The Rite of Coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor

July 4th marks the death of the Archduke Otto von Hapsburg (1912-2011), eldest son and heir of the last reigning Emperor of Austria. In remembrance of him and his Cæsarian ancestors, we here provide a translation of the rite of coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, from Vatican Codex 6112, published in Acta Selecta Caeremonialia Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, and probably used for the coronation of the Lord Henry VI and his wife the Lady Constance by the Most Holy Lord Celestine III in 1191.


Here begins the Roman Order for the Blessing of an Emperor, when he receives his crown from the Lord Pope in the Basilica of Blessed Peter the Apostle at the altar of the martyr Saint Maurice.

On Sunday, early in the morning, the Emperor-Elect descends with his wife to the church of Santa Maria Traspontina, near the Terebinth, and is there received with honours by the City Prefect and the Count of the Lateran Palace and his wife, the Judex Dativus,[1] and the Treasurer. He is led through the portico as the clergy of the City, all clad in copes, chasubles, dalmatics, and tunicles with thuribles sings Ecce mitto Angelum meum, up to a dais set up under the upper arch at the top of the steps before the bronze doors of the church of Santa Maria in Turri. There sits the Lord Pope in his chair surrounded by bishops, cardinals, deacons, and the other orders of the Church.

Coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III from Les Grandes Chroniques de France, c. 1332-1350, British Library Royal 16 G VI f. 141v. Image credit, British Library.

Then the Emperor-Elect with his wife, and all his barons, clercs, and laymen kiss the feet of the Lord Pope. The Queen and his other attendants stand back, and the Emperor-Elect swears fealty to the Lord Pope in this wise:

In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I, N., King of the Romans, and future Emperor of the Romans, affirm, pledge, promise, and swear by these holy Gospels before God and the blessed Apostle Peter, and the Vicar of the blessed Apostle Peter, fealty to the Lord N. the Pope, and thy successors who enter into office in the canonical manner, and that I will henceforth be protector and defender of this Holy Roman Church and of thy Person, and that of thy successors in all their needs insofar as I be supported by divine assistance, according to my knowledge and ability, without deceit or evil design. So help me God and these God’s Holy Gospels.

At that point, the Lord Pope’s Chamberlain receives the pall that shall be given to the Emperor-Elect. Thereupon the Lord Pope thrice asks the elect if he shall have peace with the Church. He thrice responds “I will,” and then Lord Pope says, “And I give thee peace, as Christ did to his disciples,” and kisses his forehead, chin (which must be shaved), both knees, and lastly his mouth. Thereafter the Lord Pope rises and thrice asks him if he shall be the son of the Church. He thrice responds, “I will,” and then the Lord Pope says, “And I receive thee as son of the Church,” and places the mantle over him. He kisses the Lord Pope’s chest and takes his right hand, and the Chancellor holds him with the left. The Emperor-Elect is led by the right by the Lord Pope’s Archdeacon, and thus enters through the bronze door up to the silver door, while the clerics of St Peter sing, Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel. The Lord Pope leaves him there to pray, while the queen slowly follows with her escort until the said silver door. Once he has finished praying, the Emperor-Elect rises and the bishop of Albano says the first prayer over him: “O God, whose holdeth in thy hand the hearts of kings, incline the ears of thy mercy to our humble prayers, and grant to thy servant our Emperor N. the government of wisdom, that, having drunk counsel from thy fount, he may please thee and preside over all kingdoms.”

The coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement VII in Bologna, the papal coronation of the emperor. Painting by Luigi Scaramuccia, 1661.

Then the Lord Pope enters the church of St Peter as the clergy of that church sing the responsory Petre, amas me. When it is over the Lord Pope says a blessing and sits at the seat prepared for him at the right side of the rota. After the bishop of Albano’s prayer is finished, the Emperor-Elect enters led by the Cardinals Archpriest and Archdeacon and sits at the said place with them, that they might tell him how to respond to the Lord Pope during the scrutiny. Seven bishops sit in order at the Lord Pope’s right as he conducts the scrutiny, and the German bishops sit at the Emperor-Elect’s right. The cardinals and other ranks of the church sit. 

