Ritual and Sacred Chant in the Ordo Romanus Primus: An Article by Fr. Franck Quoëx

Ritual and Sacred Chant in the Ordo Romanus Primus

Franck Quoëx (†)

Translated by Zachary Thomas*

[Published in Antiphon, 22.2 (2018)]

Abstract: The Ordo Romanus Primus offers historians of the Mass in the West a complete picture of a normative liturgy, namely that of the Roman Pontiff. Sacred chant, inherent in the solemn public character of the Eucharistic assembly, is an essential element of this liturgy. It accompanies certain significant rites, expresses the prayers of the ministers and the faithful, and offers a meditation on the Word of God. The direct link between rite and chant permits an account of developments, adaptations, and simplifications that, since the Franco-Roman period, have been grafted onto the original structure.


The royal decision to import the liturgy of the city of Rome into Frankish lands, beginning in the second half of the eighth century, required sending the proper books that contained the prayers for the celebration. In the case of the Eucharistic celebration, these books, or sacramentaries, contained certain fixed (Canon Missae) and mobile prayers (orations for Sundays and feasts of the year) for the use of the celebrant alone. However, these euchological books taken by themselves could not teach the Frankish clergy the rites of the Roman celebration. They had to be complimented by other books, among them collections of detailed descriptions of the stational office of the Urbs, collections known under the name Ordines Romani.[1] Even after their arrival at their destination, it had to be put into practice by inexperienced clergy.[2]

For the historian of the Roman Mass, familiarity with the Eucharistic ordines proves to be of primary importance. On one hand, the Ordo describes the course of the liturgical action, for which it articulates, in the form of detailed “rubrics,” the ritual prescriptions necessary to carry out the sacred action well. In this sense, for the historian of rite the Ordo is more informative than the sacramentary.[3] Again, the Ordo Romanus Primus (OR I),[4] first in the general classification and in the list of Eucharistic ordines in particular, constitutes the first detailed description of the stational Mass of the Roman Pontiff, which is the most solemn form of the Eucharistic celebration. We know that the form described is the origin of other more or less simplified forms of this celebration: the celebration of the bishop, the solemn celebration of a simple priest, the private Mass—all modes of celebration that cannot be explained except by beginning with the “normative” celebration of the Roman Pontiff.[5]

The interest of OR I also lies in the fact that it represents an epoch when the Roman liturgy had not yet undergone a hybridization through contact with Franco-German uses. The author of the first redaction of OR I wrote from Rome at the end of the seventh century or the start of the eighth century, but one may argue that the liturgy he describes, apart from several modifications and developments, is in substance the stational liturgy of St. Gregory the Great. Though the redactor writes in poor Latin— “vulgar” Latin close to the Romance languages then in formation—he is distinguished by “a profound personal knowledge of the Roman liturgy. His description of the papal Mass comes from a witness intimately familiar with all the details of his subject.”[6] It also offers numerous indications about the hierarchical degrees and institutions of the Roman church, among which we will discuss what relates to the liturgical function of the scola[7] cantorum, focusing on the direct original link between ritus and cantus in the ancient liturgy. In this way we will be better able to define the role of sacred chant in the celebration of Christian worship.

OR I opens with these words: “Incipit ordo ecclesiastici ministerii romanae ecclesiae vel qualiter missa celebratur.” The ordo thus introduced is a long text, divided into 126 paragraphs in Michael Andrieu’s edition. To facilitate our reading, we will divide the text according to the various parts and sections of the Mass, and make it our task to point out and analyze in each of them whatever concerns the liturgical-musical structure of the rite described.


1.1 The Preparation (nos. 1–45)

From the Patriarchium Lateranense, the place of his residence, the Roman Pontiff proceeds on horseback to the church designated for the stational liturgy. In the cortège that escorts him, the sub-deacon charged with the lectio of the epistle carries the apostolum (the epistolary), while the archdeacon has charge of the evangelary (no. 20). The pope is received at the doors by the clergy of the stational church as well as by the acolytes of the region of the Urbs where the church is situated. The rest of the clergy who take part in the celebration are already in the church: the suburbicarian bishops and titular priests of the various churches (those who along with the deacons would later be called cardinals); other clergy, among them the acolytes defensores; probably numerous monks belonging to the various monasteries of the basilicas; and, of course, the members of the scola cantorum. The latter, following the modification ordered by Gregory the Great in 595— which had forbidden men to be ordained to holy orders solely on the grounds of their good voice[8] —was then composed of sub-deacons, minor clerics and children (infantes).[9] The sub-deacons formed the body of the four ranks of the scola: primicerius scolae (or archicantor), secundicerius, tertius and quartus scolae, with the last also having the title archiparafonista because he was put over the children parafonistae.

