We perform the night office at midnight because we read that at midnight the Lord struck the sleeping Egyptians and set free the watchful Hebrews. It is sung at midnight because that is when the Lord was born in Bethlehem and the angels sang their hymn to him, appearing also to the shepherds who were keeping watch by night. Likewise in the middle of the night, on Sunday, the Lord laid waste to hell and freed those who were keeping watch. Further, on a Sunday at midnight the Lord will come in judgment and will cast out the sleepers from his city, but the watchful he will lead into the place of rejoicing.
CAP. XV. – De media nocte.
Nocturnale autem officium ideo media nocte agimus, quia media nocte Dominus dormientes Aegyptios percussisse et vigilantes Hebraeos liberasse legitur. Ideo enim in media nocte agitur, quia media nocte in Bethlehem Dominus natus legitur, eique mox ab angelis laus concinitur; qui etiam pastoribus cum lumine apparebant, qui vigilias noctis custodiebant. Ideoque, in media nocte, et in Dominica nocte, quia Dominus media nocte, et in Dominica nocte, infernum devastavit, et populum vigilantem in media nocte liberavit. Ideo nihilominus in media nocte, quia Dominus in media nocte, et in Dominica nocte ad iudicium veniet, et dormientes a bonis de civitate sua disperdet; vigilantes vero in bonis in locum exsultationis adducet.
Ch. 16 On the Saints’ Authority
When we sing praises to our Creator in the night, we are following the authority of the saints. For David and the prophets “rose at midnight” (Psalm 118:62) “to praise the name of the Lord” (Psalm 121:4), and the Lord himself spent the night in prayer, and Paul and Silas sang psalms all through their night in prison (Acts 16), when a great light shone from heaven. All who imitate these men will share in their reward.
CAP. XVI. – De auctoritate sanctorum
Auctoritatem vero a sanctis habemus, ut in nocte surgentes laudes Creatori nostro cantemus. David namque (Psal. CXVIII) et prophetae media nocte ad confitendum nomini Domini surgebant, et Dominus in oratione pernoctabat, et Paulus atque Sylas in carcere media nocte psallebant (Act. XVI), quando ingens lumen divinitus ibi resplendebat: hos qui imitantur, et praemiis participantur.
Ch. 17 Jerome’s Disposition of the Psalms
In Bethlehem, where Our Lord wanted to be born, Jerome first composed the night office and the other hours the Church sings today. Next Pope Damasus ordered it to be celebrated according to the same rite throughout all the churches. “Anti” means “against”; “φωνη” means “sound,” and thus “antiphon” takes its name from the fact that it “concerns the sound,” because the antiphon establishes the mode in which the psalm is sung. In ancient days, Ignatius Bishop of Antioch heard the angelic chorus alternating in heaven, and according to this form he taught his church to sing, and afterwards passed the custom on to all the churches. The responsory comes from “responding” because when the choir has sung, one person responds with a verse, and the choir responds by repeating the beginning. Ambrose of Milan first composed the responsory chant, and the whole Church received this form from him. For he composed hymns that the Church still sings in praise of Christ.
CAP. XVII. – Dispositio Hieronymi.
Hieronymus primum in Bethlehem, ubi Dominus nasci voluit, nocturnale officium vel reliquas horas, ut hodie canit Ecclesia, disposuit. Secundum Damasus papa per omnes Ecclesias eodem ritu celebrari constituit. Anti dicitur contra; φωνη vero dicitur sonus, inde antiphona nomen habet, quod circa sonum sonet, quia cum videlicet antiphona incipitur, secundum tonum eius psalmus canitur. Hunc cantum primitus Ignatius Antiochenus episcopus in coelo angelicum chorum alternare audivit, et secundum hanc formam suam Ecclesiam cantare docuit, unde mos ad omnes Ecclesias pertransiit. Responsorium a respondendo dicitur, quia choro canente versus ab uno respondetur, et huic iterum a choro per incoeptionem respondetur. Hunc cantum in primis Ambrosius Mediolanensis episcopus composuit, et ab eo tota Ecclesia formam accepit. Hic enim hymnos composuit quos adhuc Ecclesia in laude Christi canit.
The second vigil is taken to be the age of the Law, which is also divided as if into hours, since it consists of three parts, one from Moses to David, a second from David to Babylon, and a third from Babylon to Christ; or to put it another way, priests, judges, and kings, as the text of the psalms declares.
CAP. VII. – De secunda vigilia et secundo nocturno.
Secunda vigilia tempus legis accipitur, quod iterum quasi horis discernitur, dum tribus interstitiis dividitur, scilicet uno a Moyse usque ad David, secundo a David usque ad Babyloniam, tertio a Babylonia usque ad Christum, sive sacerdotibus, iudicibus, regibus, quod declarat psalmorum textus.
On the First Hour
For Conserva me, Domine (Psalm 15) represents priests, for whom the Lord is “their portion and their cup.” They served their night duty at the first hour of this vigil when Aaron and others after him taught the people the Law of the Lord. Exaudi, Domine, iustitiam meam (Psalm 16) signifies the judges, whose judgment “comes forth from the Lord’s countenance.”
CAP. VIII. – De prima hora.
Nam Conserva me, Domine (Psal. XV), sacerdotes exprimit, quorum Dominus pars haereditatis et calicis fuit, qui prima hora huius vigiliae excubias servabant, dum Aaron et alii post eum, legem Domini populum docebant. Exaudi, Domine, iustitiam meam (Psal. XVI), iudices innuit, quorum iudicium de vultu Domini prodiit.
