Papal Humiliations, Part 3: The Cock of the Lateran

Psalterium Cantuariense [Psautier de Canterbury]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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3] Cancellieri says this showing of the cock took place during the coronation rite whenever it took place in the Lateran.[4]  Ritual books themselves do not mention this moment, and the historians give no citations.

Cock 10

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.”[5]

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

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For more on the “Vatican Cock” see   Il Gallo Vaticano.

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.”[6]

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.[7] According to 17th century sources, there was also a bronze cock above the portico of St. John Lateran at one time.[8]

cock 5
A pillar outside St. Peter in Gallicantu (St. Peter of the Cock Crow) in Jerusalem

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.”

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Cock 4
St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem


[1] Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma Animae, 144.

[2] 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.”

[3] “Ad repraesentandam, in die possessionis, commiserabilem Humanitatis fragilitatem, ac mitem se erga eam praebere debere” (Hierolexicon, pg. 534).

[4] Cancellieri, Storia de’ solenni possessi de’ sommi pontefici, pg. 53 – 54.

[5] “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).

[6] “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).

[7] For an in-depth study of the question of the belfry and its bronze cock, see Cancellieri’s De Secretariis Novae Basilicae Vaticanae, v. II, pp. 1342 et sqq, and v. III, 1994 et sqq.

[8] 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.


Papal Humiliations, Part 2: The Papal Dung Chair

Part 1: The Flax Burning Ceremony
Part 3: The Cock of the Lateran

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 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.”[1]

According to Cancellieri’s Storia de’ solleni possessi de’ Sommi Pontefici, In the most ancient times, the Possession took place on the Sunday after the election, right after the consecration and coronation.

Coronation 3.jpg
Paul VI accepts the keys to the Lateran

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].’[2]

Sedia stercoraria 2
The sedia stercoraria, kept today in the Lateran cloister.

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.”[3]

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.’”[4]

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.”[5]

Sedia porphyretica 2
One of the porphyry chairs, taken by Napoleon to the Louvre.

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).[6]

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.[7]

Domenico Magri’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Terms suggests an allegorical interpretation, evoking the figures of Peter and Paul:

“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.”[8] 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..[9] 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.

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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.”[10]

Sedia stercoraria.gif

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.

Image result for anti-clerical cartoonsIn 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.)

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[1] “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).

[2] “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).

[3] (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.”

[4] 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.”

[5] “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.”

[6] MI, v. II, cxxii.

[7] “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)

[8] Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope’s Body, pp. 48-49.

[9] Cancellieri, pp. 230 – 31, footnote 2.

[10] “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).

Lest the Faithful Should See: The rood screen and its origins in Roman judicial ceremony

Francesco Cancellieri, Syntagma De Secretariis Ethnicorum et Veterum Christianorum apud Graecos et Latinos, volume I of De Secretariis Basilicae Vaticanae Veteris ac Novae (Rome, 1786).

A productive scholar and librarian of the Papal Curia, Francesco Cancellieri (1751-1826) wrote many treatises on papal Rome and Catholic religious ceremony.

Many authors before him had written about the architecture of the ancient Christian sanctuary, but none had written a book exclusively about the secretarium. Cancellieri makes a copiously documented study of this architectural feature, its history, decorations, functionaries attached to it, and the words used to describe it, comprising both the Greek and Latin Churches in its scope.

Secretarium (or sacrarium) referred mainly to our modern-day sacristy, but also to the sanctuary itself, which Cancellieri calls the secretarium minor. He argues that Christian practice in the decoration and ritual of the sanctuary is deeply informed by ancient Roman judicial ceremony.

The following is a paraphrase-translation of his arguments.

Excerpt #1
(pp. 12 – 28)

The first chapters describe the use and decoration of the ancient Rome Secretarium Judicis, the private judgment chamber of a Roman magistrate.


Throne of Saturn (classicalastrologer)
A Roman relief thought to depict the veiled throne of Saturn, Louvre

Chapter II.
On the Secretarium’s Chancel Screen

The judge’s secretarium was surrounded on all sides by screens (cancellis) to keep out the crowds of people and control their entrance. Basil calls them judicial screens for this reason. Others called them fences (septa), enclosures (caulae), windowed doors (ianuae fenestratae), latticed doors (cancellatae fores). Most were made of wood, but iron, lead, or marble was sometimes used.

Lawyers who had come to argue a case used to stand within the enclosures of the tribunal chancel, out of reverence for the judge. Others, even the accused, were sometimes permitted entry, as many legal formulae prove clearly. For instance, Zeno says, “the accused is permitted to sit within the SECRETARIUM, in the part beneath the judges but above the lawyers, to avoid any harm coming upon him before his trial.”