After entering the church, the pontiff does not go immediately to the altar but into the secretarium, a sort of chapel-sacristy, escorted by the deacons. The deacon charged to read the gospel receives the evangelary, removes it from its sealed case, finds and marks the pericope of the day, then consigns the book to an acolyte who, accompanied by a sub-deacon sequens (i.e., dedicated in a special manner to the service of the pope),[10] carries it to the altar on which the sub-deacon places it with certain signs of honor (nos. 30–31).

In the secretarium, the liturgical vesting of the pontiff takes place. At the end of this, a regional sub-deacon, holding the maniple of the pontiff placed on his left arm, exits the secretarium and cries: “Scola.” The archiparafonista, or quartus scolae, responds: “adsum.” The sub-deacon inquires from him the name of the cantor who is to perform the psalmody (“Quis psallit?”). This is probably the name of the one who will perform the versets of the gradual, alleluia, or tract. after he receives the response, the sub-deacon returns to the pope, dresses him in the maniple and announces to him the names of the regional sub-deacon who will read the epistle, and of the cantor who will chant: “Servi domini mei talis subdiaconus regionarius legit apostolum et talis de scola cantat” (no. 38). The following paragraph contains a severe prohibition against modifying the choice of persons already designated: if this happens, the archiparafonista is excommunicated (no. 39).

When reading the text one will note the difference in the verbs employed: psallere for the scola, legere for the sub-deacon and deacon. Psallere means to chant, or more precisely to chant the text of the Psalms, which forms the basis of liturgical chant. In the time of OR I, there exists a highly developed psalmodic, or antiphonic, or responsorial chant entrusted to the cantors. This ornate chant is strictly distinct from the reading, which is lightly ornamented and reserved to the sub-deacon and the deacon for the declamation of the sacred Text. The artistic execution of the chant is the privilege of the scola cantorum from which, as we have already pointed out, the deacons were excluded.

The archiparafonista has entered the secretarium; he places himself facing the pontiff, waiting until he makes the sign to commence the chant. The order received, the archiparaphonist leaves by the doors of the secretarium and tells the seven acolytes who are waiting with the candlesticks, as well as the sub-deacon sequens who holds a golden thurible: “accendite” (nos. 40–41). He then goes to the choir and says while bowing to the director of the scola (“ad priorem scolae, vel secundum sive tertium”): “domne, jubete” (no. 42). The cantors then take their places before the altar, opposite the apse, in front of the confessio. The liturgical space of the church of Saint Clement at Rome, as it has come down to us, permits us to know with accuracy the disposition of the scola cantorum. The cantors are arranged in two columns facing each other (“per ordinem acies duae tantum”), deployed in the interior of the choir from the doors of the chancel up to the confessio. The archiparaphonist stands near the chancel with the children, while the other cantors occupy the space closer to the altar, the higher-ranking members standing at the ends of each column (no. 43). The first cantor intones the antiphon ad introitum.

As the first notes of the melody fill the basilica, the deacons alert the pontiff. The pope rises from the small throne on which he had been sitting, gives his right hand to the archdeacon and his left to the second deacon, and exits the secretarium.

1.2. The Entrance Rites (nos. 46–54)

The pope moves toward the altar in procession. In front of him walk the sub-deacon sequens holding the thurible and the seven regional acolytes, each one with a candlestick. The procession arrives at the entrance to the choir where the choir is standing. The pontiff advances between the two columns of cantors to the level of the first cantors (“in caput scolae”). He bows toward the altar, rises, prays a moment in silence, crosses himself on the forehead, and gives the kiss of peace to his assistants. Then he gives the sign to the choir master to say “gloria [Patri];” the choir master bows and complies while the pope mounts into the apse. Meanwhile, the archiparaphonist has rolled out the oratorium, a sort of “prayer mat,” before the steps of the altar. In so doing, the archiparaphonist executes a ceremonial action, linked to a precise moment of liturgical chant. Arrived before the altar, the pope prostrates himself on the oratorium during the chant gloria [Patri] until the repetition of the introit verset (no. 50).