The Lord Pope says,

The ancient ordinance of the holy fathers teacheth and commandeth that whosoever is elected to rule must first be most diligently examined in all charity about the Trinitarian faith, and questioned about sundry matters and morals that suit his government and must needs be observed, according to the saying of the Apostle, “Impose not hands lightly upon any man” (1 Tim. 5:22). Moreover, he who is to be ordained must be first instructed how one raised to this dignity ought to comport himself in the church of God, so that those who impose hands of ordination on him may be free of blame. Therefore by that same authority and precept we ask thee in sincere charity, most beloved son, whether thou wilt give all thy wisdom to the divine service inasmuch as thy nature is capable.

The Emperor-Elect replies, “With all my heart I so wish to obey and consent in all things .” 

Q: “Wilt thou temper thy manners from all evil and as far as thou art able, with God’s help, change them to all good?

R: “I will.” 

Q: “Wilt thou with God’s help keep sobriety?”

R: “I will.”

Q: “Wilt thou give thyself up to divine business, and remove thyself from lowly cares, as far as human frailty permits?”

R: “I will.”

Q: “Wilt thou keep humility and patience in thyself, and incline others to the same?”

R: “I will.”

Q: “Wilt thou be affable and merciful to the poor, to pilgrims, and to all the needy on account of the Lord’s name?”

R: “I will.”

Then let the Lord Pope say, “May the Lord bestow upon thee all these and other goods, and strengthen thee in all goodness.” And all reply, “Amen.”

Then follows the examination of the Emperor-Elect’s faith: Credis secundum intelligentiam &c.

Then the Lord Pope goes to the sacristy and dresses himself in pontifical vestments up to the dalmatic, and thus dressed he sits. Meanwhile, the bishop of Porto says this prayer over the Emperor-Elect in the middle of the medium rotaDeus innerrabilis auctor, as in the anointing of a king. Then the Emperor-Elect goes to Gregory’s choir with the aforesaid Cardinals Archpriest and Archdeacon, who act as his teachers throughout the office of anointing. They dress him with the amice, alb, and cincture, and thus dressed lead him to the Lord Pope in the sacristy. He makes him a cleric and grants him the tunicle, dalmatic, cope, mitre, buskins, and sandals to be used in his coronation, and thus dressed he stands before the Lord Pope. 

After the scrutiny, the Bishop of Ostia leaves through the silver door, where the queen stands in waiting with the judges and her barons, and says the prayer Omnipotens aeterne Deus fons &c. over her. Thereafter, one of the cardinal priests, whom the prior previously appointed, and similarly a cardinal deacon, whom the archdeacon previously commanded, lead the queen to the altar of St Gregory, and there she waits for the Lord Pope to depart in procession. 

After all these things are completed, the ministers dress the Lord Pope with the chasuble and pallium, and place the mitre on his head. Then the procession sets out. The orders go first, according to custom, and then goes the Emperor-Elect with his aforesaid guides, followed by his wife, up to St Peter’s altar. Then the Primicerius sings the Introit with the schola and the Kyrie eleison, and then he is quiet. The Lord Pope goes up to the altar, and after the confession he gives the peace to the deacon, and incenses. After the incensation, he goes up to his seat. In the meantime, the Emperor-Elect and his wife prostrate themselves before St Peter’s altae, and the archdeacon says the litany. After it is over, the Emperor-Elect’s cope is removed.

The bishop of Ostia anoints his right arm with exorcized oil, and between his shoulders, and says,

Lord God Almighty, to whom is all power and dignity, we entreat thee with supplicant devotion and most humble prayer, that thou mightest grant to this thy servant the fruit of the imperial dignity, that, established in thy disposition, no past obstacle might impede his rule of the Church, nor future one one obstruct it; but by the inspiration of thy gift of the Holy Ghost, he might rule the people subject to him with equal balance of justice, and might always fear thee in all his works, and strive continually to please thee. Through &c.

