John of Vercelli

Blessed John of Vercellli, O.P.
Master General of the Order of Preachers
Born c. 1205
Mosso Santa Maria
Biella, Italy
Died 30 November 1283
Montpellier, France
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
(Dominican Order)

Blessed John of Vercelli, O.P. (Giovanni da Vercelli) (c. 1205 – 30 November 1283), was the sixth Master General of the Dominican Order (1264-1283).

Early Life and Education

John was born in 1205 to the Garbella family in Mosso Santa Maria in the Province of Biella, in the Piedmont region of Italy.[1] He did his initial studies in Paris (one could not graduate in the Arts before the age of 21, and only after a minimum of six years of study),[2] and then studied canon law in Paris,[3] Pavia, and Vercelli[4] before he joined the Dominican friars during the 1240s.[5]

The Emperor Frederick II, that stupor mundi and "malleus Italiae Regionis", died on December 13, 1250. Pope Innocent IV's exile was over. He left Lyons on April 19, 1251, and arrived in his home town, Genoa, on May 18. From Genoa he began the difficult task of getting back the territories of the Church lost to the Emperor Frederick, and reconstructing the effective operation of the Church hierarchy in northern and central Italy. One of his problems was the rise and flourishing of heresy in the Po Valley. On June 11, 1251, the Pope issued instructions from Genoa to Vincentius of Milan and Joannes of Vercelli, to undertake the office of Inquisitor, jointly or severally, in Venice and other parts of Lombardy.[6] These were not the only Inquisitors appointed. On the same day, and with the same form letter ("Misericors et Miserator"), the Pope also appointed Peter of Verona and Vivianus of Bergamo to the same task in the area of Cremona and other cities of Lombardy. No doubt there were others, now unattested. The Pope was also prepared to take on Frederick's sons Manfred and Enzo (Ezolino) of Sardinia, as he indicated in a letter to the Dominican Bishop of Treviso and the Prior of Mantua.[7]

Umberto de Romans, the fifth Master General, elected in 1253, held the General Chapter in Buda, Hungary, on May 31, 1254.[8] At the conclusion of the meeting, he appointed John of Vercelli as the Master General's Vicar to Hungary.[9] Later (1255-1257) he was appointed Prior of the Dominican monastery in Bologna.

Prior of Lombardy

In 1257, at the Provincial Chapter for Lombardy held at Novara, he was elected Prior Provincial of Lombardy. At that time the province contained thirty convents of the Order.[10] During his administration three new convents were founded, at Turin, Chieri[11] and Tortona. He served as Prior of Lombardy for seven years.[12] One of the major and continuing problems in his province was the rise and spread of heresy, especially Catharism. The inquisitorial machine was being constructed, as John's own service in Venice a few years earlier indicates. These new inquisitors were directing one question after another to Rome, and were overwhelming the Curia with their concerns. Alexander replied, urging them to act boldly and independently, against any manner or quality of person, but to continue to consult the Holy See in difficult cases.[13] On March 23, 1262, the new pope, Urban IV, sent a mandate to John of Vercelli, authorizing him, in consultation with other discreet members of his Order, to appoint up to eight Dominican friars as Inquisitors in the Province of Lombardy and the March of Genoa. He was also authorized to remove Inquisitors from office who proved inadequate and to replace them; he could delegate this task to his Vicar.[14]

As Prior of Lombardy he was expected to see to the election of a delegate (diffinitor) to the annual General Chapter, and to preside over the Provincial Chapter in Lombardy. In 1258, the General Chapter was held at Toulouse, and the Provincial Chapter at Milan. He took part in the General Chapter at Valenciennes, on April 13, 1259, and held the Provincial Chapter in Bologna. In 1260 the General Chapter was in Strasbourg, and Prior John presided over the provincial General Chapter, which was held at Ferrara. In 1261 the General Chapter was held at Barcelona, and the Provincial Chapter at Milan. In 1262, both meetings took place in Bologna. In 1263 the General Chapter was held in London, and the Provincial Chapter at Venice.[15]

Master General

On June 7, 1264 he was elected as Master General by the General Chapter, held in Paris, under the presidency of Pierre of Tarentaise, OP, the future Pope Innocent V. John held the post of Master General until his death.[16] Known for his tireless energy and his commitment to simplicity, John made personal visits—typically on foot—to almost all the Dominican houses, urging his fellow friars to observe faithfully the Rule and Constitutions of the Order.