When reading the description of these entrance rites, the liturgical historian may very clearly distinguish the still silent origins of something that would appear later, during the Carolingian period: the prayers at the foot of the altar.

The pontiff rises, mounts to the altar, kisses the book of gospels and the altar, then goes to his throne (“ad sedem”) in the back of the apse. He stands there facing east (“versus orientem”), which in the case of an eastward facing church would have meant standing in the same position as the people (no. 51).

Next is sung the “Kyrieleison” (sic). When he deems fit, the pope makes the sign to the choir master to conclude what is already designated by the Gelasian term laetania.[11] Then the pontiff intones the “Gloria in excelsis deo.” Two manuscript witnesses (G and A) attest that the pope turns toward the assembly to intone the Gloria, then resumes his position turned toward the east until the end of the hymn. In any case, he remains standing. He turns again toward the people to say (which means to sing without ornamentation, recto tono): “Pax vobis,” then “Oremus.” Once again turned toward the east, he pronounces the oratio, in which he gathers the prayers of the whole assembly (hence the term collecta, received later to designate this prayer), and thus concludes the entrance rites.[12] After all have responded “Amen,” the pontiff sits at his throne (no. 53), then makes the sign to the bishops and priests to seat themselves.

1.3 The Instruction (nos. 55–65)

The designated sub-deacon, after pulling his chasuble up to his shoulders—so as to grant his arms more liberty of movement— climbs the ambo and reads the epistle (no. 55).[13] Likewise the designated cantor mounts the ambo—more precisely the steps of the ambo—where he performs the responsum gradale. In order to do this he holds in his hands the cantatorium, a book for the use of a soloist, of oblong shape, often decorated with a rich binding, and containing the interlectionary chants and sometimes the offertory versets.[14] The gradual chant is the occasion for the cantors to elaborate certain highly ornate melodies with grand artistic qualities that everyone listens to in silence.[15] He intones another chant with ample melismatic vocals, exulting, in the word of St. Augustine,[16] in the alleluia chant. During certain times this is replaced by the tract, unless it is only possible to sing the gradual (no. 57).[17] The number of readings at Rome having been limited to the epistle and gospel during the Gregorian period,[18] the interlectionary chants succeed one another without transition. at the end of the last interlectionary chant, the ceremonies attending the proclamation of the gospel are performed: the benediction of the deacon by the pontiff; the deacon’s coming to the altar to take the evangelary; finally, the procession of the ministers toward the gospel ambo (two regional sub-deacons, one of whom carries the thurible; two acolytes with candlesticks, and lastly the deacon with the evangelary). Having mounted the ambo, the deacon reads the gospel in a lightly ornamented tone. OR I does not mention the existence of an introductory dialogue.[19] After the chanting of the gospel, the pontiff says (to the deacon): “Pax tibi.” There follows the rite of kissing the gospel by the pope and the clergy in hierarchical order.

OR I does not attest a Credo chant. In fact, we know that it was not received in the liturgy of the city of Rome before the eleventh century at the request of Emperor Henry II.[20]


2.1. The Offertory (nos. 66–85)

In no. 63 we read that the pontiff, after saying “Pax tibi” to the deacon, addresses himself to the assembly with “dominus vobiscum.” Following the assembly’s response, the celebrant adds: “Oremus,” a solemn invitation to prayer, already uttered once before the prayer at the conclusion of the entrance rites. Yet we must be careful to note that this Oremus is not followed by any precise prayer. It is scarcely credible, at least to us, that we are dealing with a vestige of the oratio fidelium suppressed since the fifth century in favor of the Deprecatio Gelasii. Rather, as Johannes Brinktrine has remarked,[21] it is necessary to connect this greeting of the assembly and the invitation to prayer to the oration super oblata that will conclude the rite of offering. What is more, the invitation to prayer seems to be connected to the action that all the assistants are about to perform: the offering of bread and wine, the material of the Eucharistic sacrifice, by the whole Church—an offering whose entire meaning will be expressed by the oration super oblata.[22]