Guther has pointed out that “in cases involving famous men, the Emperor decided that they should sit in some part of the SECRETARIUM reserved for court aids, standing by in the corners of the SECRETARIUM.”

Entry into the secretaria was forbidden to the average citizens, as we read in an appendix to the Theodosian Code: “let it be forbidden to such people to approach our holy SECRETS.” (The authors use both secretarium and judiciale secretum indifferently.)

Even the judges’ aids did not approach the inner part of the secretarium indiscriminately, but only stood on the threshold. Servius describes the custom as follows: “The judges are led up to the doors of the secretarium. Then there is one more ceremony: they pass through the veil and ascend their throne, where they sit down.”

There were guards placed at the screen called cancellarii, a cancellis, ministri a cancellis, accensi, ab admissionibus, or admissionales, and they were led by a magister admissionum.

Now that we have entered the chancel screen, I will take your hand and lead you to see the veils that covered the doors of the secretarium.


Chapter IV.
On the Veils of the Secretarium

The evangelist portrait and Incipit to Matthew from the Stockholm Codex Aureus,
Veil (Matthew, Lindisfarne Gospels)
Matthew Evangelist, from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Source)

The inner space of the praetorium, where the magistrate retired to examine his cases, was called the secretarium or secretum. It was surrounded not only with a screen but was also hidden by veils drawn across the screens. The ones in charge of guarding these veils and drawing them to admit people were called janitors, doormen, veil attendant (statores a velis), veilers (velarii), or captains of the veils (praepositi velariorum). Chrysostom says that “It is the custom for judges not to do these things in secret, but sitting high on their tribunal seat, with all standing around, and with the veils opened.”

The veils remained open, especially in more serious cases that required more thorough deliberation, until the period of questioning was over. They were also opened occasionally when the judge was permitted to render sentence publically. For instance, if the case was a simple matter that required little questioning. The Theodosian lays prescribe that such cases should take place levato velo, meaning publically, with admission open to all.

The opposite was the case in criminal processes, which were held in secret (obducto velo), as Basil claims: “The princes of this world open the veils when they intend to condemn a criminal to death, and they remain inside for a long time.” Clement informs us of the same fact: “Consider the secular courts. The judges, as soon as they have received the plaintiff’s testimony, interrogate the criminal himself whether he agrees with the account of the case. If he pleads guilty, he is not immediately punished. Rather, there is a time of more intense deliberation and consultation, and he is questioned behind the veil (interiecto velo).” Further, “to stand by the veil” mean to stand before a judge in court.

There were two sorts of veil in the secretarium. One exterior on the outer doors of the office, which was called the consistorium, perhaps because there the crowds stood and awaited the decision. Another was interior, and covered the cubicle of the judge himself. The Greeks called this the κριταὶ τοῦ βήλου, as Du Cange has sufficiently proved.

We know many of these things from the Acts of the Martyrs in particular, which often mention both veils. For this reason, I think it would be a good use of time to go over the more noteworthy of these texts.

Acts of the Martyrs in which the two veils of the secretarium are mentioned


Testimony of the Councils on Sanctuary Veils

The documents of Church councils frequently mention judicial veils (vela iudicum). There is no need to point out isolated examples from the many that could be adduced for this purple. It will be sufficient to examine the Carthaginian council between the Donatists and Catholics (411), and which was held in the secretarium of the Gargilian Baths. There Libosus Ducenarius addresses a certain Marcellinum, the tribunum notarium and extraordinary judge chosen by the Emperor, with the following words:

“Whereas it was decided to recommence the council on the present day, and since the bishops of each party are before the veil, if your highness wills, let them be admitted.”

Examples taken from other writers

The emperors Theodosius and Valentianus passed a law forbidding anyone to put up ROYAL VEILS or titles, and permitted anyone to take down or smash the titles and tear the VEILS with impunity.

These veils were purple, brocaded with gold and studded with precious stones and gems, and used by emperors, kings, and tetrarchs in their palaces.

Veiled God (alamy)

Lipsius notes that the images and statues of the gods were concealed by veils, which were removed on feast days to make them visible to worshippers. Apuleus tells of the time he “was deeply moved when attending the morning openings (matutinas apertiones), and when the white veils had been lifted, beseeched the venerable face of the goddess.”

