Biandrata, Giovanni Giorgio

Giovanni Giorgio Biandrata
Giovanni Giorgio Biandrata

Giovanni Giorgio Biandrata (or Blandrata) (1516-May 5, 1588), physician and counsel to the courts of Eastern Europe, brought the ideas of Michael Servetus and the Italian Radical reformers to the Reformations in Poland and Transylvania. He was an organizer of Reform and Unitarian churches in both countries and used his influence with the ruling families to protect the fledgling churches. After working closely with Francis Dávid, co-founder of the Unitarian movement in Transylvania, he came to believe that Dávid’s more radical Unitarianism posed a threat to the continued existence of Unitarians in Transylvania and thus directed the prosecution of Dávid, an action for which he was widely condemned.

Giorgio was born at Saluzzo in the Italian Piedmont. His father, Bernardino, castellan of San Fronte, was from the old noble family of De Blandrate. He studied at Montpellier in France, 1530-33 and received a degree in liberal arts and medicine. He did further medical study at Padua and Bologna, receiving degrees in 1534 and 1538, specializing in obstetrics and women’s diseases. In 1539 he published Gynaecorum ex Aristotele et Bonaciolo exerpta, which he dedicated to Bona Sforza, the Milanese Queen of Poland, and her daughter Isabella, wife of John Zápolya, ruler (voivode) of Transylvania and king of Hungary. He served as personal physician to Queen Bona in Poland, 1540-44, and physician and advisor to Isabella, then the regent in Transylvania, 1544-51.

During 1551-56 Transylvania was joined to Hungary, displacing Queen Isabella and her son John Sigismund from the throne. Biandrata traveled to Vienna to negotiate for the Queen. In 1552 he returned to Italy, first to Milan, then to Mestre, near Venice. News of the of the 1553 execution of Servetus sparked his interest in theology. He was recalled to Vienna late that year to witness at a murder trial. The victim, a Cardinal, had been another of Isabella’s advisors. At least until that time he took the sacraments of the Catholic Church. While practicing medicine in Pavia, 1553-56, he became a secret Protestant. In 1556 he went to Geneva, joining other Italian Humanists in flight from the Inquisition.

In Geneva Biandrata joined the recently formed Italian Protestant congregation and soon became an Elder. As a physician, he treated Jane Stafford, the English wife of Celso Martinengo, preacher of the Italian church, but was dismissed from this service after he began to question the preacher about the divinity of Christ. Influenced by the heretical Italian law professor, Matteo Gribaldi, who had several times visited Geneva, Biandrata addressed a series of questions to John Calvin, for example: “If the single God is one essence in three persons—and Jesus in no way revealed him—why is he concealed and plainly incomprehensible to us? We entreat clear scriptural testimony showing where God is openly and undoubtedly referred to as three persons at once. Likewise, whether it is permitted to pray to God alone without a mediator? Where did the apostles tell us about this?”

Although at first Calvin treated Biandrata’s persistent queries with tolerance, at length he became convinced that the Italian physician was a troublemaker. Biandrata his friend and fellow anti-trinitarian, Giampaolo Alciati, were admonished by the Geneva Consistory. Shortly afterward, afraid that he was about to be arrested, Biandrata fled to Zurich. He returned to Geneva when Alciati obtained a safe-conduct for him. In 1558 he was banished from the city for refusing to sign the new trinitarian confession of faith ordered by Calvin. At first he took refuge on the nearby estate of Gribaldi in Farges, then traveled to Bern and Zurich. After trying without success to convert the reformer Pietro Vermigli (Peter Martyr) to his views, Biandrata was forced to flee Zurich as well.

Accompanied by Laelius Socinus, in 1558 Biandrata returned to Poland. Calvin wrote to warn the Protestants in Poland “what a monster Giorgio Biandrata is, or rather, how many monsters he fosters.” Vermigli, writing to the Poles, advised them that Biandrata, because he denied that the Father and Son were of the same essence, made a plurality out of God and was, in effect, like his mentor Gribaldi, a tritheist. Biandrata was, nevertheless, made welcome at the Polish court, where he obtained a position with Bona Sforza, the Queen dowager. He quickly renewed his old acquaintance with Francis Lismanino, whom he had years before known as the Queen’s confessor but who then was a leading Protestant. Having gained Lismanino’s further confidence by treating his epilepsy, Biandrata engaged in many theological discussions with his patient, causing him to doubt the Trinity.

In 1559 Biandrata briefly journeyed to Transylvania to attend the last illness of Queen Isabella. He returned in time to attend a synod at the end of the year.

