Omaha, Nebraska
October 1992
Volume 4, Number 1

Christopher Columbus and the Matter of Religion

Bryan F. Le Beau
Associate Professor of History
Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society

As the current controversy surrounding the Columbian Quincentenary has made clear, Christopher Columbus continues to be more useful to many people as a myth rather than as an actual historical figure. What he can be made to represent is often more important than what he actually did, said, or believed. Nineteenth century scholars found it useful to present Columbus as the archetypical, clear-headed, Renaissance rationalist. Rendering him in their own image, as they saw themselves in their contest with church leaders over matters such as evolution, their Columbus, as one historian has put it, was "a bold and innovative explorer who, armed with a rational or scientific geography, battled the ignorance and superstition of influential ecclesiastics" until, finally, he proved them wrong. Such has been the popular perception of Christopher Columbus ever since.

Recent scholarship suggests that this image of Columbus is badly flawed, that if he did embark on his voyage of discovery for gold and glory, he did so for God, as well. Though it has been the source of some embarrassment to those who would prefer a more "modern" hero, Columbus was in large part motivated by a thoroughly medieval apocalyptic spirituality. That spirituality has been revealed more clearly, and to a wider audience, than ever with publication, for the first time in English, of Columbus's Book of Prophecies.*

Book of Prophecies consists of over 200 biblical and patristic passages compiled by Columbus, with the assistance of the Carthusian monk, Gaspar Gorricio, while Columbus was at the Spanish court in 1501 and 1502. Since Columbus had just returned from his third voyage to the New World in chains, there can be little doubt but that the compilation was intended to persuade the monarchs to fund a fourth voyage. To dismiss the collection, as some have, as merely a "sales-job" appealing to the highly religious nature of the Queen, however, is to miss the point. To conclude that it represents "an unfortunate, and sudden and radical, lurch from a previously rational and competent man of the world to a self-pitying and self-aggrandizing prophet," is, at best, to judge it out of context.

Biblical prophecy was a major factor in Columbus's formulations. Though largely self-taught, he was remarkably well informed on the Bible, which he believed was the foundation of all learning, explicitly or implicitly setting forth all knowledge. He employed scholarly biblical commentaries, but he also came to believe that the Holy Spirit had provided him with the illumination necessary to unlock its messages.

Columbus was conversant, largely through secondary sources, with prominent ancient and medieval theologians and cosmographers. His letters and notes refer to Augustine, Ambrose, Venerable Bede, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, and others. Most useful to him, however, were the fifteenth century works of Pierre d'Ailly, especially his Image mundi, in which Columbus made some 898 marginal notes, and the writings of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Plus ID. Columbus's 861 postils in Plus II's Historia rerum ubique gestarum are the earliest evidence we have of Columbus's evolving eschatology. They have been dated to 1481, some twenty years before he began work on his Book of Prophecies.

Columbus was not alone in interpreting events occurring during the closing decades of the fifteen century as signs of the approaching end of time. Then, as now in many quarters, there was a considerable degree of disillusionment, an impending sense of crisis, or even doom.

It was an age in which the writings of the twelfth century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, perhaps the most influential apocalyptic thinker of the Middle Ages, had come into fashion, once again. What interested most of Joachim's fifteenth century readers, including Columbus, was his attempt to determine the patterns of history and to predict the events that would mark the advent of the Antichrist. Particularly appealing to Columbus was Joachim's prediction that the prophesied messiah-emperor who would retake the Holy Land, would come from Spain.

Not unlike others of his time, the basic elements of Columbus's apocalyptic vision included the appearance of an emperor-messiah, the conversion of all people in the world to Christianity, the final recovery of the Holy Land from the "infidels," the advent of the Antichrist, and the second coming of Christ. Also common was his belief that Christ's second coming was imminent. Writing in 1502, he calculated the remaining years at 155. What was unique about Columbus's vision was his deep seated belief that he had been chosen by God to play a key role in this inexorably unfolding cosmic drama.

Christopher, or Christoferens as he would come to prefer, believed that, much as his patron saint, he would bear the word of Christ across the waters to those who had never heard it, thereby preparing the way for the evangelization of the last non-Christian lands of the world and the final taking of all sheep into the one fold. That having been accomplished, he would carry the riches of the Orient back to Spain where the emperor-messiahs, Ferdinand and Isabella, would use it to launch a final crusade to retake Mt. Zion.

Columbus died believing that he had fulfilled his mission. In a letter believed to have been written near the end of his life, he wrote:

    "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it."

That Columbus could not convince others of the prophetic importance of his accomplishments proved disappointing, but he would be bewildered to learn that later historians would dismiss the importance of his eschatology. To most, it is not a flattering reflection on the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, but it does take us one step closer to reality.

*The 'Libro de las Profecias' of Christopher Columbus, translation and commentary by Delno C. West and August Kling. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991.