript Signed in 1177 by Him & 3 Future Popes, Close up of Signatures

This document is in a class of its own in this Collection in that it contains on one artifact four autographs of popes.  To say it is rare and unique is an understatement!

Although the provenance of the bull is unknown, it is a grant of protection in the name of the Roman Church requested by a Bishop Oderel(is?), and it lists each and every one of the churches or properties which are being protected.

A “Great Bulla” is a Privilegium (Solemn Privilege), which is the most solemn form of papal bull. In this Bulla, this “Solemn Privilege” is being extended to all the churches & properties listed.

 The lead bulla is missing, but all bullae have cords from which they are strung and would be either silk or hemp–in this case, silk, since it is a “Solemn Privilege.”

The bishop’s request, as the document indicates, is actually a reissue of Innocent II, Eugenius III, and Anastasius IV. This was a common practice, sort of like taking out an insurance policy (and there was certainly a fee for the service), which then brought canonical and political protection from the pope.

Normally this would be in a diocese’s archives.

Some of the bull is unreadable due to the folds. 

(Information regarding the date of the bull is given in more detail below.)

The Signatories of This Bull

This ancient document is signed by Pope Alexander III and three cardinals who became future popes.  They are

Ubaldo Allucingoli, bishop of Ostia, the future Lucius III, who succeeded him.

Alberto di Morra, the future Gregory VIII, a papal legate and, in 1178, (at the time of this document) chancellor.

Giacinto Bobone, the future Celestine III, cardinal deacon, bishop of Santa Maria

Pope Alexander III: A Manuscript Signed in 1177 by Him & 3 Future Popes, Close up of Signatures

The Symbols & the Four Important Signatures

The Rota–The Wheel

The “Rota”: Motto of Alexander III

The Rota (wheel) was used as a means of confirmation of a Privilege’s authenticity.  It contains a cross–which is part of Pope Alexander III’s signature. In the center of two concentric circles are the names of Saints Peter & Paul & Alexander (pp) III.

The words in the Rota written between the concentric circles are Alexander III’s motto “Demonstra mihi vias tuas Domine,” which is, “Oh Lord show me your ways.”  

Each pope chose a Biblical text and used it as a motto during their entire pontificate. The motto, which was written between the two concentric circles of the Rota, is called the device.

The device should be unique to a pope (but there are examples of “recycling.” For example, Pope Lucius III  (who succeeds Pope Alexander III, used the device of a former pope, Innocent II: Adiuva nos Deus salutaris noster (Help us, God our salvation)).

The Snake-like Image: The “Subscripsi:

Alexander III; “Subscripsi” Image

Next to the Rota, to its right, is the name of the Pope.  The whole of it, the rota, the writing in between and the subscripsi (snake) at the end, is the Pope’s signature.

This “S” image (“subscripsi”): the symbol that represents his assent to the privilege.  You see it first at the end of Pope Alexander’s signature here, and at the end of the other signatories of this document. The English equivalent to, “Subscripsi” is, “I have signed.”

The pope’s full subscription (signature) immediately follows the rota. This formulaic signature incorporates the pontiff’s name followed by the very stylized abbreviation (subscripsi):  Ego Alexander Ecclesie Catholice Episcopus subscripsi.
(“I, Alexander, bishop of the Catholic Church, have undersigned”.)  This subscription is not entirely the pope’s autograph. Only the letter E in ego (or a portion of it) may have been traced by the pope, a practice which began with Alexander III in the twelfth century (1159-1181).

While signatures are often partly written by scribes and then signed with a symbol of the pope and cardinals, in this case, the crosses and snakes, are much too different among all of the names to be that of a scribe.

The Monogram: Bene Valeti

Alexander III: The Bene Valeti Symbol–Farewell

A monogram is a motif of two or more letters, usually interwoven or otherwise combined in a decorative design, used as a logo or to identify a personal possession.  This monogram is truly fancy and clever as well.

The Bene Valeti to the right of the Pope’s signature– (and part of the subscription) is a large monogram that spells Bene Valete (farewell). All letters spell the words, Bene & Valeti. This type of monogram has a B above an E with an N running through the whole of it and another large E at the end. Look closely: part of the N is a V; a fancy A is on the V; the L extends from the B downward with the E attached; the T is self-evident, and the I runs the length of the T.

It is such an incredible symbol and work of art.


The Three Important Signatories (Future Popes)
Each Contains His Own “Subscripsi” (the Snake-like S)
“I have signed.”

1.  The Future Pope Lucius III

Immediately underneath the Pope’s signature is Ubaldo Allucingoli, the future Lucius III who succeeds Pope Alexander III.  He is the bishop of Ostia and signs, “Ubaldo.”  His signature is preceded by a cross and a snake at the end, also all in his own hand.


The Second Signature beneath the Bene Valeti

The Future Celestine III

The Cross & the Snake–part of the signature of Giacinto Bobone, the future Celestine III, is entirely written in his own hand.

The Third Signature

The Future Alexander VIII

The Third Signatory is on the last line–Alberto di Morra the future Gregory VIII whose role resembled the present day Secretary of State–the second in command to Pope Alexander III.

The signatures are not simply the snake and cross images, then, but the whole lines.  The crosses they make (which are all distinctive), their names and the snakes comprise their signatures, their, “subscripsi.”

Further Information Regarding the Date of This Bull

The date is given as MCLXXVII (1177), which falls in the reign of Alexander III (1159-1181). But even so, the date is misleading. Alexander was not at the Lateran, where the document was signed, at any time during 1177. He was in the Po Valley, sometimes at Ferrara, but mostly at Venice, where he had discussions with Frederick Barbarossa with regard to ending the schism.

The schism was finally ended on 29 August 1178, when “Calixtus III” (Cardinal John of Struma) finally surrendered to Pope Alexander.

Alexander does not return to Rome from Venice until 12 March 1178 (which was still 1177 in the Roman calendar reckoning; New Year’s Day was on the Annunciation, March 25). So the document was actually signed between 15 March (when a document was signed at the Lateran) and 25 March.

Easter that year was on April 9. The month or the day ought to appear in the datary line, right after “indict⸺ione xi (11thindiction, which began on 25 September 1177) but does not. 

Information about the Opening Lines in this Bull

The opening line of a bull, or intitulatio, contains several documentary features, such as the name of the pope, title, and address. By the thirteenth century, these along with other features were regulated by a complex formulary intended to prevent forgeries.

For example, in privileges and letters, the pope’s name appeared first and was followed by the title “bishop, servant of the servants of God” (episcopus servus servorum Dei). However, the way the pope’s name was written in the intitulatio depended upon whether the bulla was attached with silk (cum serico) or hemp cord (cum filo canapis), features which also distinguished privileges from other letters.

Since privileges were bulled with a silk cord, the pope’s name had to begin with a decorative initial. This initial had to be raised above all other letters and contain some use of negative space. The remaining letters had to be raised from the bottom of the line to the top, hence their elongated appearance. These may, or may not, have been decorated.

  • Date February 10, 2021
  • Tags Celestine III, Gregory VIII, Lucius III, Pope Alexander III