During the many synods held by the Polish Protestants, 1558-62, Biandrata was an influential participant. Hoping to avoid Calvinist theocracy, he promoted lay control of the church. In 1562 he succeeded in getting the Polish church to restrict theological vocabulary to the language of scriptures and the Apostle’s Creed. This was a liberal measure in that it allowed the toleration of many opinions whose heterodoxy could no longer be subject to official investigation.

In their attempt to subvert the influence of Biandrata, the conservative Protestants enlisted the aid of Calvin, who wrote warning the Poles that “that they should have taken heed, and not suffered this fox craftily to creep into their company.” Accused of Servetianism, Biandrata was forced to write a personal confession of faith: “I confess that I believe in one God the Father, in one Lord Jesus Christ his Son, and in one Holy Spirit, each one of whom is essentially God. I detest a plurality of Gods, since to us there is only one God, in essence indivisible. I confess that there are three distinct hypostases; and the eternal divinity and generation of Christ; and the Holy Spirit, true and eternal God, proceeding from both.”

By 1563 the conservatives had become strong enough to split the Polish Protestant Church. As Biandrata’s position as a chief promoter of the united liberal Protestant faith had become untenable, he went to Moldavia to work for Despot Jacob Basilicus. That same year, following the assassination of Jacob Basilicus, he accepted the invitation of King John Sigismund II to become physician to the court of Transylvania.

Biandrata owned one of the few surviving copies of Servetus’s Christianismi Restitutio (Christianity Restored). He persuaded Francis Dávid, whom he had persuaded the king to appoint court preacher, to read the Restitutio, which hastened Dávid’s transition from Calvinism to anti-trinitarianism. In 1567 Biandrata and Dávid collaborated in writing and publishing De falsa et vera unius Dei patris, filii et spiritus sancti cognitione (The False and True Knowledge of God), elaborating their shared theological views. A history of anti-trinitarianism from the time of Arius onwards, De falsa et vera argued that anti-trinitarianism was the consummation of the Reformation, and predicted the Second Coming of Christ for the year 1570. Antonio Rotondò called it “one of the most important works of the Italian and European heretical movement of the Sixteenth Century.”

A further co-publication of Biandrata and Dávid, Antithesis pseudo-christi cum vero uno illo ex Maria nato (The Antithesis between the Pseudo-Christ and the True One Born of Mary), was a condensed version of De falsa et vero. In 1569 they prepared De Regno Christi (Of the Kingdom of Christ) and De Regno Anti-Christi (Of the Kingdom of the Anti-christ), largely consisting of passages taken from Servetus’s Resititutio. A tract by Dávid against child baptism was included despite Biandrata’s disapproval.

In 1568, the King John Sigismund convened the Diet (the assembly of nobles) at Torda. The Act of Religious Freedom and Conscience adopted there is considered the first such pronouncement in the western world. Later that year a general synod was convened at Gyulafehérvár at which Dávid successfully defended the doctrine of the Unity of God against the trinitarians. (Biandrata also took part, but proved himself less effective in public debate. In 1569, at a debate at Nagvárad, he did not participate at all because of his inability to speak Hungarian.) In a 1569 letter he rejoiced “that the Lord now has his champions here who are openly and in private preaching the only and Most High God and his only Son conceived of the Holy Spirit, with such fervor of mind that they cannot be frightened by any torments.”

In 1571 the Diet formally recognized Unitarianism as one of the country’s four “received” (state-recognized) religions, with Dávid as its superintendent. Unfortunately, the king, who had meanwhile been converted to Unitarianism, soon after died following a carriage accident. Stephen Báthory, a tolerant Catholic prince, was chosen as Transylvania’s new ruler (voivode). Although Dávid lost his position as court preacher, Biandrata was retained as court physician. At a second Diet of Torda, 1572, the new regime confirmed the existing state of religious toleration, but forbade any new religious innovation.

Biandrata accompanied Báthory to Poland in 1574, where they campaigned for the voivode‘s election to the vacant Polish throne. Following the success of this mission in 1575, Biandrata was rewarded by Stephen’s brother, Christopher, the new Transylvanian voivode, with the income of several villages. More pro-Catholic than his brother, Christopher Báthory introduced the Jesuits into Transylvania. The Unitarian position had been weakened by the defeat in 1575 of a rebellion in which many Unitarian nobles were killed or imprisoned. At court Biandrata worked to protect the Unitarians against the rising Counter-Reformation.