On the Second Hour
The judges chose to take the second hour’s vigil, when Gideon and others judges the people in accordance with the Law of God. Diligam te, Domine (Psalm 17) shows the kings, whom the Lord “made head of the Gentiles,” and who kept watch during the third hour, when David and others ruled the people in justice.
CAP. IX. – De secunda hora.
Hi secundae horae vigilandi curam susceperunt, dum Gedeon et alii populum secundum legem Dei iudicaverunt. Diligam te, Domine (Psal. XVII), reges ostendit, quos Dominus caput gentium constituit, qui tertiae horae vigilias custodiebant, dum David et alii populum ad iustitiam regebant.
On the Gloria Patri and the Third Nocturn
Each of the psalms are sung with the Gloria Patri because it is written that each of the afore-mentioned orders adored the Trinity, and for the same reason three psalms are sung. The three antiphons with which the psalms are sung are the praises given to the Trinity by these just men. The following readings are the preaching of these watchmen. The responsories are their actions, in which God’s “justifications were the subject of their songs” (Psalm 118:54). The readings are done at the kings’ watch because in that time the books of the prophets were written, and they taught the people in the second watch, and sang the song of good works.
CAP. X. – De Gloria Patri et tertio nocturno.
Singuli psalmi cum Gloria Patri psalluntur, quia singuli supradicti ordines Trinitatem adorasse scribuntur, ideo etiam et tres psalmi canuntur. Antiphonae ternae, quibus psalmi modulantur, sunt laudes quae ab illis iustis Trinitati exhibebantur. Sequentes lectiones sunt illorum vigilum praedicationes. Responsoria vero illorum actiones, quibus hic cantabiles erant Dei iustificationes. Ideo autem lectiones post ad vigiliam regum leguntur, quia illo tempore libri prophetarum scribebantur, et ipsi tempore legis, quasi secunda vigilia, populum docuerunt, et cantum bonorum operum personuerunt.
The Third Nocturn and its Watchmen (11 – 14)
On the Third Vigil and the Third Nocturn
The third vigil is the age of grace, which lasts until the end of the world. This age is divided into three hours, the time of apostolic preaching, the time of persecution, and the time of peace.
On the first hour.
During the first hour of this watch, the apostles were on duty, as demonstrated by Psalm 18 Coeli enarrant, since “there are no speeches nor languages where their voices are not heard,” when “their sound hath gone forth into all the earth.”
On the second hour.
The martyrs replaced the apostles at their watch posts, as Psalm 19 Exaudiat te Dominus proclaims, for “the name of the Lord” protected them in their tribulations, and was “mindful of all their sacrifices.”
On the third hour.
Constantine, who established peace with the faithful, took the third hour, as we see in Psalm 20 Domine, in virtute tua laetabitur rex. He is the king who “rejoiced” in Christ’s “strength” when the bull was raised from the dead through Sylvester in the name of Christ, in the midst of an international congress. He “rejoiced exceedingly in God’s salvation,” when he convened a great synod in Nicea, for which the Church “set on his head a crown” of glory and “laid upon him great glory.” To this day the faithful people keep this watch, and their King “hopeth in the Lord.” The last verses of the psalm touch upon the times of the Antichrist. The Lord places him like a fiery oven in which he tests his vessels. But “in the time of his face,” i.e. on the day of judgment, the Lord “shall trouble them in his wrath” along with all the wicked when “fire shall devour them.” But the Lord will raise up the vigilant Church in his strength, and she will “sing thy power” forever.
All these psalms end with the Gloria Patri because all of these men venerated the Trinity. There are three psalms because each of them flourished in faith, hope, and charity. The antiphon melodies are the Church’s thanksgiving, and the songs of the night watch.
CAP. XI. – De tertia vigilia et tertio nocturno.
Tertia vigilia tempus gratiae exstat, quae usque in fine mundi perdurat. Haec quasi in tres horas dividitur, dum tempore apostolicae praedicationis, tempore persecutionis, tempore pacis distinguitur.
De prima hora.
Prima hora huius vigiliae apostoli vigilabant, quos demonstrat psalmus (XVIII), Coeli enarrant, quorum voces omnis loquela et sermo audivit, dum eorum sonus in omnem terram exivit.
De secunda hora.
Secunda hora martyres vigilandi curam subibant, quos psalmus (XIX), Exaudiat te Dominus, denuntiat, quos nomen Dei in tribulationibus protexit, et omnis sacrificii eorum memor fuit.
De tertia hora.
Tertiae horae excubias Constantinus dux pacis cum fidelibus suscepit, quem psalmus (XX), Domine, in virtute tua laetabitur rex, innuit. Ipse enim rex in virtute Christi est laetatus, dum Taurus in conventu totius orbis in nomine Christi est per Silvestrum resuscitatus. Super salutem Dei vehementer exultavit, dum maximam synodum in Nicaeam congregavit, unde Ecclesia coronam super caput eius posuit gloriae, et magnum decorem ei tribuit. Huius vigiliae custodiam adhuc populus fidelium servat, cuius rex in Domino sperat. Ultimi versus psalmi tangunt tempora antichristi. Quem Dominus clibanum ignis ponet, in quo vasa sua examinet. In tempore vero vultus sui, id est in die iudicii, eum cum omnibus iniquis Dominus in ira sua conturbabit, cum eos ignis devorabit. Ecclesiam vero vigilem in virtute sua Dominus tunc exaltabit, quae virtutes eius in aeternum cantabit. Hi psalmi singuli cum Gloria Patri terminantur, quia Trinitas ab his omnibus veneratur. Tres autem ideo sunt, quia in fide, spe, et charitate floruerunt. Antiphonae melodiae sunt gratiarum actiones Ecclesiae, et quaedam vigilum cantilenae.
