Nicholas Cusanus as Prince-Bishop of Brixen (1450-64)

Nicholas Cusanus as Prince-Bishop of Brixen (1450-64): Historians and a Conflict of Church and State

By Brian A. Pavlac

Historical Reflections / Reflexions Historiques Vol.21 No.1 (1995)

Introduction: The impressive accomplishments of Nicolaus Cusanus (also called Nicolaus Treverensis, Nicolaus Cancer, Nikolaus von Kues and Nicholas of Cusa) make him one of the most important personalities of the fifteenth century.  Scholars have long been drawn to his successfrrl clerical career, which Cusanus combined with noteworthy achievements as a humanist scholar and philosopher. Yet the historical evaluation of his reign (1450-64) as prince-bishop of Brixen, or Bressanone, remains controversial. Since Cusanus remains an example of the contention between church and state, this article provides a comprehensive survey of the main points of the Brixen controversy and hopes to sensitize historians to the complexities of the scholarly disagreements about Cusanus in Tyrol.


Cusanus rose from modest beginnings to the highest ranks in the Western Church. He was born in 1401 as Nikolaus Krebs, the son of a wine shipper in the town of Kues (or Cusa, part of today’s  Benrkastel-Kues in the Mosel valley). His ecclesiastical career began with studies in Heidelberg, Padua and Cologne; then he served the archbishop of Trier in the 1420s, where he began to collect church benefices. He first gained international prominence at the Council of Basel (1431-49), when he unsuccessfully defended his archbishop against a papal provision to the see of Trier.

At first a proponent of conciliarism, he soon shifted his allegiance to the papacy. Leaving Basel behind, he went to Constantinople to help organize the unifying Council of Ferrara-Florence for the pope. In the following years Cusanus promoted papal interests at imperial diets and princely courts in Germany; a grateful pope named him Cardinal-priest of San Pietro in Vincoli in 1448. As papal legate, Cardinal Cusanus attempted to reform the German churches in 1451-52. And in the last years o of his life he led the college of cardinals, represented the pope during papal absences, and administered the papal temporalities in Italy south of the Po. In addition to these manifold duties and activities, Cusanus was one of the most important German humanists of the fifteenth century.


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