In 1267, an event of paramount importance for the Dominican Order took place in Bologna. Already in 1262, under the fifth Master General, the decision had been taken by the General Chapter to provide a more imposing resting place for their Founder, Saint Dominic Guzman, than his remains currently enjoyed. John of Vercelli and the members of the Order carried that plan to completion, providing a new shrine for Dominic's body in the apse of their church. Already on March 15, 1267, Pope Clement IV provided a bull, granting a series of indulgences for those visiting the shrine during the week centered on the Saint's Feast Day.[17] On May 27, 1267, Pope Innocent sent his blessing with his best wishes for an agreeable assembly to the General Congregation which was about to meet.[18] On June 5, 1267, the translation actually took place in a grand ceremony, with Master John and the delegates assembled for the General Chapter taking part, with the attendance of Archbishop Filippo of Ravenna, Bishop Ottaviano de' Ubaldinis of Bologna, Bishop Tommaso de' Ubaldinis of Imola, and other bishops. Before being placed in the shrine, the head and relics were shown publicly.[19]

Master John is known to have consulted Thomas Aquinas officially on several occasions on matters pertaining to theology and the teaching of Pierre de Tarantaise.[20]

During his administration, Pope Gregory X entrusted the Dominican Order with the task of trying to establish peace among the warring States of the Italian peninsula. Additionally, John was also given the task of preparing a framework for the Second Council of Lyons, held in 1274 in an attempt to unify the Eastern and Western Churches. In the course of this work, he met and worked with the Minister General of the Friars Minor, Jerome of Ascoli (who would later become Pope Nicholas IV).[21] Both were later sent by the Holy See to negotiate a disagreement with King Philip III of France.[5]

1276-1277—Five popes

Following the Council, Pope Gregory again looked to the Dominican friars, this time to spread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.[22] John took the task to heart, requiring that every Dominican church contain an altar dedicated to the Holy Name. The Society of the Holy Name was formed to combat blasphemy and profanation of this name.[23] Pope Gregory returned to Italy at the end of 1275, but illness ensured that he never reached Rome. He died at Arezzo on January 10, 1276. His new regulations for conclaves "Ubi Periculum", promulgated at the Council of Lyons, were applied for the first time, and a one-day Conclave (January 20–21, 1276), produced a new pope, the Dominican Innocent V.[24] The General Chapter that year met in Pisa in May, and the Pope sent his greetings to his bretheren, but he died suddenly on June 22, 1276. The Conclave to elect his successor began on July 2, and lasted ten days.[25] Cardinal Ottobono Fieschi was elected on July 11, 1276, and took the name Adrian V. In August, even before his consecration and coronation, he travelled to Viterbo, partially to escape the Roman summer, but also because he wished to meet with the Emperor-elect Rudolf. He died in Viterbo only thirty-seven days after his election, on August 18. At some point during this whirlwind of disasters, John of Vercelli reached the Papal Curia. This was not surprising, since, after a General Chapter, and this one in Pisa, the leaders of the Order of Preachers would have business of all sorts to do with the Curia;[26] the decision to go to Rome was much happier, since one of their own had been elected Pope. After his death, they had no alternative but to wait until the new pope was willing and able to do business with them. The death of Adrian V at Viterbo meant that the Dominican leaders were in Viterbo for the third Conclave of 1276.[27] It should have begun on August 29 or 30, but there were disorders in the town, caused, it seems by curial agitators who wanted a quick election. The Cardinals were forced to remonstrate with the disorderly mob, and they sent three Dominicans, the Archbishop of Corinth (Petrus de Confluentia), the Master General of the Dominicans (John of Vercelli), and the Procurator General (Ioannes Vereschi), to carry their reproof to the citizens of Viterbo and the unruly Curia. Insults were hurled at the messengers, and stones were thrown. Once order was restored, however, the Conclave began, and in one day, on September 8, produced a new pope, Cardinal Peter Julian of Lisbon, who chose to be called John XXI.[28]