Excerpt #2
(pp. 161 – 175)

This section describes the architecture and ornament of the Christian sanctuary, its screen, veils, steps, and altar, comparing them to the ancient Roman Secretarium.

Now we must speak about each of the things that distinguish this place, the chancel, veils, steps, tribunal, altar, taking each individually. In this way it will be clear enough how much affinity there exists between the judge’s Secretarium and the Christian sanctuary. So far as I can tell, no one has noticed this affinity, though, if I may be permitted to say it without vanity, the similarities are apparent for anyone to see. It was the well-established custom of our Fathers in faith to wean the nations from their superstitions slowly to the true Christian cult slowly, by introducing practices that shared similar names or features, and in this manner they achieve no little success in their zealous efforts to propagate their religion.

On the Chancel Screen of the Minor Secretarium[1]

We know that the sanctuary (secretarium bematis) was surrounded by a chancel screen (cancellis) on all sides, something the Greeks called the κιγκλίδες. Mabillon offers a detailed description of the space:

“Behind the choir where the singers stood, the steps rose by gradual degrees to the sanctuary, which was separated from the choir by a chancel screen (cancelli). They called the entry through this screen into the sanctuary the folds (rugas), or royal doors (regias), or portals (portas), or simply the chancel. They were guarded by the acolytes, as we read in the Ordo Romanus Ι.”

The testimony of the ancient writers confirms this point. Anastasius relates how “twelve large doors in front of the Secretarium” were constructed by Leo III, and that Leo IV had made “casted silver doors and a screen at the entrance to the presbyterium.” Mabillon demonstrates that the words rugarum and regiarum refer to the chancel, while Cajetan has the following to say regarding the sacred ashes the pope sprinkled on the people on Ash Wednesday:

“Note that the Camerarius papae exits the royal doors and distributes the ashes while standing facing those who are outside.”

Petrus Amelius makes the same observation, indicating the place where the pope stands to bless candles and palms, and where the diploma hangs by which the pope used to grant a cardinal the faculties to celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s.

Paris de Crassis calls them the fore-wall (antemurale), or sometimes the podium, as Mabillon also notes in his appendix to the Ordo Romanus I. Thomasius is correct, therefore, when he claims that the word podium should be understood to refer to

“the marble chancels or slabs by which the sanctuary is separated from the choir and the nave, because their construction in the ancient basilicas of Rome is such that immediately behind them the steps of the sanctuary or presbyterium begin to rise in a gradual incline.”

Furthermore, since the upper part of the door is in the shape of an arch, the chancel screen separating the sanctuary from the nave was called the choral arch (arcus toralis or rather coralis in Du Cange’s reading) in a Spanish council held in 1582.

Whenever the ancient Christians built a church altar they immediately surrounded it with a fence or screen (cancellis) that divided the choir from the rest of the church space. As Eusebius relates:

“For when he had thus completed the temple, he provided it with lofty thrones in honor of those who preside, and in addition with seats arranged in proper order throughout the whole building, and finally placed in the middle the holy of holies, the altar, and, that it might be inaccessible to the multitude, enclosed it with wooden lattice-work.”[2]

Paul Warnefrid claims that the same was done by Chrodegang:

“He had a church built in honor of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, with an altar, chancel screen, presbyterium, and an arch.[3] The Acta Episcoporum Cenomanensium records the following about Arnaldus: “He recommenced building the church and put a roof over the upper part, called a cancellus in the vernacular.” From this we can gather that generally the whole space inside the chancel screen was called the chancel. Hence the verses of John of Garlandia: “Cancellus Templi pars intima dicitur esse.”


Besides the sacred ministers, entrance to this space was permitted only to the emperor, and only for the purpose of offering gifts and anointing the altar, as we will explain later on. Laymen must stand outside the chancel, as the poet warns:

Infra cancellum laicos compelle morari,
Ne videant vinum cum sacro pane sacrari.

For this reason the Second Synod of Tour prescribed that during Vigils and Mass, laymen are absolutely forbidden to stand with the clergy near the altar where the Holy Mysteries are celebrated. Only the clerical choir is permitted to enter the space divided off by the chancel screen.


On the Veils of the Minor Secretarium

Reconstruction of the screen of Hagia Sophia

Wherever there was a chancel screen there were also sacred veils that could be drawn over the secretarium. For besides the pagan practices we described above, we know that formerly there were veils in the Temple of Jerusalem. Similarly in Christian temples it has been the custom to hang veils around the sanctuary, called variously curtains or auleae.