Setting aside the oration super oblata, the rite of offering is not the object of any private prayer or apology by the celebrant and the ministers. These remain silent while they receive the offerings of the assembly at the entrance of the choir, in a manner strictly established and proscribed. Meanwhile, the scola cantorum performs a chant, a sort of introit to the Eucharistic liturgy. The text of OR I does not indicate the precise moment when this chant is to commence. It only says that at the end of the offering, once the oblations have been placed on the altar, the pope again makes the sign to the scola to cease chanting (no. 85). Specialists still dispute the origin, development, and musical status of the offertory chant, and the discussion is linked to the very complex history of the rites of the Roman offertory. Nevertheless, it seems we must see in the Roman offertorium chant a response rather than an antiphon.[23]

In addition to performing the required chant, the scola cantorum participates in its own way in the rite of offering. We read in no. 80 that a sub-deacon sequens descends from the apse to the scola to receive the offering of water (“accipit fontem”) from the hands of the archiparaphonist. This is placed on the altar for the archdeacon so that he can mix it into the wine of the chalice while making the sign of the cross with the cruet. The offering of water on the part of the scola cantorum seems to be a consequence of the direct link between the act of offering the material for the sacrifice and the action of communion. He who offers bread and wine will receive Eucharistic communion. Now, during the distribution of communion, the scola is occupied with chanting; its members being incapable of communicating during the celebration, they therefore do not offer the material for consecration. Nevertheless, as by their chant they participate in the liturgical celebration, they manifest this participation by offering the water for the chalice. If we follow the teaching of St. Cyprian,[24] the offering of the water in fact manifests, in its own way, a true participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice—a mystical and spiritual participation of redeemed humanity in the sacrifice of Christ.

Once the oblations are placed on the altar, the pontiff stands alone and makes the sign to the scola to finish the chant (no. 85). A new difficulty presents itself for the historian of the offertory rite, because the text of OR I makes no mention of the prayer super oblata, passing immediately to “Per omnia secula” (sic) and to the dialogue: “dominus vobiscum,” “Sursum corda,” “Gratias agamus” (no. 87). The fact is all the more surprising since the oratio super oblata is found in every Mass formulary from the proto-sacramentary of Verona to the ancient Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries. For certain authors (among them Josef A. Jungmann, Mario Righetti, and more recently Philippe Bernard), it seems evident that the prayer super oblata would have been said; the redactor of OR I presumed this and merely neglected to indicate it. On the contrary, Antoine Chavasse thinks it would not have been said during the stational Mass of the Roman Pontiff, and that it was reserved for less solemn Masses.[25]

2.2. The Canon Missae (nos. 86–90)

While the bishops, priests, deacons, and acolytes remain in the apse behind the pontiff, the seven regional sub-deacons stand on the other side of the altar, on the side of the confessio, facing the pontiff, arranged in a horizontal line. When the pope says “Per omnia secula” (sic), “dominus vobiscum,” etc., they respond to him. The pope chants the preface. At the Sanctus, they give a profound bow with the pontiff and all the assistants: “Et subdiaconi regionarii, finito offertorio, vadunt retro altare, aspicientes ad pontificem . . . stantes erecti usquedum incipiant dicere hymnum angelicum, id est Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” (no. 87).

Reading the text attentively, it seems that it devolves upon the sub-deacons to perform the Sanctus chant—even though it would seem difficult that they could do so with ease while bowing profoundly. Although this chant was not reserved exclusively to them, by the position they occupied and the chant they performed, they represented the choirs of angels who stand before the throne of the lamb. This position of the sub-deacons and the significance tied to it would be mentioned, emphasized, and developed very frequently in the course of the following centuries by means of allegorical rites. In this sense, knowledge of OR I is necessary in order to understand the role of the sub-deacon, from the offertory to the communion, during the so-called solemn Tridentine Mass. The Sanctus chant completed, the pontiff rises and begins to pray the canon: “. . . surgit pontifex solus et intrat in canonem” (no. 88). All the others, the bishops, priests, deacons, and sub-deacons remain bowed during the Eucharistic anaphora. As a matter of textual interpretation, we would like to remark with Michel Andrieu that “for the redactor of the long recension [of OR I], the canon begins at the Te igitur. On the contrary, according to the ancient conception, which was also that of the original redactor of the Ordo I, it included the preface and the Sursum corda dialogue.”[26]