Paul the Sentinel
Paul sang a sweet melody during the first hour of the watch, when he rejoiced for the election of the Gentiles: Regi saeculorum immortali, invisibili, soli Deo honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum. Amen (1 Timothy 1).
CAP. XII. – Quod Paulus vigil fuerit.
Paulus vigil suavem cantilenam in prima hora cantavit, dum pro Gentium vocatione sic exsultavit: Regi saeculorum immortali, invisibili, soli Deo honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum, amen (I Tim. I).
Laurence the Sentinel
On his watch, Laurence trilled a lovely song at the second hour, when he gave thanks from the grid-iron: Gratias tibi ago, Domine, quia ianuas tuas ingredi merui
CAP. XIII. – Laurentius vigil.
Laurentius vigil dulcem cantilenam in secunda hora est modulatus, dum in craticula sic est gratulatus: Gratias tibi ago Domine, quia ianuas tuas ingredi merui.
Gregory the Sentinel
Gregory the sentinel intoned a delightful melody at the third hour, when he instructed us to to perform the divine office with the musical art. The lessons signify teaching given to the people. The responsories are the examples of those great them by whom others are formed. Hence the name “responsory,” for life corresponds with teaching through song. Song signifies the conversion of penitents, when something is converted from evil to good. The solo voice who sings the verse is in travail, just as the penitent who undergoes his suffering to satisfy for his transgression. The beginning of the chant that follows the verse is a general thanksgiving for the converted. Everyone comes to his aid with prayers, as if to support the soloist, for the angels shall rejoice “upon one sinner that doth penance” (Luke 15). In this way the cantors imitate soldiers on their night rounds, who are sorrowful when one of their comrades wanders into the camp of the enemy. But if he returns and escapes danger, they are happy for him.
The third response always has a Gloria Patri, because everything present, past, and future is subjected to the Trinity. The Gospel is recited at the third vigil because it was only preached in the third age. Further, the Alleluia is often sung in the antiphons of the third nocturn because in that time the praise and joy of eternal life was announced to the world. All of these things are performed on the Lord’s night because all the aforementioned men are saved through faith in Christ’s resurrection. The Te Deum represents “joy and happiness” (Psalm 50:10) for the Church rejoices in her liberation on the day of judgment. Perhaps someone is moved to ask why we have discussed only three vigils, when four night watches is our custom.
CAP. XIV. – Gregorius vigil.
Gregorius vigil delectabilem harmoniam in tertia hora sonuit, dum musica arte divinum officium agi docuit. Per lectiones quae recitantur, doctrinae fidelium designantur. Responsoria quae cantantur, sunt illorum exempla, quibus alii informantur, unde et responsorii vocabulum his, quia vita doctrinae respondet. Per cantum, usus poenitentium conversio intelligitur, cum quis de malo ad bonum convertitur. Sicut enim laborat, qui versum solus cantat, ita poenitens laborem subit, dum pro errato satisfacit. Post versum autem cantus incoeptio, est communis omnium pro converso gratulatio, cui omnes per orationes succurrunt, sicut canenti subveniunt, quia et angeli super uno poenitentiam agente gaudium in coelis ducunt (Luc. XV). Per hoc autem cantores milites in excubiis imitantur, quia si aliquis ex sociis suis inter hostes aberraverit, contristantur; si vero periculum evadens redierit, ei congratulantur. Tertio responsorio semper gloria Patri annectitur, quia Trinitati omne praesens, praeteritum et futurum subiicitur. Ad tertiam vigiliam ideo evangelium recitatur, quia in tertio tempore illud modo praedicabatur. Ideo et in tertio nocturno saepius in antiphonis alleluia cantatur, quia in illo tempore laus et laetitia aeternae vitae praenuntiabatur. Haec universa ideo in Dominica nocte actitantur, quia hi omnes supradicti per fidem resurrectionis Christi salvantur. Porro Te Deum laudamus gaudium et laetitiam nobis repraesentat, quia Ecclesia in die iudicii liberata exsultat. Forsitan aliquem movebit, cur tres tantum vigiliae a nobis ponantur, cum quatuor noctis vigiliae tradantur. Hic sciat cum ad noctem saeculi significatio refertur, tunc tres tantum vigiliae propter tria tempora ponuntur, pro quibus et tres nocturni psalluntur. Cum vero ad noctem temporis refertur, tunc quatuor vigiliae scribuntur, et per quatuor laudes canuntur. Et sciendum cum nocturnus dicitur, cantus intelligitur. Cum autem nocturna, tunc hora accipitur.
 Saint Sylvester became renowned as an expert on Holy Scripture and as a staunch defender of the Christian Faith. During the reign of the emperor Saint Constantine the Great, when the period of persecution had ended for the Church, the Jews arranged a public debate to determine which faith was true. Saint Constantine and his mother, the holy Empress Helen, were present together with a large crowd. Saint Sylvester spoke for the Christians, and the Jews had one hundred and twenty learned rabbis led by Zambres, a magician and sorcerer. Quoting the sacred books of the Old Testament, Saint Sylvester convincingly demonstrated that all the prophets foretold the birth of Jesus Christ from the all-pure Virgin, and also His voluntary suffering and death for the redemption of the fallen race of mankind, and His glorious Resurrection. The saint was declared the victor in the debate. Then Zambres tried to resort to sorcery, but the saint obstructed the evil by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. For Sylvester raised a dead bull from the dead, which Zambres had killed and was unable to raise. Zambres and the other Jews came to believe in Jesus Christ, and they asked to be baptized.”
