In previous posts on the flax burning and sedia stercoraria, we have seen how the ancient ceremony of papal coronation evinced a continual concern with reminding the new pontiff, at the very moment of his elevation to the loftiest office in Christendom, that he remained a mere mortal. Richly symbolic rituals of humiliation were interspersed with the rituals of exaltation, lest the new pope become puffed up with vainglory.
One of the most poignant symbols that could be employed to this end was the cock of the Gospel, which crowed thrice after St Peter thrice denied Christ. From that moment and throughout Christian history, the cock has stood for Peter’s humiliation, but also for the vigilance of Christian pastors.
Some verses from Ambrose’s hymn Æterne rerum conditor, traditionally sung in the Roman rite at Lauds in winter, make both associations clear:
|Hoc, ipsa Petra Ecclesiae,
Cantente, culpam diluit.Surgamus ergo strenue,
Gallus jacentes excitat,
Et somnolentos increpat,
Gallus negantes arguit.Gallo canente spes redit,
Ægris salus refunditur,
Mucro latronis conditur,
Lapsis fides revertitur.
|And at the crowing of the cock,
The Church’s Rock washes away his sin in tears.Let us, then, arise promptly,
The cock rouses those who lie abed,
The cock rebukes the sleepy,
And reproves those who refuse.With the cock-crow hope returns,
The sick are filled with health,
The thief’s sword is sheathed,
Faith returns to the fallen.
The importance of the cock as a Scriptural symbol of repentance and vigilance led to frequent representation in both architecture and ceremony. For many centuries, the cock and cross perched together on the spires of churches and bell-towers of all Latin Christendom. In the words of the Gemma Animae:
“And not without good reason is a rooster placed on the belfry. For the rooster rouses those who are sleeping, and by this the priest, God’s rooster, is admonished to rouse us from our sleep by the bell.”
But the bird was especially prominent in Rome, where brazen cocks used to adorn both the Lateran Basilica (the pope’s cathedral) and the Vatican Basilica where St Peter’s remains lay, and found its way into several papal ceremonies.
1) The Cock of the Lateran and the Possession Ceremony.
“…and crowed the cock, with the selfsame
Voice that in ages of old had startled the penitent Peter.”
Some early-modern historians mention a curious ceremony involving a bronze cock that took place, either as the pope took possession of the Lateran, or when his coronation took place in the same basilica. As the pope entered the basilica, he would have walked past a bronze rooster perched on a porphyry column beside the doors. According to Moroni, this cock was “pointed out” to him during the Possession:
“The pope’s attention was directed to a bronze rooster […] perched on a porphyry column close to the door of the Lateran Basilica, in the form of the one that crowed three times at the three-fold denial and fall of Peter, reminding him by this symbol and urging him by this example to have compassion on the failings of his subjects, as Christ had compassion and pardoned the three denials made by the first pope, who immediately repented in tears.”
Macri’s Hierolexicon agrees that it took place during the Possession, and repeats the same reason that led the popes to include a memory of Peter’s denial in the day they took possession of the Lateran: “to represent, in the day of the possession, the pitiable fragility of human nature, and how the new pope must show himself meek toward it. Cancellieri says this showing of the cock took place during the coronation rite whenever it took place in the Lateran. Ritual books themselves do not mention this moment, and the historians give no citations.
What ever happened to this statue and column? It seems that they were put away by order of Alexander VII to discourage a strong superstition that had grown up among pious visitors to the basilica:
“The common people believed that this column was the very same one on which the cock had crowed on the night of the Passion to remind Peter of his infidelity, and that it had been transported to Rome from the house of Pilate along with the other porphyry columns of the neighboring baptistry. By order of Alexander VII it was removed and placed in the basilica, then in the cloister, where the cock was stolen in 1789, at which time the column was also sold.”
Presumably, then, pointing out the cock to the pope during the possession ceremony ended with the artifact’s removal by Alexander VII.
2) The Cock in the Campanile and Basilica of St. Peter’s
Several sources mention a bronze cock that formerly stood atop the belfry of Old St Peter’s Basilica. It was placed there in the 9th century, probably by the Most Holy Lord Pope Leo IV, who undertook to fortify the Vatican hill and repair its basilica after the incursion of the Saracens under the reign of his predecessor, the Lord Sergius II.
After the old basilica was demolished on the orders of Julius II, the cock was taken to the chapel of St. Lawrence in the the Basilica of St. Andrew, which formerly stood next to St. Peter’s. St Andrew’s was in turn destroyed by Pius VI to make way for St. Peter’s new sacristy, and the cock was thereafter kept in this sacristy, as attested by Francesco Maria Torrigio, who wrote in 1636, “In the sacristy of St. Peter’s there is a very ancient cock, entirely of bronze, which was gilded in the year 1630, and was in the past on the top of this belfry; among the ancients it was customary to place such a symbol on the tops of belfries and churches as a sign of vigilance and preaching.”