He continues,

May our Lord God Jesus Christ, son of God, who wast anointed by his Father with the oil of gladness above his fellows, by this infusion of holy oil pour over thy head the blessing of the ghostly Paraclete, and make it penetrate unto the depths of thy heart, that thou mightest be made worthy of grasping the invisible by this visible and sensible gift and, having ruled thy temporal kingdom with just governance, of reigning with him for aye, the king of kings, alone without sin, who liveth and glorieth with God the Father in the unity of the same Holy Ghost, &c.

After the king’s anointing follows the blessing of the queen before the altar, Deus qui solus &c, and the anointing of the queen’s breast with holy oil: Spiritus Sancti gratia &c. Then the Lord Pope leaves his seat and goes to the altar of St Maurice followed by the emperor and his queen. The Lord Pope stands at the threshold at the entrance to the altar, and the Emperor-Elect stands before him the middle of the rota with the queen at his right, and the six bishops of the Lateran palace stand around in the rotae which are placed there, according to the ancient custom. The seventh bishop serves the Lord Pope when he officiates at the altar.

Then the first and second Oblationarii take the crowns of the Emperor-Elect and the queen from the altar of St Peter and place them on the altar of St Maurice. The Lord Pope gives the ring to the Emperor-Elect saying,

Receive the ring, the pledge of holy faith, solidity of the realm, and increase of power, by which thou mayest with triumphal power repulse thine enemies, destroy heresies, unite thy subjects, and join them in the steadfastness of the Catholic faith. Through &c.

Prayer after the giving of the ring:

O God, to whom belongeth all power and dignity, give unto thy servant the fruit of his dignity, wherein by thy recompense he might remain and always endure, and strive continually to please thee, through &c.

He girds him with the sword and says,

Receive this sword bestowed on thee with God’s blessing, wherein by the virtue of the Holy Ghost thou mayest resist and repulse all thine enemies and all adversaries of God’s Holy Church, and safeguard the kingdom committed to thee, and protect God’s encampments by the help of the unvanquished conqueror our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost forever and ever. Amen.

Prayer after the sword:

O God, who by thy providence dost govern all things in heaven and on earth, be mindful to our most Christian king, that he might break the strength of all his enemies by the virtue of his spiritual sword, and fighting entirely destroy them. Through &c.

Now he is crowned. Then the Archdeacon takes the crown from the altar of St Maurice and gives it to the Lord Pope, who places it over the Emperor-Elect’s head saying this prayer:

Receive the sign of glory, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, so that, scorning the ancient enemy and the contagion of all vices, thou mightest so love judgement and justice and live mercifully, that thou mightest receive the crown of the eternal kingdom from Our Lord Jesus Christ in the company of the saints, who with the Father &c.

Then the Lord Pope places the crown over the queen’s head as seven bishops impose their hands upon her, and the Lord Pope says in a loud voice, while the bishops stay quietly,

Receive the crown of glory and of royal excellence, the honour of gladness, that thou mightest shine and be crowned with splendid and eternal exultation, that thou mayest know thyself the consort of the realm and always prosperously counsel the people of God; and the higher thou art are exalted, the more thou mightest love and keep humility; since thou shinest without wreathed with gold and jewels, so within thou mayest strive to be adorned with the gold of wisdom and the jewels of the virtues, that, worthily and laudably meeting the ever-lasting Spouse Our Lord Jesus Christ with the prudent virgins after the passing of this age, thou mightest be made worthy to enter the kingly door to the heavenly halls, with the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father &c.