In a previous article we discussed flax burning during the papal coronation rite. Today we consider a related ceremony, the Possession, i.e. when the pope takes formal possession of the Lateran cathedral and palace. Just as in the coronation rite, here too the ancient ceremony achieves not only gives glory to Christ and the Petrine ministry. It also has him perform solemn public acts of humiliation and repentance to assure that they assume the dignities of their office with the proper spiritual dispositions:
“We must understand that our holy fathers in faith, not only the Supreme Pontiffs but also lesser bishops, have introduced these magnificent displays of horses, garments, and other exterior ornaments, which many people call “pomp,” not to increase their own glory but to exalt Christ and his Church. If they observe them with outward reserve and interior humility, they are not acts of vanity and vice, but virtue and merit.”
Led from the Vatican Basilica to the Lateran, the pope was first received in the Basilica where his feet were kissed by the Cardinals and bishops. He was then led to a simple, unadorned marble seat placed in the portico of the patriarchal basilica. This seat was called the sedia stercoraria (from stercus = dung), literally the “Dung Chair.” The Ordo Romanus XII, written around the beginning of the 9th century, is the first source to describe the ceremony:
“And arising from his seat, the pope is led by the cardinals to a stone seat called the Stercoraria, which is in front of the portico of the Lateran Patriarchal Basilica of the Saviour. The Cardinals themselves place the newly-elected pope thereupon with honour, that it might be truly said, ‘He raiseth up the needy from the dust, and lifteth up the poor from the dunghill, that he may sit with princes, and hold the throne of glory.’ After a moment, the newly-elect stands next to the same seat and receives from the chamberlain’s pouch three fistfuls of denarii, which he throws out saying, ‘Silver and gold are not for my own pleasure, but what I have, to thee I give.’ Then the prior of the Lateran Patriarchal Basilica of the Saviour takes the newly-elect with one of the Cardinals, or one of his brethren. Going though the same portico next to the Basilica of the Saviour, he exclaims, ‘St Peter has chosen the Lord [Celestine].’
Gaetono Moroni explains the meaning of this ceremony:
“The sedia stercoraria takes its name from the warnings sung by the schola while the Pope sat on it, namely the singing of the verse of Psalm 112: Suscitat de pulvere egenum, et de stercore erigit pauperem, ut sedeat cum principibus, et solium gloriae teneat. The verse reminded the pope of the difference between the condition from which he had risen to govern the Church, encouraging him to be humble in the memory of the condition he has left.”
After the pope has been led inside the palace itself to the chapel of St Sylvester, he is brought to two other seats, both made of of porphyry (sedes porphyreticae), where he is girded with the subcingulum and again distributes silver to the chanting of a Psalm verse. The Ordo Romanus XIII:
“Then he is led by the Cardinals through the palace unto the church of St. Sylvester, where there are two porphyry chairs. He first sits on the one on the right, where the Prior of the Basilica of St. Lawrence gives him the ferula, which is a symbol of rule and government, and the keys of the same basilica and of the holy Lateran Palace, by which are signified the power of closing, opening, binding, and loosing. With the ferula and the keys he moves on to a similar seat, on the left, and there the returns the ferula and keys to the same Prior, and begins to sit in that second seat. And after he has sat for a brief moment, the same Prior girds the Lord Pope with a cincture of red silk, from which hangs a purple bag, in which are twelve precious stones with a seal and musk. Then he sits in the same seat, receives the officers of the palace who kiss his foot and lips. And, still sitting there, he receives from the chamberlain’s hand silver denarii of the worth of ten solidi, and throws them towards the people, and does this thrice, saying each time: ‘He hath distributed, he hath given to the poor: his justice remaineth for ever and ever.’”
Then we find this curious note about the pope’s posture while sitting on these chairs:
“The pope should sit in these two chairs in such a way that he appears to be lying down rather than sitting. None of these seats, not even the stercoraria, is covered or decorated in any way, but entirely bare.”
These latter two porphyry chairs were of strange appearance, pierced (pertusae) and with their backs reclined as in the image above. These features would later gave rise to some malicious rumors about the true purpose of the seat, and also caused it to be confused with the sedia stercoraria, since it is similar to Latin words for toilet (sella pertusa, perforata).
Mabillon finds the first mention of these chairs in Pandulfus’ account of the possession of Paschal II (1099).
The meaning of the ceremony with the porphyry chairs is somewhat mysterious. At least, no satisfying explanation seems to have been put forth. Some sources, confusing the sedes stercoraria and the porphyry chairs, have seen in it a rite of humiliation. The first to perpetrate this error was the humanist Platina, who in his 1579 Lives of the Popes writes, “The seat is prepared so that he who has acquired such a great magistracy might know that he is not God, but a man, and subjected to discharging the needs of nature, whence the chair is appropriately dubbed stercoraria.” A rather astonishing mistake for an erudite member of the Roman curia to make.
Even modern authors who have managed to distinguish the sedes stercoraria in the portico of the Lateran basilica from the sedes porphytericae in the chapel of St Sylvester have remained partial to Platina’s line of thought, suggesting that the latter were in fact ancient Roman latrine seats, and concluding, “The use of these three seats reminded the new pontiff of his human condition and reminded him that, as he ascended the throne of St Peter, he did so sumptus de stercore.“
“The first seat signified the power of St. Peter as head of the Church; the second denoted the preaching of St. Paul as Doctor of the Church. The twelve precious stones called the sigilla were a symbol of the twelve apostles; the musk recalled St. Paul’s phrase “we are the aroma of Christ,” along with good example and virtuous deeds. Finally, the purse admonished him to be Father of the poor, a provider for widows and orphans, as the distributor of the patrimony of the Crucified One.