OR I tells us nothing about the manner in which the pontiff pronounced the canon nor the liturgical actions that he performed. Following the mode of the preface, did he say the prayer while modulating the text with vocal inflexions, using a musical rhyme more or less similar to the ferial tone of the preface?[27] Did he read it in a loud voice recto tono, in a recitative manner? Or did he already say it in a low voice? In the context of the Roman basilica and its usually ample dimensions, it is difficult to imagine a simple reading of the canon in a loud voice and without chant, which would only have been intelligible only to those assistants standing nearest to him—unless of course it was understood that only the clergy should hear it.[28] The development toward the silent canon, attested in later ordines,[29] would then be nothing more than an inevitable consequence. In addition, there is no trace of a change in vocal tone for the doxology “Per ipsum.”[30]

From another point of view, it is evident from our text that only the pope pronounces the words of the Eucharistic anaphora. of course, the Eucharistic celebration described in OR I is public and collective; all the degrees of the hierarchy and the whole of the “people of God” participate in and unite themselves to it: in this sense it is possible to speak of a “concelebration,” if one means by it a celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice on the part of all the members of the mystical body, and especially certain members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy—bishops and priests of the second order. All participate in the same action led by the celebrating pontiff; all in some manner offer through his hands. but we do not witness here what today is called a “sacramental” concelebration, in the sense that the participation and action of the concelebrants consists in pronouncing the sacramental words along with the principal celebrant—not that this type of concelebration was not in existence at the time of OR I, but that it was limited to certain solemnities and circumstances.[31]

2.3. The Communion Rites (nos. 91–123)

The canon completed, OR I amply describes the complex rites associated with the communion.

These rites are introduced by the Pater noster, the chanting of which, according to the practice attested by St. Gregory the Great, is reserved to the celebrant alone.[32] After the embolism Libera nos and the replacing of the paten on the altar, the pontiff says: “Pax domini sit semper vobiscum,” placing in the chalice a portion of the oblations from the preceding papal Mass (the first commingling).[33] The pontiff proceeds to the fraction of the Eucharistic bread of his own offering (the first fraction), leaves the part he has detached on the altar and places the rest of his oblation on the paten. He then leaves the altar for the throne (nos. 97–98). During this time, after the pope has said “Pax domini,” the archdeacon gives the peace to the first of the bishops, then to the other members of the clergy and finally to the people (no. 96).

After the rite of peace, there comes the general fraction of the Eucharistic bread.[34] The oblations are first transported from the altar to the pope, bishops, and priests (nos. 101–104). Then, at the precise moment when the fraction is to begin, the archdeacon makes a sign to the scola cantorum to begin the Agnus Dei (no. 105). This chant, commonly considered of Eastern origin, was introduced into the Roman liturgy by Pope Sergius I (687–701), who was of Syrian origin. With the Agnus Dei, a prayer takes place in the Roman liturgy that is addressed directly to Christ, the holy Victim to whom the whole assembly gives supplication at the moment of the fraction. Repeated uninterruptedly during the whole time of the fraction, this invocation is always concluded by “miserere nobis.” however, the concomitance of the kiss of peace would suggest to later generations an interpolation containing an allusion to the peace—“dona nobis pacem”—which prevailed everywhere except at St. John Lateran where the former usage was maintained until the twentieth century.

When the fraction of the oblations has been completed, the pope communicates at the throne (no. 106). In so doing, the pope detaches a part of the consecrated bread he is about to take. He places this part in the chalice held by the archdeacon (the second Commingling), saying: “Fiat commixtio et consecratio corporis et sanguinis domini nostri Iesu Christi accipientibus nobis in vitam aeternam. Amen.” He adds to the archdeacon: “Pax tecum.” The archdeacon responds: “Et cum spiritu tuo.” The pope then takes the Precious blood in the chalice held by the archdeacon (no. 107). Then he descends to administer the communion to those from whose offerings he had received with his own hands at the offertory. He is followed by the archdeacon holding a great cup of wine in which a small amount of Precious blood had been mixed for the “confirmation” of the communicants (no. 113).[35] During this time, the bishops and priests administer communion to the rest of the assembly.

When the pope began to distribute communion in the senatorium, the scola cantorum intoned the communion antiphon, which they would draw out by means of versets from the Psalms, until the end of the general communion (no. 117). When the pope has finished distributing communion, he seats himself at his throne and washes his hands (no. 118). Once the communion of the people is finished, he orders the choir master to chant “Gloria Patri” (no. 122). The communion antiphon finished, the pope rises and comes to the altar to pronounce the oration ad complendum—the Postcommunion (no. 123).