Here the Lord Pope gives the sceptre to the emperor saying,

Receive the sceptre, a sign of royal power, the straight rod of of the realm, the rod of virtue, whereby thou mayest rule thyself, and with royal virtue defend holy Church and the Christian people entrusted to thee by God from evil-doers, correct the wicked, bring peace to the upright, and lead them with thine assistance that they might be able to hold the right path, in order that thou mightest arrive from thine earthly kingdom to the ever-lasting one, by the help of him whose kingdom and empire endureth without end for ever and every. Amen.

Prayer after the giving of the sceptre:

O Lord God, fount of all good things and giver of all advancement, grant to thy servant N., we beseech thee, that he mighteth well keep the dignity he hath received, and vouchsafe to strengthen the honour thou hast given him. Honour him before all the kings of earth, enrich him with bountiful blessing, confirm him in the kingly throne with firm stability, visit him with offspring, and grant him long life: let justice ever spring up in his days, that he may glory in his kingdom with joy and gladness everlasting. Through our Lord &c.

 

Coronation of Emperor Sigismund by Pope Eugene IV in 1433. Woodcut after a detail from the Portale del Filarete, a bronze base relief on the gate at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by Filarete. Source.

Thereafter the Lord Pope returns to Saint Peter’s altar with his ministers. Then the City Prefect and the Primicerius Judicum lead the emperor and the Prefect of the Navy and the Secundicerius Judicum the empress. When they are standing in their places the Lord Pope begins Gloria in excelsis Deo and the schola responds; then he says this prayer: “O God of all kingdoms and supreme protector of the Roman Empire, grant to thy servant our Emperor that he may wisely perfect the triumph of thy virtue, in order that he who is prince by thy disposition, may always be powerful by thy favour. Through &c.”

Then the archdeacon and other prelates, deacons, primicerius, and subdeacon standing between the cross and the altar begin the laudes saying thrice: “Hear us, O Christ!”, with the schola and notaries responding in the choir, “To our Lord N., by God’s decree Supreme Pontiff and universal Pope, long life!”

The archdeacon and those standing with him again say “Hear us, O Christ!” and the schola and notaries respond, “To our Lord the great and peaceful Emperor, crowned by God, long life and victory!”, also thrice.

“Hear us, O Christ!” The schola and notaries respond, “To our Lady his Wife, the most excellent Empress, long life!” thrice.

Likewise “Hear us, O Christ!” and the response, “To the Roman and German army, long life and victory!” thrice.

Likewise “Saviour of the World!”, and the response, “Help thou them,” thrice.

Likewise, “Holy Mary!”

“St Michael!”

“St  Michael!”

“St Gabriel!”

“St Raphael!”

“St Peter!”

“St Paul!”

“St John!”

“St Gregory!”

“St Maurus!”

“St Mercurius!”

“Christ conquereth, Christ reigneth, Christ commaneth!” and the others respond likewise three times.

“Our hope!”

“Our victory!”

“Our honour!”

“Our glory!”

“Our impregnable wall!”

“Our praise!”

“Our conqueror!”

“To him praise, honour, and power for all ages of ages! Amen.”

When the laudes have finished, the Epistle is read and the Gradual and Alleluia are sung. Then the Emperor and Empress remove their crowns, and the Gospel is read. When it is over, the Emperor puts down his sword and goes up to the Lord Pope’s seat, followed by the Empress, and they offer the Lord Pope bread together with candles and hold. The Emperor also offers the wine and the Empress the water to be used in the Holy Sacrifice that day. Then they return to their places. When the Preface begins, the Emperor removes his cope and puts on his own mantle. At the words Pax Domini, he goes up to receive communion dressed in his own mantle, accompanied by the Empress, and after receiving communion they return to their places. 