On October 15, Pope John XXI appointed John of Vercellae, OP, as well as Hieronymus, the Minister General of the Franciscans, as Apostolic Legates to go to France to arrange a peace between King Philip and King Alfonso X of Castile.[29] The urgency of their mission was repeated in a letter from the College of Cardinals, written during the Sede Vacante[30] following the death of Pope John XXI on May 16, 1277.[31] Pope Nicholas III repeated the same urgent wish for peace directly to King Philip III of France and King Alfonso X of Castile, with a recommendation for John of Vercellae and Hieronymus Masci.[32] On March 12, 1278, Fr. Hieronymus Masci was named a cardinal,[33] but the legates had their orders reinforced by a letter from Nicholas III dated April 4, 1278.[34] Another letter was sent to Cardinal Masci on April 23, urging him to conclude the embassy as soon as possible, since his services were urgently needed in the Roman Curia.[35]

Later Years, 1278–1283

Late in his life, on May 15, 1278, John was appointed by Pope Nicholas III to the position of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem,.[36] It was a promotion to the prelacy which he did not welcome and which he wished to decline. After consideration and with considerable reluctance, the Pope wrote Master John a long letter (October 1, 1278) rehearsing the reasons why he should not ask to be released from the episcopal office, addressing him in the letter as Joannes electus Hierosolymitanus, quondam Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum Magister (John, Bishop-Elect of Jerusalem and former Master of the Order of Preachers).[37] The Pope was still firm in his refusal to release Bishop-elect John, in letters to King Philip of France and King Alfonso of Castile on November 29, 1278.[38] It was finally after the intervention and persuasion of Nicholas III's nephew, Cardinal Latino Malabranca Orsini, OP, that the Pope finally relented and restored John of Vercelli to the office of Master General of his Order.[39]

The General Chapter of the Order of Preachers was held in Montpellier in 1283. The Chapter decided that the next Chapter would be held in Bologna. But John of Vercelli died on 30 November 1283 in the convent of the Dominicans in Montpellier, France.

General Chapters held by John of Vercelli as Master General

John of Vercelli insisted on the rule instituted by S. Dominic himself that Friars of the Order should travel on foot, never using a horse or a wheeled vehicle. The table below demonstrates the peripatetic nature of John's life as Master General, never staying in one convent for very long, but constantly pursuing his visitations of one province after another, one convent after another.[40] The site of each General Chapter[41] had been decided at the General Chapter the year before (with the proviso that emergency circumstances might allow the Master General to choose another site),[42] and therefore John's itinerary every year would include the goal of reaching the chosen site at the appropriate time each Spring.

Chapter Year Location
XLV 1265 Montpellier
XLVI 1266 Trier
XLVII 1267 Bologna[43]
XLVIII 1268 Viterbo[44]
XLIX 1269 Paris
L 1270 Milan
LI 1271 Montpellier[45]
LII 1272 Florence
LIII 1273 Pest
LIV 1274 Lyons[46]
LV 1275 Bologna
LVI 1276 Pisa[47]
LVII 1277 Bordeaux
LVIII 1278 Milan
LIX 1279 Paris
LX 1280 Oxford
LXI 1281 Florence
LXII 1282 Vienne
LXIII 1283 Montpellier


John of Vercelli is the patron of the Confraternity of the most Holy Names of God and Jesus ('The Holy Name Society').