At the pope’s signal, the deacon designated by the archdeacon says: “Ite missa est.” The response is: “Deo gratias” (no. 124).

Immediately the procession forms to return to the secretarium in the following order: the seven acolytes, the regional sub-deacon swinging the thurible, then the pope with his assistants (no. 125). At his passing all bow and ask his blessing (“Iube, domne, benedicere”). In the choir there are first the bishops, then the priests, monks, the scola, the standard-bearers,[36] other clergy and officers of the patriarchium. Outside the choir, there are the cross bearers of the various regions, then the mansionarii iuniores. The pontiff says to each group: “benedicat nos dominus.” All respond: “Amen.” The pope crosses the choir and reenters the secretarium (no. 126). OR I does not mention any chant to accompany the pontifical recessus, the liturgical significance of which was lesser in relation to the introitus, a veritable entry into the heavenly Jerusalem.

Josef A. Jungmann wrote:

If we mull over this description in its entirety we will get the strongest impression of a magnificent completeness. A great community exercise, heir of a thousand years’ culture, had produced its final form in the church, lending to the divine service the splendor of its noble tradition.[37]

But even further, for anyone who wants to understand the sources, the history, and the theology of the Roman Mass, the Ordo Romanus Primus is invested with the highest level of importance.

Indeed, OR I presents the fundamental structure of the Ordo Missae onto which, beginning in the Carolingian period, other developments and adaptations would be grafted. These would concern principally three moments of the celebration: the entrance, the offertory, and the concluding rites. They were a matter of making certain pre-existent rites “speak” that until then had remained “silent” as the schola cantorum performed a chant: the prayers at the foot of the altar during the chant of the introit and the “apologies” during that of the offertory. Because of the progressive adoption of unleavened bread in the West, certain rites were simplified, such as the offering and the fraction. however, it is not only the heart of the Ordo, running from the preface to the “Pax domini,” which remained unaltered, but the structure itself of the solemn Mass, accented by the succession of chants, which would not be modified—until the missal promulgated by Pius V in 1570.

From another perspective, the examination of OR I permits us to highlight the foundational role of chant in the Eucharistic celebration. The chant does not function only as an ornamental quality, reduced to the merely figurative quality of a work of art, but possesses a true and proper liturgical function. One part of the celebration is actually reserved to the scola cantorum. The cantors proclaim a liturgical text drawn generally from Sacred Scripture. This proclamation sometimes envelops a complete rite, such as the entrance, offertory, and communion, as the integral expression of its meaning. Between the readings, the liturgical chant becomes a meditation on the Word of God. With the Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei, and probably the Sanctus, the sacred chant is also the mode of expression and participation of the entire assembly. In addition, the liturgical dimension of chant is emphasized by ceremonial provisions: the intervention of the officials of the scola during the rites of preparation, their arrangement in the choir, the offering of water at the offertory, etc.

In the history of the documented and ascertainable origins of the Roman liturgy, sacred chant is a constitutive element of the celebration. It does not rate second place. It may develop, become more complex, and follow the evolution of musical art, but it remains the support of the liturgical text, as long as this text cannot be “read” in the context of simplified Masses. In other words, the Ordo Romanus Primus proves that the normative Mass is not the low or said Mass where all the parts of the rite are concentrated in the hands of a lone celebrant,[38] but rather the solemn celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, performed by the pontiff (the pope and to a lesser degree the bishop in his own diocese), with the assistance of all the orders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the active collaboration of the scola cantorum, and in the presence and with the participation of the Christian people.

In OR I, the ecclesiological dimension of the liturgical assembly is manifested in its plenitude: it is in effect the entire community, hierarchically ordered under the direction of the Roman Pontiff, that takes part in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. The actions of offering, the solemn fraction, the general communion, and even the rite of the pope’s communion ad sedem, underline this concept of Eucharistic assembly (ecclesia). The Roman Pontiff appears in his quality as supreme pastor and, thus, of “liturgist” par excellence, while the sacred ministers and the scola cantorum forge the link between the throne-altar and the assembly of the faithful.

Rev. Franck Quoëx (1967–2007), S.T.D. was a priest of the Archdiocese of Vaduz, Liechtenstein, and a highly esteemed liturgical scholar.