In 1578 Biandrata became alarmed at innovations being promoted by Dávid, especially non-adorantism (not worshiping Christ or praying to him) and antipedobaptism. He worried that these positions would result in repressive legal action being taken against Unitarians by the state. He advised Dávid to abandon non-adorantism or, at least, to remain silent on the issue. At his own expense, he brought Faustus Socinus, the leading Polish anti-trinitarian, to Kolosvár to debate doctrine with Dávid. When, after lengthy discussions, the two failed to come to an agreement, the matter was referred to the Polish Brethren for a judgment. Biandrata envisioned an international Unitarian Reformed church, embracing the Polish Brethren, the Transylvanian Unitarians, and churches in Moldavia and Lithuania as well. When Dávid began introducing changes in advance of the Polish decision, Biandrata became angered and gave up on Dávid as incorrigible.

At Biandrata’s instigation, a Diet was convened at Gyulafehérvár in 1579 to try Dávid for religious innovation. Socinus attended the trial, but did not take part. As the prince’s chief counsel, Biandrata led the prosecution, accusing Dávid of embracing Judaism through his refusal to invoke Christ. Dávid argued that because he had held his views before the innovation law had been passed, no violation had occurred. When David entered the courtroom to hear the decision he was embraced by Biandrata, an action widely referred to later as the “Judas kiss.” Sentenced to life imprisonment, Dávid died a few months later in a mountain castle dungeon at Déva. For many Transylvanian and other Unitarians, Dávid quickly became, and remains, a martyr-hero.

Controversy arose almost at once over Biandrata’s motives. A Defense of Francis Dávid was published anonymously, in which it was claimed that he had plotted against his former friend because of jealousy and other personal reasons. In a letter to Jacob Palaeologus, Biandrata defended himself, saying that he was less concerned with Dávid’s doctrines than with the political consequences for the Unitarian church.

Biandrata quickly assumed control of the Transylvanian Unitarian movement. He convinced the majority of the ministers to adopt a confession of faith conceding that Christ was to be “worshiped and adored.” He designed a new church discipline, restoring infant baptism and communion. Upon his recommendation, Báthory appointed the conservative Unitarian, Demetrius Hunyadi, as the new Unitarian superintendent. In the more repressive political climate in the years following Dávid’s death, the moderate stand adopted by the Unitarians upon the advice of Biandrata, helped to insure their survival.

The Unitarian movement grew rapidly under Hunyadi’s leadership, but resentment and anger soon forced Biandrata to withdraw from participation. He continued to serve as physician to the prince’s largely Catholic court, where the Jesuits tried unsuccessfully to convert him. Although silent about religious affairs in later years, his allegiance to Unitarianism remained: his substantial estate was left to his nephew Giorgio, on condition that he remain true to the Unitarian faith. After his death his enemies spread the rumor that his nephew, anxious to inherit, had asphyxiated him in his sleep.

Although his reputation has long been tarnished, it is clear that Biandrata played as large a role as Dávid in establishing the Unitarian church in Transylvania, which has survived for well over four centuries.


Antithesis pseudo-christi cum vero uno illo ex Maria nato and exerpts from De falsa et vera unius Dei patris, filii et spiritus sancti cognitione are contained in Per la Storia degli Eretici Italiani del Secolo XVI in Europa, ed. Delio Cantimori and Elizabeth Feist (1937). Biandrata’s letter to Calvin is in Calvini Opera, vol. 17 (1877). Other documents relating to Biandrata’s activities in Geneva and elsewhere are in Calvini Opera, vols. 9, 17, 19, and 21. A detailed bibliography of works by and about Biandrata is appended to the detailed biographical article by Antonio Rotondò in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (1968). Substantial information on Biandrata can be found in Stanislas Lubiniecki, History of the Polish Reformation and Nine Related Documents, trans. George Huntston Williams (1995) (not least in Williams’s copious notes); three works by Earl Morse Wilbur: Our Unitarian Heritage (1925), A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents (1945), and A History of Unitarianism: In Transylvania, England and America (1946); Frederic C. Church, The Italian Reformers, 1534-1564 (1932); and George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962, 3rd ed. 1992). Other articles on Biandrata: by Alexander Gordon, in Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition); by Friedrich William Bautz, in Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (1990); by Mark Harris in Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004); and in Dizionario di eresie, eretici, dissidenti religiosi, confessione cristiane non cattoliche, nuova movimenti religiosi di ispirazione cristiani. See also Joseph N. Tylenda,, S.J., “The Warning That Went Unheeded: John Calvin on Giorgio Biandrata,” Calvin Theological Journal (1977) and Antonio Rotondò, “Calvin and the Italian Anti-trinitarians,” trans. John and Anne Tedeschi, Reformation Essays and Studies (1968).

Article by Charles A. Howe and Peter Hughes
Posted on October 24, 2005