After Mass, the Count Palatine goes up to the Emperor, removes his sandals and buskins, and puts on him the imperial greaves and spurs of St Maurice. Receiving their crowns, the Emperor and Empress follow the Lord Pope towards their horses, led by the aforesaid guides. When the Lord Pope comes up to his horse, the Emperor holds his stirrup. Then he is crowned and joins the procession. The Empress follows the Emperor with her escort, and the other barons follow. All the clergy of the City shout their accustomed acclamations from their parishes, and the Jews likewise in their neighbourhood. Let the whole city celebrate and let all the bells ring out. The Emperor’s chamberlains go first, followed by those throwing coins, lest they impede the knights’ progress. When they reach the Holy Stairs, the priores cardinalium of S. Laurence, standing without the walls, begin the laudes, as is the custom, and the rest respond. When they are over, the Emperor dismounts, removes his crown, and holds the Lord Pope’s stirrup as he dismouts. Then the Emperor and the City Prefect lead the Lord Pope to the Leonine Hall,[2] where they separate. The Empress, meanwhile, is led by the Primicerius and Secundicerius Judicum to the Hall of the Empress Julia, where she is to lunch with the bishops and her other barons. The Emperor’s chamberlains and the Lord Pope’s chamberlains serve all the orders of the presbytery of the Holy Palace, as the Pontiff and Emperor await. Then the Emperor lunches seated at the right of the Lord Pope, and everyone else sitting at his seat. 

Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V walk in procession after the coronation. Sketch by Juan de la Corte, Museum of Santa Cruz, Toledo.

After lunch one of the deacons rises at the archdeacon’s command and reads a Lesson, after which the cantors rise and sing as they are accustomed. After the chant all rise for the blessings. Let the Lord Pope retire to his chamber, and the emperor to the Hall of the Empress Julia.

When the Emperor-Elect descends from the Mount of Joy,[3] and comes to the Ponticellum, he swears this oath to the Romans: “I, N., who shall be Emperor, swear that I will uphold the Romans’ good customs, and uphold their charters[4] without deceit or evil design. So help me God and these holy Gospels.” He should swear a similar oath at the Colline Gate and at the steps of St Peter.


[1] The ordinary municipal Judge in late-antique Rome, called dativus because he was not elected by the people but appointed by the emperor. See “Dativus” in Du Cange’s Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis.

[2] Also known as the Camera Majoris Palatii, or Triclinium.

[3] Thus called by pilgrims. In Ancient Rome, the hill was called Mons Vaticanus or Clivus Cinnae. The medieval Romans referred to it as Mons Malus, and later Mons Marius (Monte Mario), as it is still known today.

[4] The cartae tertii generis were charters relating to the possession of castles. A libellus was a charter governing the possession of estates. In essence, the emperor swears to rights and privileges of the Roman people.

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.

Image result for sedes stercoraria

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.)

Image result for anti-clerical cartoon


NOTES:

[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).

Papal Humiliations, Part 1 : The Burning of Flax

Part 2: The Papal Dung Chair
Part 3: The Cock of the Lateran

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.

Sic Transit

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):

Gattico’s Acta Selecta Ceremonialia Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae contains this description of the rite, used for Innocent X’s coronation in 1644:

“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.”[1]

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).”[2]

The Coronation of David, Paris Psalter (10th century)

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.[3] 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.”[4]

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 memento mori 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.[5]

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.

 

Coronation 4.jpg

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?’”

piccolomini
The flax burning during the coronation of Pius II

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).”[6] 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.[7]

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.”[8]

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.”[9]

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.”[10]

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.[11]

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.


NOTES:

[1] “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.”

[2] Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope’s Body, p. 29

[3] 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.”

[4] 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.

[5] 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 [….].

[6] The Pope’s Body, p. 130.

[7] Tractatus de diversis materiis predicalibus, I, De dono timoris, ch. 7, de memoria mortis, nos. 98-99.

[8] Cited in Cancellieri, Storia de’ solenni possessi de’ Sommi Pontefici, pg. 38: “Et illa die fuerunt multa solemnia, ut puta, de stupis combustis dicendo, Sic transit gloria mundi.”

[9] 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.”

[10] 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.”

[11] 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.