  1. Daniel Antonin Mortier, Histoire des Maîtres généraux de l' Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs II (Paris 1905), pp. 1-4: Né dans les premières années du XIIIe siècle,—la date précise reste incertaine...
  2. P. Glorieux, "L’enseignement au moyen âge. Techniques et méthodes en usage à la Faculté de Théologie de Paris au XIIIe siècle," Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Âge 35 (1968) 54, 58.
  3. Stephanus Salanhacus (13th c.) states that he was Regent in Canon Law in Paris, quoted by J. Echard, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum I (Paris 1719), p. 210: Sextus magister ordinis successor F. Humberti F. Joannes de Vercellis provinciae Lombardiae, qui rexerat Parisius in jure canonico.... At Paris the minimum age for a doctorate in Canon Law was thirty-five.
  4. The studium generale was allegedly founded in 1228. Tommaso Vallauri, Storia delle università degli studi del Piemonte (Torino 1875), pp. 15-25. It is imagined, without specific sources, that John of Vercelli left Paris in 1229, as a result of a strike on the part of all of the professors: Mortier, p. 6 and n. 1. So too Perotta. Such an early date for his departure from Paris would be impossible if he were a Doctor in utroque iure. His study at Pavia and at Vercelli is conjecture and inference. Before adopting the unlikely idea of a university at Vercelli, consult William A. Hinnebusch, "The Dominican Order and Learning," History of the Dominican Order II, pp. 3-18, where S. Dominic's idea is explained—that each house of the Order should have a Doctor and a Lector for the education of the members. The ideal, occasionally realized, was that each convent would become a studium, if not a studium generale.
  5. 1 2 Perrotta O.P., Paul C., "Patron of the Holy Name Society", National Association of the Holy Name Society
  6. T. Ripoll, Bullarium Ordinis FF. Praedicatorum VII (Rome 1739), p. 25 no. 365; I (Rome 1729), pp. 192-193, no. 227. Potthast, Regesta pontificum Romanorum II, no. 14332.
  7. Ripoll, Bullarium Ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I (Rome 1729), p. 193, no. 228 (June 16, 1251).
  8. Daniel Anton Mortier, Histoire des maîtres généraux de l' Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs I (Paris 1903), pp. 430-433.
  9. Mortier II, p. 12 n. 3, quoting Sebastian de Olmedo. Penone, p. 89.
  10. In 1303, when the Province was divided in two, there were thirty-three convents. They are listed, according to a text of Bernardus Guidonis, in Jacobus Echard, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum recensiti Tomus primus (Paris 1719), p. vii.
  11. also claimed as a foundation of Saint Dominic himself, in 1220.
  12. Daniel Antonin Mortier, Histoire des Maîtres généraux de l' Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs II (Paris 1905), p. 12-13.
  13. See the letter of Alexander IV, Ripoll I, p. 387 (January 10, 1260), to all the Inquisitors of Italy of the Dominican Order. Potthast II, no. 17745. A similar letter was sent to the Inquisitors of the Franciscan Order: A. Tommassetti (ed.), Bullarum, Diplomatum et Privilegiorum Sanctorum Romanorum Pontificum Taurensis editio Tomus III (Turin 1858), p. 669 no. LI-LII (January 20 and March 4, 1260). Mortier's interpretation (II, p. 17), that the letters to the Dominican Inquisitors shows that John of Vercelli was liberal or lax, is myopic and unlikely, considering the sum of the evidence.
  14. Ripoll I, p. 419, no. 5. Potthast, II, 18256.
  15. Benedikt Maria Reichert (editor), Cronica ordinis praedicatorum ab anno 1170. usque ad 1333 Part 1 (Rome 1897), pp. 97-99 and p. 110.
  16. Daniel Antonin Mortier, Histoire des Maîtres généraux de l' Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs II (Paris 1905), pp. 21-22. Butler's lives of the saints of Alban Butler, published in 2000 by Burns and Oates at Tunbridge Wells, Vol. 12 pp. 9–10
  17. Ripoll, Bullarium Ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I (Rome 1729), p. 483 no. LXII: cum tanti Patris et Doctoris vestry sepulcrum infra Ecclesiam vestram de Bononia in loco magis demisso in humili quam tam famoso thesauro conveniat, habeatur, reverenter et salubriter decrevistis ut pretiosum Corpus confessoris ejusdem in altiorem et digniorem locum ipsius ecclesiae transfereatur...
  18. Ripoll, Bullarium Ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I (Rome 1729), p. 484 no. LXIV