A gilded brazen cock measuring 69 cm high and 19 cm long, and weighing 46 kg, is currently held in the museum treasury of St. Peter’s Basilica, and is believed by many authorities to have been the very same that was placed atop a bell-tower at the old basilica by Leo IV, although some scholars think it more likely that this bird dates from the earlier reign of Stephen II, who built the basilica’s first belfry. According to 17th century sources, there was also a bronze cock above the portico of St. John Lateran at one time.
3) Letter of Germanos II to the Cardinals of Pope Gregory.
It seems fitting to close with an excerpt from a remarkable letter, written in 1232 by Patriarch Germanos II, then exiled in Nicea, to the College of Cardinals of Gregory IX. It is a fervent plea for aid, asking the College to intercede with the pope to put an end the divisions between Latin and Greek Christians, and to come to the aid of the crumbling Byzantine Empire against the Turkish armies.
After stressing the importance of mutual counsel and collegiality, the Patriarch reminds the Cardinals of a profound theological truth: that the papal office was founded on Peter’s repentance. Let the pope, then, be quick to repent of his errors, and thereby give the world an example of conversion.
“All men make use of one another’s aid, even if they be the most exalted and wise in all divine things. And I, because I have honored the great Apostle Peter, the crown of the choirs of Christ’s disciples, the Rock of faith, I remind you how that rock was shaken to its foundation and laid low by a wretched woman, even as Christ submitted to everything. And Christ whose judgments are as profound as the abyss, making use of the cock, forced Peter to remember his prophetic word. At the voice of the cock he awakened Peter from his dream of denial, and his face was riven by tears, and he stood up and confessed to God. And so he became an example of conversion for the whole world, and bearing the keys of the Kingdom he runs about among all men saying: Let the faltering stand tall, let the fallen raise themselves, looking upon my example. Imitate me rushing toward the gates of Paradise and holding the authority to open them.”
 Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma Animae, 144.
 Moroni, Dizionario, LII, pg. 295: “Si mostrava al Pontefice quel gallo di bronzo […] sopra una colonna di porfido vicino alla porta della basilica Lateranense, in memoria e figura di quello che cantò tre volte alle negazioni e triplice caduta di Pietro, rammentandogli con questo simbolo, ed eccitandolo con questo esempio, ch’egli dovea compatire i mancamenti de’suoi sudditi, come Cristo avea compatito e perdonato le tre negazioni che di lui avea fatte il primo Pontefice, subito penitente e lagrimante.”
 “Ad repraesentandam, in die possessionis, commiserabilem Humanitatis fragilitatem, ac mitem se erga eam praebere debere” (Hierolexicon, pg. 534).
 “Ma perché il volgo credeva, che sopra la colonna avesse realmente cantato il gallo che nella notte della passione ricordò a Pietro la sua infedeltà, e che fosse trasportata in Roma dalla casa di Pilato con le altre colonne di porfido del propinquo battistero, d’ordine d’Alessandro VII fu tolta dalla vista del popolo e situata nella basilica e poi nel chiostro, ove fu rubato il gallo nel 1798, venendo la colonna venduta” (Storia de’ solenni possessi de’ sommi pontefici, pg. 54).
 “Nella sacrestia di S. Pietro è un antichissimo gallo tutto di bronzo, che fu poi indorato l’anno 1630, qual stava ne’ tempi passati nella sommità di questo campanile, essendo soliti sia i nostri Antichi in segno di vigilanza e di predicazione porre tal simbolo in cima de’ campanili, e Chiese” (Torrigio, Le sacre grotte vaticane).
 As recorded by Cancellieri, v. II, pg. 1364: “Teste Card. Rasponio, in Turribus ad Pyramidis formam a Xysto IV excitatis, supra Porticum Lateranensem, ‘olim spectaculo erat Gallus versatilis aeneus in fastigio earum, satis eleganti artificio elaboratus, qui Basilicae incendio consumptus est.’” (According to Cardinal Rasponi, in the pyramid-shaped towers built by Sixtus IV above the portico of the Lateran, “formerly one could see a revolving bronze cock on their pinnacles, a work of quite elegant craftsmanship.”) The custom of placing cocks above the church or its belfry was once widespread throughout Christendom. Cancellieri mentions that St. Charles Borromeo, when he was Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of San Nicola in Carcere Tulliano, set down in the church’s constitutions that “the bell-tower, an image of a cock being most firmly affixed thereto, should bear an upright Cross.” He adds that there was once a rooster atop the belfry of the churches of San Nazaro and San Babila in Milan and on the belfry of the episcopal palace in Viterbo; none of these remain.