It has also been proposed that the new pope’s sitting upon these porphyry seats was an attempted ritual of exaltation rather than a ritual of humiliation, albeit one hampered by mediæval ignorance. Certain 11th century documents actually call these seats “curule chairs” (curules) so that, the theory goes, their use was therefore an attempt by the papacy to appropriate ancient imperial symbolism. By grotesque irony, however, these mediæval papal supremacists unknowingly chose ancient Roman toilet seats instead of actual curule chairs.
Just as fancifully, Cesare d’Onofrio proposed that the seat is actually an ancient obstetric chair, meant to symbolize the idea of the Church as a Mother, Mater Ecclesia.
More soberly, Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani has have suggested that the pope’s “lying” on these chairs, like he will someday lie upon a bier, symbolizes his future death. At the same time as he receives the symbols of power, then, the pope is reminded of his mortal nature: as Innocent III wrote while still a cardinal, “He who recently sat glorious upon the throne, soon lies despised in the earth.” Thus the rite isa sort of “ritual anticipation of the death of the newly elected pope himself. The pope was thus born and died with the apostles.” A similar ritual with funereal connotations is contained in the 14th century ordo for the coronation of a French king, who must sit upon a chair such that he is almost lying down.
Whatever the case, the ritual failed adequately to convey its proper meaning, and gross misinterpretations soon made it an object of ridicule, especially in an era with a penchant for mocking the past as was the Renaissance. Leo X was the last to use all the three chairs; his successors abandoned the porphyry chairs, and Pius IV was the last to use the sedes stercoraria. St Pius V specifically refused to use any of the three chairs, rejectis superstitionibus aliorum pontificum, according to his Master of Ceremonies, Cornelio Firmiano. The chairs were all removed to the Lateran cloister where they were kept until the pontificate of Pius VI, who repolished them and put them in his Museo Pio Clementino. One of them was stolen by Napoleon, who placed it in the Louvre, and the other remains in the Vatican Museum.. The sedes stercoraria can today be found in the cloister of the Lateran.
The story of the misinterpretation of these three chairs is almost as interesting as the ceremony itself.
Given the obscurity of the rite’s meaning and the odd shape of the porphyry chairs, the story arose in the late Middle Ages that it was meant to avert any repetition of the fabulous Pope Joan affair by to facilitating inspection of the pope’s genitals to assure his masculine sex. The story was eagerly taken up by humanists and Protestants eager to deride the mediæval Church. Even today, a casual Google search will show that this popular rumor, and the confusion between the dung chair and the porphyry chair, is still alive and well.
Unfortunately for the anti-clericalists, besides confusing the non-perforated sedia stercoraria with the porphyry chairs, the former is attested in the OR XII as part of papal ceremony before the supposed reign of Pope Joan.
A good example of this misinterpretation appears in Roma Triumphans, an account of the coronation of Innocent X written in 1645 by Laurens Banck, a virulently anti-Catholic Swedish Lutheran:
“Afterwards, [the Pope] is taken by [the canons of the basilica] to a marble seat with a hole, which was placed not far from [the portico of the basilica], so that, seating upon it, his genitals might be touched. It is not to be doubted but that the matter is so: indeed, it is most certain that such a marble seat with a hole is kept in the same Lateran Basilica, which we have seen many times. It also most certain that newly-created pontiffs, before they were admitted to take possession of the Lateran Palace, were placed upon that same seat, as is well proven even by Catholic authors, such as […] Pierre Grégoire. (Syntagm. jur. univers. libr. 15, cap. 3, num. 23). The latter’s words are these:
‘After her death (talking about the John VIII [i.e., the supposed Pope Joan]) they introduced this cautionary measure, that thenceforth the Supreme Pontiff should be taken to the pontifical seat and not confirmed before, sitting on that seat with a hole, his genitals should be touched. I should think, though, that the Supreme Pontiff is placed upon this low [humili] seat so that he might be admonished that, as lofty as the episcopal seat is, so much more he should feel humbly about himself, and remember that he is similar to the rest of men, subjected to the same defects of feeble nature, and that he is not God. Thus he is admonished not to become haughty after he is enthroned, as they say, and confirmed in the Apostolic See.’
And, together with him, many others confirm the same thing. After it is proclaimed that the newly-elect ‘has the Pontificals’ (Pontificalia habere), those present utter various cries of joy. After these these are completed, as I have said, he is again placed on the sedia gestatoria.”
Banck helpfully attaches an engraving of this supposed genital inspection. Although he presents this account in the same tone as that of the ceremonies he personally witnessed, he here doubly betrays his ignorance: first by confusing the porphyry chair kept in the chapel of St Sylvester with the sedes stercoraria kept in the Lateran Basilica, and secondly because by the time of Innocent X the use of the three chairs had been for a long time abandoned.
In the same vein, one pasquinade issued this calumny against Paul II:
Pontificis Pauli Testes ne Roma requiras; Filia, quam genuit, sat docet, esse marem.
(Rome, no need to inquire about Pope Paul’s testicles;
The daughter he sired is enough evidence that he is a man.)
To which Pannonius penned an equally savage riposte :
Non poterat quisquam reserantes, aethera Claves non exploratis sumere Testiculis. Cur igitur nostro mos hic nunc tempore cessat? Ante probat, quod se quilibet esse marem.
(In former times, no one could take the keys of heaven,
Unless his testicles were first examined.
So why has this custom ceased in our day?
Because they all prove they are men in advance.)
 “Hos quippe magnificos apparatus, sive in equis, sive in vestibus, aut aliis exterioribus ornamentis, quos plerique pompas vocant […] Sancti Patres, non solum Summi Pontifices, sed et alii minores episcopi, non ad suam, sed ad Christi et Ecclesiae eius gloriam extollendam introduxisse credendi sunt; quos exterius cum temperantiae moderamine observare, interius tamen servata humilitate, non est vanitatis, ac vitii, sed est virtutis, ac meriti” (Pierre d’Ailly, quoted in Cancellieri, 1).