  19. Ripoll, Bullarium Ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I (Rome 1729), p. 483 n. 3, quoting Michael Plodius. Anita Fiderer Moskowitz, Nicola Pisano's Arca Di San Domenico and Its Legacy (University Park PA USA: Penn State Press, 1994), pp. 5-9. Barbara W. Dodsworth, The Arca Di San Domenico (New York: Lang, 1995), p. 31. Whether the idea for a new resting place for the saint's remains came from Master John, who had been Prior of the Dominican convent in Bologna, and then Prior of Lombardy, or from his predecessor Master Umberto is unknown.
  20. Jean-Pierre Torrell (tr. Robert Royal), Saint Thomas Aquinas: the person and his work, Volume 1 revised edition (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), pp. 167-169.
  21. A. Touron, Histoire des hommes illustres de l' Ordre de Saint Dominique Tome premier (Paris 1743), pp. 434-437.
  22. Thuente, Clement. "Society of the Holy Name." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 27 Dec. 2014
  23. "Blessed John of Vercelli"
  24. Sede Vacante and Conclave, January 1276 (Dr. J. P. Adams).
  25. Sede Vacante and Conclave, June-July 1276 (Dr. J. P. Adams).
  26. See, e.g. Potthast, II, no. 21178 (November 3, 1276), the final settlement of a dispute between S. Maria Sopra Minerva and S. Marco in Rome.
  27. Sede Vacante and Conclave of August-September, 1276 (Dr. J. P. Adams)
  28. Augustinus Theiner (Editor), Caesaris S. R. E. Cardinalis Baronii, Od. Raynaldi et Jac. Laderchii Annales Ecclesiastici Tomus Vigesimus Secundus 1257-1285 (Barri-Ducis: Ludovicus Guerin 1870), pp. 377-378, nos. 31-33; Potthast 21152.
  29. T. Ripoll, Bullarium ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I, p. 549 no. 3. Potthast II, 21165; and see Theiner Caesaris S. R. E. Cardinalis Baronii, Od. Raynaldi et Jac. Laderchii Annales Ecclesiastici Volume 22, under the year 1277, no. 47, p. 402.
  30. Sede Vacante and Conclave, May-November, 1277 (Dr. J. P. Adams).
  31. Potthast, II, 21253.
  32. Potthast, II, no. 21259-21260.
  33. Conradus Eubel, Hierarchia catholica medii aevi I editio altera (Monasterii 1913), p. 10.
  34. Potthast, II, no. 21294.
  35. Ripoll, I, pp. 555-556, no. IV.
  36. Conradus Eubel, OFM Conv., Hierarchia Catholici Medii Aevi...ab anno 1198 usque ad annum 1431 perducta editio altera (Monasterii 1913), p. 275.
  37. T. Ripoll, Bullarium ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I (Rome: Hieronymus Mainard, 1729), p. 572. August Potthast, Regesta pontificum Romanorum II, no. 21462. Augustinus Theiner (Editor), Caesaris S. R. E. Cardinalis Baronii, Od. Raynaldi et Jac. Laderchii Annales Ecclesiastici Tomus Vigesimus Primus 1229-1256 (Barri-Ducis: Ludovicus Guerin 1870) under the year 1278, § 80, p. 446.
  38. T. Ripoll, Bullarium ordinis FF. Praedicatorum I (Rome: Hieronymus Mainard, 1729), p. 561-562, nos. XI-XII.
  39. Jules Gay (editor), Registres de Nicolas III fasc.1 (Paris 1898), p. 159 no. 419 (February 4, 1279).
  40. Mortier II, pp. 28-32.
  41. Benedikt Maria Reichert (editor), Cronica ordinis praedicatorum ab anno 1170. usque ad 1333 Part 1 (Rome 1897), pp. 99-102.
  42. Ernest Barker, The Dominican Order and Convocation (Oxford 1913), pp. 14-16.
  43. Master John's encyclical letter, written during the General Chapter, is dated July 14, 1267: E. Martene and U. Durand, Thesaurus novus anecdotorum IV (Paris 1717), pp. 1751-1752. It was at this General Chapter, on June 5, 1267, that the relics of Saint Dominic were transferred from their second resting place to the new marble tomb.
  44. Master John's encyclical letter, written after the close of the General Chapter, is dated June 5, 1268: E. Martene and U. Durand, Thesaurus novus anecdotorum IV (Paris 1717), pp. 1751-1752.
  45. Philip III of France wrote to the General Chapter on May 6, 1271, at Cluny, announcing the death of several of his relatives. E. Martene and U. Durand, Thesaurus novus anecdotorum IV (Paris 1717), pp. 1761-1763.
  46. Master John's encyclical letter, written after the close of the General Chapter, is dated November 3, 1274: E. Martene and U. Durand, Thesaurus novus anecdotorum IV (Paris 1717), pp. 1774-1777.
  47. Pope Innocent V wrote a letter to the Master General and General Chapter from the Lateran on May 10, 1276, lamenting his inability to be present with his fellow Dominicans: E. Martene and U. Durand, Thesaurus novus anecdotorum IV (Paris 1717), pp. 1787-1788. Ripoll, I, p. 543, no. 3. Pope Innocent V died on June 22, 1276.


Preceded by
Humbert de Romans
Master General of the Dominican Order
Succeeded by
Munio de Zamora

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