Originally celebrated liturgically as Our Lady of Victory, Pope St. Pius V established this feast in 1573. The purpose was to thank God for the victory of Christians over the Turks at Lepanto—a victory attributed to the praying of the rosary. Clement XI extended the feast to the universal Church in 1716.
The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October 1571 when a galley fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of the Republic of Venice, the Papacy (under Pope Pius V), Spain (including Naples, Sicily and Sardinia), the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights Hospitaller and others, decisively defeated the main fleet of Ottoman war galleys.
The five-hour battle was fought at the northern edge of the Gulf of Patras, off western Greece, where the Ottoman forces sailing westwards from their naval station in Lepanto met the Holy League forces, which had come from Messina, on the morning of Sunday, 7 October. Their victory gave the Holy League temporary control over the Mediterranean, protected Rome from invasion, and prevented the Ottomans from advancing into Europe. This last major naval battle fought solely between rowing vessels was one of the world’s decisive battles “in history, inasmuch as ‘after Lepanto the pendulum swung back the other way and the wealth began to flow from East to West, a pattern that continues to this day'”, as well “as a ‘crucial turning point in the ongoing conflict between the Middle East and Europe, which has not yet completely been resolved.'” -Serpil Atamaz Hazar, “Review of Confrontation at Lepanto: Christendom vs. Islam,” The Historian 70.1 (Spring 2008): 163.
– by Fernando Bertelli, Die Seeschlacht von Lepanto, Venedig 1572, Museo Storico Navale, (550×500), this particular painting occupies a prominent position at one end of the Hall of Maps, in the Vatican Museums, Rome.
The engagement was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century. In total, the Turks lost some 210 vessels – 80 sunk and 130 captured. The Turks lost thirty thousand men, with another 3500 captured. The Holy League had suffered around 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. On the Christian side 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 were damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. One Venetian galley was the only one kept by the Turks. All others were abandoned by them and recaptured.
Prior to the battle, the Christians having lost twice before at this same location, made special processions in Rome to the Blessed Virgin. Christians were asked to pray the Rosary for victory. The triumph was credited to Our Lady of the Rosary.
Americans know that in 1492 Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue,” but how many know that in the same year the heroic Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Moors in Grenada? Americans would also probably recognize 1588 as the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Francis Drake and the rest of Queen Elizabeth’s pirates. It was a tragedy for the Catholic kingdom of Spain and a triumph for the Protestant British Empire, and the defeat determined the kind of history that would one day be taught in American schools: Protestant British history.
As a result, 1571, the year of the battle of Lepanto, the most important naval contest in human history, is not well known to Americans. October 7, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, celebrates the victory at Lepanto, the battle that saved the Christian West from defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
That this military triumph is also a Marian feast underscores our image of the Blessed Virgin prefigured in the Canticle of Canticles: “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” In October of 1564, the Viziers of the Divan of the Ottoman Empire assembled to urge their sultan to prepare for war with Malta. “Many more difficult victories have fallen to your scimitar than the capture of a handful of men on a tiny little island that is not well fortified,” they told him. Their words were flattering but true. During the five-decade reign of Soleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire grew to its fullest glory, encompassing the Caucuses, the Balkans, Anatolia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Soleiman had conquered Aden, Algiers, Baghdad, Belgrade, Budapest, Rhodes, and Temesvar. His war galleys terrorized not only the Mediterranean Sea, but the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf as well. His one defeat was at the gates of Vienna in 1529.
The Holy League
In a papacy of great achievements, the greatest came on March 7, 1571, on the feast of his fellow Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. At the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, Pope Pius formed the Holy League. Genoa, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Spain put aside their jealousies and pledged to assemble a fleet capable of confronting the sultan’s war galleys before the east coast of Italy became the next front in the war between the Christianity and Islam.
The man chosen by Pius V to serve as Captain General of the Holy League did not falter: Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the late Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and half-brother of Philip II, King of Spain. The young commander had distinguished himself in combat against Barbary corsairs and in the Morisco rebellion in Spain, a campaign in which he demonstrated his capacity for swift violence when the threat called for it and restraint when charity demanded it.
He was a great horseman, a great swordsman, and a great dancer. With charm, wit, and good looks in abundance, he was popular among the ladies of court. Since childhood he had cultivated a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He spoke Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, and kept a pet marmoset and a lion cub that slept at the foot of his bed. He was twenty-four years old.
Taking the young warrior by the shoulders, Pius V looked Don John of Austria in the eye and declared, “The Turks, swollen by their victories, will wish to take on our fleet, and God—I have the pious presentiment—will give us victory. Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness. Go and seek them out!”
The Divine Breath
It was. At dawn on October 7, 1571, the Holy League rowed down the west coast of Greece and turned east into the Gulf of Patras. When the morning mist cleared, the Christians, rowing directly against the wind, saw the squadrons of the larger Ottoman fleet arrayed like a crescent from shore to shore, bearing down on them under full sail.
As the fleets grew closer, the Christians could hear the gongs and cymbals, drums and cries of the Turks. The men of the Holy League quietly pulled at their oars, the soldiers stood on the decks in silent prayer. Priests holding large crucifixes marched up and down the decks exhorting the men to be brave and hearing final confessions.
And, then the Blessed Mother intervened…
Our Lady of Victory,
Victorious daughter of the Father,
Victorious Mother of the Son,
Victorious Spouse of the Holy Spirit,
Victorious servant of the Holy Trinity
Victorious in your Immaculate Conception,
Victorious in crushing the serpent’s head,
Victorious over all the children of Adam,
Victorious over all enemies,
Victorious in your response to the Angel Gabriel,
Victorious in your wedding to St. Joseph,
Victorious in the birth of Christ,
Victorious in the flight to Egypt,
Victorious in your exile,
Victorious in your home at Nazareth,
Victorious in finding Christ in the temple,
Victorious in the mission of your Son,
Victorious in His passion and death,
Victorious in His Resurrection and Ascension,
Victorious in the Coming of the Holy Spirit,
Victorious in your sorrows and joys,
Victorious in your glorious Assumption,
Victorious in the angels who remained faithful,
Victorious in the happiness of the saints,
Victorious in the message of the prophets,
Victorious in the testimony of the patriarchs,
Victorious in the zeal of the apostles,
Victorious in the witness of the evangelists,
Victorious in the wisdom of the doctors,
Victorious in the deeds of the confessors,
Victorious in the triumph of all holy women,
Victorious in the faithfulness of the martyrs,
Victorious in your powerful intercession,
Victorious under your many titles,
Victorious at the moment of death,
Love & Marian victory,