 “Surgensque de sede ducitur a Cardinalibus ad sedem lapideam, quae sedes dicitur Stercoraria, quae est ante porticum basilicae salvatoris patriarchatus Lateranensis, et in ea eumdem electum ipsi Cardinales honorifice ponunt, ut vere dicatur ‘Suscitat de pulvere egenum, et de stercore erigit pauperem, ut sedeat cum principibus, et solium gloriae teneat.’ Post aliquantulum stans iuxta eamdem sedem, Electus accipit de gremio Camerarii tres pugillatus denariorum, et proiicit dicens, “Argentum et aurum non est mihi ad delectationem, quod autem habeo, hoc tibi do.’ Tunc autem accipit ipsum electum Prior Basilicae Salvatoris Patriarchatus Lateranensis, cum uno de Cardinalibus, vel uno de fratribus suis. Venientibus autem per eamdem porticum iuxta ipsam basilicam Salvatoris exclamatur, ‘Dominum [Caelestinum] S. Petrus elegit.’” (MI, 210-211).
 (92) “La sedia stercoraria soltanto prese questo nome, dal dirsi dalla scuola de’cautori mentre vi sedeva il Papa, con canto il versetto del salmo 112: Suscitat de pulvere egenum, et de stercore erigit pauperem, ut sedeat cum principibus, et solium gloriae teneat.; affinché egli riconoscesse la differenza dello stato onde saliva al governo di tutta la Chiesa, e si mantenesse umile nel ricordare sempre quello che nella sua esaltazione lasciava.”
 Mabillon, Musei Italici, v. II, pp. 230-31: “Postea ducitur ab ipsis cardinalibus per palatium usque ad ecclesiam S. Silvestri, ubi sunt duae sedes porphyreticae, et primo sedet in illa, quae est ad dexteram, ubi Prior Basilicae S. Laurentii dat ei ferulam, quae est signum correctionis et regiminis, et claves ipsius basilicae et sacri Lateranensis Palatii, in quibus designatur potestas claudendi, aperiendi, ligandi, atque solvendi, et cum ipsa ferula, et aliis clavibus accedit ad aliam sedem similem, quae est ad sinistram, et tunc restituit eidem Priori ferulam et claves, et incipit sedere in illa secunda sede. Et postquam aliquantulum sedit, idem Prior cingit eidem D. Papae zonam de serico rubeo, in qua dependet bursa purpurea, in qua sint duodecim lapides pretiosi cum sigillo et musco. Et dum in ipsa sede sedet, recipit officiales palatii ad pedem, et ad osculum. Et sedens ibi recipit de manu camerarii denarios argenteos valentes decem solidos, et proiicit eos super populum, et hoc facit ter, dicendo singulis vicibus: Dispersit, dedit pauperibus, justitia eius manet in saeculum saeculi.”
 “Et istis duabus sedibus Papa taliter se habet, ut videatur potius iacens, quam sedere, et nulla istarum sedium, nec etiam stercoraria, est cooperta vel parata, sed nuda.”
 “L’utilization de ces trois chaises venait rappeler au nouveau pontife sa condition d’homme et lui remémorer que s’il montait sur le trône de saint Pierre, il y accédait sumptus de stercore” (Florence Buttay, “La mort du pape entre Renaissance et Contre-Réforme”, Revue Historique, vol. 305, no. 1)
 Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope’s Body, pp. 48-49.
 “Postea, ab iisdem ad Sedem Marmoream perforatam, quæ non procul inde collocata fuit, portatus est, ut super eadem positus, ejus virilia attrectarentur, veluti supra pag. 91 notavi. Nec dubitandum quin res ita sese habeat; etenim certissimum est, sellam illam marmoream et perforatam in eadem Basilica Lateranensi servari, quam multoties nos ipsi vidimus. Certissimum quoque est, noviter creatos pontifices, ante quam ad seculare regimen Lateranense admittantur, super eadem sella reponi et collocari, veluti satis probant inter alios, ipsi quoque Catholici [….] Cujus hæc sunt verba: Post cujus mortem (loquetur de Johanne VIII) dicunt cautum, ut posthac summus Pontifex in Pontificalem proveheretur cathedram, neve confirmaretur, quin prius in sella forata existens, ejus virilia attrectarentur. Quamvis arbitrer, summum Pontificem, in sella humili et sede constitui, ut moneatur, quo altior est sedes episcopalis, eo magis eum humiliter de se sentire debere, atque similem se esse cœteris hominibus recordetur, eisdemque infirmæ naturæ defectibus subjici, et se Deum non esse. Sic enim non superbiendum esse admonetur, cum postea in Sede Apostolica inthronizatur, ut dicunt, et confirmatur. Hæc ille. Et cum eodem plurimi alii idem confirmant; quare ipsi adstantes, postquam illa acclamatio est peracta, et ipsum Pontificalia habere intelligunt, varia lætitiæ signa edere solent. His itaque, uti dixi, peractis, sese in sellam gestatoriam vicissim conjecit” (Laurens Banck, Roma Triumphans, p. 387-8).
Wise rulers throughout history have often taken care to surround themselves with salutary reminders of their own frailty and the transitory nature of power. The auriga who held the laurel crown over the head of a triumphing Roman general would whisper into his ear: “Memento homo (Remember that you are mortal)” and during the coronation ceremony of the Byzantine emperor, stone masons approached him to display samples of stone for the construction of his tomb.