* Editor’s note: This article was originally published as “Ritualité et chant sacré dans l’Ordo Romanus Primus (VII–VIIIème siècle),” in Aevum 76 (2002) 253–265. In the English translation, the editorial conventions of Antiphon are largely followed.

[1] See Antoine Chavasse, La liturgie de la ville de Rome du Vème au VIIIème siècle: Une liturgie conditionnée par l’organisation de la vie in urbe et extra muros, Studia anselmiana 112 (Rome: Centro Studi San Anselmo, 1993). The author holds that parallel to the systematization of the euchological formulary in the sacramentaries, the organization of the stational liturgy at Rome probably required, sometime during the fifth and sixth centuries, the codification of liturgical practices so as to give them an official status.

[2] It was certainly in order to alleviate certain misunderstandings and uncertainties that around 760 Remedius, bishop of Rouen and blood brother of Pepin the Short, made a voyage to Rome with the purpose of obtaining permission from Pope Paul I to send back with him a man called Simeon, secundus of the schola cantorum, so that he could teach the Frankish clergy the Roman ceremonial and musical practices. See Cyrille Vogel, “les échanges liturgiques entre Rome et les pays francs jusqu’à l’époque de Charlemagne,” in Le chiese nei regni dell’Europa occidentale e i loro rapporti con Roma sino all’800, Settimane di studio del centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 7 (Spoleto: Presso la Sede del Centro, 1960) 185–295, at 242–243.

[3] See the seminal remarks of Michel Andrieu, Les Ordines Romani du haut moyen âge, 5 vol., Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense 11, 23, 24, 28, 29 (Louvain: Peeters, 1931–1961) vol. II, XII XIV. See also Eric Palazzo, A History of Liturgical Books from the Beginning to the Thirteenth Century, trans. Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993) 185: “Their historical interest no longer needs any demonstration so important was their impact on the Latin liturgy in the West, especially at the time they made their way into the Frankish Empire. I shall simply limit myself to recalling the unique testimony of the nine small ivory plaques attached to the back cover of the Sacramentary of Drogo (Paris, B.N., lat. 9428, middle of the ninth century), showing nine scenes of a Eucharistic celebration in the cathedral of Metz, presided by the bishop. The different rites, presented with a meticulous attention to detail (number and placement of officiants, gestures, liturgical objects, and so on) reflect the historical fact that Metz adopted the Ordines Romani during the Carolingian period under the episcopate of Chrodegang (742–766); this is evident prove of the Romanization of the Gallican liturgy in one of its bastions, the cathedral of Metz” (translation modified).

[4] Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. II, 67–108.

[5] See Niels K. Rasmussen, “Célébration épiscopale et célébration presbytérale: un essai de typologie,” in Segni e riti nella chiesa altomedievale occidentale, 11–17 aprile 1985, Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 33 (Spoleto: Presso la Sede del Centro, 1987) vol. II, 581–603.

[6] Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. II, 53.

[7] This article reproduces the orthography of the OR I manuscripts.

[8] See the discourse of St. Gregory the Great during the synod held at St. Peter’s in July 595: “In sancta hac Romana ecclesia, cui divina dispensatio praeesse me voluit, dudum consuetudo est valde reprehensibilis exorta, ut quidam ad sacri altaris ministerium e cantores eligantur et in diaconatus ordine constituti modulationi vocis serviant, quos ad praedicationis officium elemosinarumque studium vacare congruebat. Unde fit plerumque, ut ad sacrum ministerium, dum blanda vox quaeritur, quaeri congrua vita neglegatur et cantor minister Deum moribus stimulet, cum populum vocibus delectat. Qua de re praesenti decreto constituo, ut in sede hac sacri altaris ministri cantare non debeant solumque evangelicae lectionis officium inter missarum sollemnia exsolvant. Psalmos vero ac reliquas lectiones censeo per subdiaconos vel, si necessitas exigit, per minores ordines exhiberi.” Ep. V, 57a (MGH, Epistolae, I, 363).