Veils (SA in classe 2)

There are innumerable examples that confirm this assertion, especially taken from Anastasius, since one of the most common events in the lives of the popes is the donation of veils for the decoration of churches. It is not the place to discuss the veils that were hung on the outer doors and in other parts of the sacred buildings–noted by Epiphanius, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, and Dionysius. Rather I will choose a few examples that are more relevant to the question at hand.

John VI “set up white veils between the columns of the altar in the basilica of B. Paul the Apostle.”

Zachary “ordered silk veils to be hung between the columns in the church of the Ss. Apostles Peter and Paul.”

Leo III “set up a three-part veil, red and made entirely of silk, all around the altar of B. Peter the Apostle.” In another place, “he hung red and white silk veils around the altar that hang in the arch of the ciborium.” Again “he set up veils in the Basilica of the Holy Mother of God ad Praesepe…between the large royal doors and in front of the secretarium, thirteen in number.”

Sergius “draped 8 triple veils around the altar of the basilica.”

Stephen V “put 4 veils in the basilica of the great Doctor of the Nations….and gave the Basilica of the Apostles one linen curtain and three silk ones to be hung around the altar.”

These veils were hung from wooden, iron, or even bronze or silver bars, which the Greeks call κιόνια and Leo of Ostia calls cast metal chancels (cancellos fusiles).

Veils (St. Gilles Mass)
The Mass of St Gilles. Notice the bar and veil.
Veil (SA in classe).jpg
Another mosaic from St Apollinare in Classe,

Anastasius mentions these veils, and likewise Theodorus, who describes the basilica of Jerusalem: “you could the holy altar adorned with its princely veils, flashing with jewels and gold votive offerings.”


It is certain that the use of this veil was two-fold. One sort was draped around the episcopal chair and the altar. There is a passage about the bishop’s veiled cathedra in Augustine’s famous letter to Maximus: “worldly honor and ambition shall cease. On the day of Christ’s judgment there will be no gradated apses or veiled cathedrae to protect us.”[4] The words of S. Pacianus against the heretic bishop are also relevant: “Novatian was made a bishop in his absence. No one consecrated him, but he seized the veiled seat anyway.”[5]

Another type of veil hung in the spaces between the columns. These it was the custom to remove during sacred functions, making them a sort of foldable door that could be drawn back from either side. Both Chrysostom and Evagrius instruct the faithful to imagine that, when the veils of the sanctuary are drawn up, heaven is in a way drawn down with all the angels. Their admonition was more correct, therefore, than Varro’s, whose superstition led him to call heaven the “curtains of Apollo.” The practice of raising the veils slightly at the beginning of the liturgy of the faithful, just after the dismissal of the Catechumens, when the priest has entered the altar, explains why the prayers he says there used to be called the Prayers of the Veil (oratio velaminis). The job of drawing the veils was given to the acolyte, who in the words of the Council of Narbonne “lifted up the door veils for his elders.”


Pola Casket
The Pola Casket, which is thought to show the sanctuary of Old St. Peter’s

On several days of the year, other veils were draped about the altar for mystical reasons. One veil was hung on the first Sunday of Lent between the choir and the altar that could only be drawn by the guardian of the secretarium himself, as we read in the Ordo Cluniacensis, Constitutiones Hirsaugienses, Durandus, and Belethus, who also tell us that on Christmas night the altar was covered with three multi-colored veils. This we know from Durandus, who was copied by Belethus and Macer:

“In some places, it is the custom to put three curtains over the altar before Matins to symbolize the three ages, and in each of the nocturnes to remove one of them. The first is black, for the time before the law. A second is white for the time of revelation. A third is red for the time of grace, to indicate the pure love of the blushing Bride.”


[1]The word secretarium is used by ecclesiastical authors to refer to any of several rooms, including the sacristy (the diakonikon in Greek), the chapter-house (or Consistorium), or sanctuary. Cancellieri calls the altar the secretarium minus, as opposed to the sacristy.

[2] Ecclesiastical Histories, 10,4.

[3] De Episcopis Metensibus.

[4] Ed. note: On the other hand, in Eusebius’s Ecclesiasical Histories, one bishop Paul of Samosatensis is rebuked for possessing a secretum (VII.30):

“He practices chicanery in ecclesiastical assemblies, contrives to glorify himself, and deceive with appearances, and astonish the minds of the simple, preparing for himself a tribunal and lofty throne, — not like a disciple of Christ — and possessing a ‘secretum,’ — like the rulers of the world — and so calling it…”

[5] An Novacianus, quem absentem epistola Episcopum finxit, quem, consecrante nullo, linteata sedes excepit.