Various rites, in the same spirit, have been proposed for the Successors of Peter, so that amidst all the pomp owed to the dignity of their sacred office, the Supreme Pontiffs might not forget the humble origins of the papacy in the Galilean fisherman, who betrayed Christ out of fear of the washerwoman.
PART I: The Burning of Flax
One such rite is the burning of flax during the papal coronation ritual, a practice adopted by the papacy a thousand years ago and used continuously until modern times. Here is video of the burning during the coronation of John XXIII (short and long versions):
“Then the procession began in the usual fashion. The Pope was carried in his sedia under a baldacchino as described above. While proceeding toward the high altar, Dom. Dominicus Bellus, third Master of Ceremonies, when the Pontiff had reached the aforementioned Chapel of St. Gregory, lighting a small piece of flax on the top of a reed he had been holding, and raising it in front of the Pope who has stopped, genuflected and said: ‘Holy Father, so passes the glory of the world.’ He repeats it a second time in front of the bronze statue of St. Peter, and a third time in front of the entrance to the high altar, each time in a louder voice.”
Flax is a very dry material. When lit, the fire consumes it very quickly. For this reason it has long been taken to signify the brevity and frailty of human life:
“Flax, used as a symbol of transience, recurs in various passages of the Bible (Sir. 21:10-11; Isa. 1:31). Its symbolism is powerful; basic in its simplicity, profound in its significance: ‘like nothing else, it symbolizes human…transience’ viewed in relationship to the exercise of power (gloria).”
A rite of burning flax was used in the coronation of the Byzantine Emperor, and migrated to the West in the 11th century, when it was adopted in a handful of western uses under the influence of Peter Damian, who is the first western author to write about it. The rite was performed at Besançon, for instance, four times per year. A 13th century Ordinary of Lisieux notes a similar ceremony for Pentecost: ad processionem Missae stuppae inflammantur, quas custodes inveniunt.”
The rite was given various interpretations and ritual expresses in the early centuries, until some time around the Council of Trent it settled into its modern form. Originally, it was practiced several times a year in the papal court, especially at Easter and Christmas, being restricted only much later solely to the coronation ritual. There is the following reference to an Easter flax burning in Chapter 222 of the Gemma Animae. At one time, it seems, the splendor of the solemn papal Easter celebrations were marked by this memento mori:
“When the pope celebrates during Easter, a large lamp (pharum) made of flax is hung over him. The burning flax is allowed to fall down upon him, and is gathered up from the ground by his assistants. This ceremony reminds him that he is ash, and that all the glory of his garments will one day be reduced to cinders.”
The 12th century Ordo Romanus XI describes a flax ceremony at St. Mary Major on Christmas morning. The author presents the burning flax as an eschatological symbol of the end of the world, rather than a mementomori directed personally to the pope:
“During the entrance the (cubicularii) hold a cloth over the head of the Pontiff. When he enters the sanctuary, the (mansionarius ecclesiae) hands him a reed with a lit candle. The Pontiff takes it and sets fire to flax placed on the capitals of the columns as a sign of the end of the world through fire.
The rite continued at Avignon, by which time it had also been fully incorporated into western imperial ceremony, where it was used until some time around the Council of Trent, the same period when the rite was restricted to the papal coronation ceremony in its current form and fell out of use in the other churches of the West.
The English chronicle of Adam of Usk is the first eyewitness description of the ceremony of igniting the flax:
“On the feast of St. Martin (11 Nov. 1404), the new pope, for the solemnities of his coronation, descended from his palace into the basilica of St Peter where, at the altar of St George, he put on vestments for the Mass that had been brought to him by the auditors of the curia. At the exit of the chapel of St. George a cleric, bearing in hand a long cane covered with flax at one end, lit the flax with a candle and declared out loud: ‘Holy Father, thus passes the glory of this world’ [Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi]; and twice again in the center of the chapel in an even louder voice he proclaimed: ‘Holy Father, Holy Father’; and still a third time, at the entrance to the altar of St Peter’s, he issued a triple exclamation in an even louder voice: ‘Holy Father, Holy Father, Holy Father!’ And each time, immediately afterwards, the flax was extinguished.”
Adam of Usk adds: “in the same manner, at the coronation of the emperor, at the moment of his highest glory, stoneworkers would present him with pieces of marble of every sort and color, worked in every style, shouting at him: ‘Most excellent Prince, from which marble do you want us to make your tomb?’”
According to Agostino Patrizi Piccolomini’s ceremonial, the dying pope was invited to repeat the words pronounced during the coronation ceremony: ‘Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world’ (Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi).” Stephen of Bourbon mentions the rite in a chapter that contains a quotation from Plato on the necessity of meditating regularly on death and references to biblical texts concerning ashes.
Gaetano Moroni’s Dizionario records several of the more notable flax burnings, as well as some extraordinary stories connected with it:
The Acts of the Council of Pisa tell us that in Alexander V’s coronation in 1409: “There were many solemn ceremonies on that day, such as the burnings of flax while saying Sic transit gloria mundi.”
There is a moving story about Pius III (1503): “Pius III, seeing the burning flax and hearing the three-fold chant: Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi, was so stricken and moved, among other things because was unable to stand due to a disease, broke out in tears: ‘he broke out in tears and bemoaned the human condition, which so quickly passes away.”
Sixtus V, who was renowned for his wit, contrary to the custom of remaining silent during the burning ceremony, cried out in response to the Sic transit: “Our glory will never pass away, because our only glory is in doing what is just!” He then turned to a Japanese ambassador in attendance, and admonished him: “Tell your princes, our sons, the meaning of this noble ceremony.”
At Clement XIV’s coronation (1769), the flax would not light, perhaps because of the humidity. The pope-elect was quite pleased, taking it as a sign portending a long rule. Later on, he fell from his horse in the procession up the Capitoline, and recalled the verse Impulsus eversus sum, ut caderem, et Dominus suscepit me which seemed to fit his circumstances.
Flax burning was abrogated by Paul VI ipso facto along with the coronation rite, as part of that generation’s apparent disgust with the “detritus of imperial Rome.” Its disappearance is in complete harmony with the principles of the new liturgical order, under which the Church’s historic penitential discipline and rites have been all but abolished as unattractive relics of medieval piety.
But as the Church and her Petrine office enter deeper into this season of humiliation and repentance perhaps it is time to reconsider the fittingness of ceremonial acts of penance. One hopes a more judicious generation will soon rediscover, in this picturesque rite borrowed from the Byzantine court, a fulsome and timely reminder that the Petrine ministry is a ministry of repentance, an example of conversion for the whole world, founded when Christ raised the over-zealous Peter from the dung-heap of his betrayal.
 “Inchoata post haec fuit processio juxta suum morem. Papa delatus fuit in sede sub baldacchino ut supra elevato, et procedendo versus Aram majorem Dom. Dominicus Bellus tertius Caeremoniarum Magister, cum fuit Pontifex extra praedictam Capellam S. Gregorii, accensa parva stuppa in culmine arundinis, quam prae manibus habebat, eaque elevata ante Papam tunc consistentem, genuflexus dixit in tono: Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi; quod et secundo ante statuam aeneam S. Petri, et tertio ante ingressum quadraturae Altaris majoris fecit semper altiori voce.”
 Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope’s Body, p. 29
 Paravicini-Bagliani, op. cit., p. 29: “A completely analogous rite appears in the liturgy of the cathedral of Besançon that was reorganized by Archbishop Hugh I (1031-66). The archdeacon presented the archbishop with some linen flax that had been set afire and addressed him with the words: reverend father, so passes the world and your vitality.”
 Cap. 222: De vestibus patriarchae et apostolici.
Patriarchae quoque et apostolicus pallio utuntur, qui eodem officio praediti esse noscuntur. Porro apostolico in Pascha procedente, pharus ex stuppa super eum suspenditur, quae igne succensa super eum cadere permittitur; sed a ministris vel a terra excipitur, et per hoc ipse in cinerem redigi, et gloria ornatus eius in favillam converti admonetur.
 Mabillon, Musei Italici, v. 2, p. 126: “In introitu ecclesiae cubicularii alte portant mappulam super caput Pontificis. Cum autem intrat presbyterium, mansionarius ecclesiae porrigit ei arundinem cum cereo accenso. Tunc Pontifex accipit eam, et ponit ignem in stupa posita super capita columnarum ad figuram finis mundi per ignem.” Durandus gives the same interpretation in 4.6.13: “In quibus dam etiam basilicis circa medium chori manipulus stupae appenditur, cui Pontifex transiens ignem apponit, ut in conspectu populi cito incineretur, per hoc secundum adventum commemorans, in quo Christus vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem iudicabit; nam ignis in conspectu eius semper ardebit, et in circuitu eius tempestas valida [….] Hoc etiam fit, ut Pontifex ignem apponens consideret quod ipse debet in cinerem redigi, et ornatus eius in favillam converti, et quod quemadmodum stupa facile comburitur, sic etiam facile, et quasi in momento, praesens mundus transit, et concupiscentia eius [….].
Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica, v. 70, pg. 93: “Pio III […] nel vedere ardere la stoppa e nel sentire il triplice canto: Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi, ne rimase talmente penetrato e commosso, anche per esser impedito da una piaga di stare in piedi, che ne pianse; flevisse statim, et humanam sortem ingemuisse dicitur, brevi perituram.”
Dizionario, v. 70, pg. 93: La gloria nostra non passera mai, perche non abbiamo altra gloria, se non che far buona giustizia. To the Japanese ambassador: “Dite a’vostri principi nostri figli, il contenuto di questa nobile ceremonia.”
 Ibid. There are further accounts in Gattico, Acta selecta, e.g.: (1484) Innocent VIII, pg. 373; (1644) Innocent X, pg. 410; (1676) Innocent XI, pg. 423.
St Foy (Sancta Fides, Saint Faith) was a virgin martyr from Agen killed in the persecution of Diocletian. In the 9th century her relics were stolen by a monk of the Abbey of Conques, who took them to his own monastery. Fame of the miracles wrought by St Foy there soon spread, and it became a popular place of pilgrimage. A compilation of stories about these miracles was written in the 11th century under the title Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis. The following story, which raises interesting questions about lay participation in monastic masses, is taken therefrom:
A warrior from the Auvergne named Bernard, who was melancholy after losing all his hair, received a night vision from Foy, who told him:
“Do not delay to go confidently to the monastery at Conques. When you have arrived, make known to Abbot Girbert in my name that in my memory he should celebrate the divine mystery before the shrine of my body, while you stand on his left until the reading of the holy Gospel has been completed. After the offertory, when the abbot has washed his hands, collect that water. He should moisten your head, and after that you must go over to the right side of the altar” (3.7).
When Abbot Girbert is told about the vision “point by point,” he,
“as is usually the case with spiritually advanced persons, immediately protested that he was not worthy of being involved in such a business. His resistance was finally overcome by their urgent pleas and he devoutly carried out everything he had been directed to do. The following night while Bernard was keeping vigil in holy prayers before the holy virgin’s mortal remains, his scalp seemed to swell with little hairs, like the head of a newborn boy” (3.7).
(Translation from “Liturgy as Social Performance” by C. Clifford Flanigan, Kathleen Ashley, and Pamela Sheingorn, in The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, ed. by Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, p. 644.)