[9] Philippe Bernard, Du chant romain au chant grégorien (IV e –XIII e siècle) (Paris: Cerf, 1996) 412: “First conceived as the company of the senior soloists of the titular churches, a corporation for the masters of Roman chant, the Schola cantorum became progressively a stage in the Roman clerical cursus, receiving children who had been destined for the Church. after a solid formation—the seven liberal arts, probably with a particular insistence on the skills of reading and proclamation of sacred texts—the most gifted among them could enter the body of cubicularii at the Lateran, where they completed their formation, which set them on a course for the highest offices of the Church of Rome. . . . Thus it is not until the beginning of the eighth century or the end of the seventh that we see the Schola transformed into a sort of ‘professional craft,’ the classic image that comes down to us in the Ordines Romani.”

[10] On the various categories of sub-deacons and their functions in the papal liturgy over the centuries, see Armando Cuva, “Pagine di storia del ministero suddiaconale alla messa papale,” in Fons vivus—Miscellanea liturgica in memoria di don E.M. Vismara, ed. Armando Cuva (Zürich: PAS, 1971) 287–314.

[11] OR I, no. 52: “Prior vero scolae custodit ad pontificem, ut ei annuat quando vult mutare numerum laetaniae et inclinat se pontifici.” We know that when OR I was redacted during the sixth century, the practice of chanting the Deprecatio Gelasii had fallen into desuetude. Since they various invocations to which the people would have responded by Kyrie eleison no longer existed, the cantors took the place of the people in chanting these words. Thence came the development of the Kyrie from an almost syllabic melody into an ornamented chant.

[12] One manuscript (R), the work of a Frankish copyist, provides at this point after the oration, on Easter day and feast days, for the chanting of the Laudes Maiores, beginning with the words “Exaudi Christe.” These were liturgical acclamations in honor of the pope, emperor, or bishop, etc., along with an expression of the prayers of the assembly: that God and the saints would protect them, that they would be given victory, peace, happiness, etc. These Gallican Laudes entered the papal liturgy and maintained their place in the papal coronation Mass until the twentieth century.

[13] “Naturally the reading was done in Latin, but if the Pope had so arranged it, the Greek text was added by a second sub-deacon in honor of the Byzantine population which had emerged as a numerous and distinct population at Rome after the fifth century. OR I does not make mention of this practice, but there is no doubt that it was an ancient Roman tradition to allow in the Mass of certain major solemnities, such as the Vigil and feast of Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost, for the singing of the epistle and the gospel in both languages, Latin and Greek.” Mario Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica, Vol. III: La messa, 3rd ed. (Milano: Editrice Àncora, 1966) 166–167.

[14] See Michel Huglo, Les livres de chant liturgique (Turnhout: Brepols, 1988). Today we still possess several cantatoria. The most ancient, produced in northern Italy around 800, is conserved inside the treasury of the basilica of San Giovanni in Monza (Cod. CIX).

[15] “Around the middle of the fourth century, after the peace of the Church and the consequence development of its public liturgical worship, the art of responsorial psalmody witnessed an extraordinary growth. On the basis of the ancient traditional melodies, and profiting from purest and noblest of Greco-Roman art, the Christian soloists composed modulations and vocalizations so luxurious and complicated that they even provoked certain people, such as St. Augustine, to scruples about the irresistible attraction of their art.” Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica, III, 650. See also Bernard, Du chant romain, 413: “The ancient responsorial psalmody between the readings was characterized by the alternation among one or more soloists who sang the versets of the psalm and the faithful who, between each of these versets, took up a short refrain. Later, this response was secured by the schola itself. but it would be too reductive to speak of a ‘clericalization’ of the Mass by presenting this evolution as a ‘confiscation’ of the chant on the part of the clergy, and the faithful thus henceforth reduced to the ‘passivity’ of simple listeners. In reality it was an indispensable progress in the development of musical art. If out of archeologism and excessive love of the past the old ossified forms had been fixed in place—i.e., the psalm without refrain and the responsorial psalm—this would have impeded any evolution and progress of liturgical chant, and any chance of reaching higher forms of elaboration and complexity. It would have been a brake on creativity and intellectual and musical discovery. As for the ‘passivity’ of the faithful, this is nothing more than a stale anachronism.”

[16] St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Ps. 99, 4 (CCSL 39, 1394): “Gaudens homo in exsultatione sua ex verbis quibusdam quae non possunt dici et intellegi, erumpit in vocem quamdam exultationis sine verbis; ita ut appareat eum ipsa voce gaudere quidem, sed quasi repletum nimio gaudio, non posse verbis explicare quod gaudet.”

[17] OR I, no. 57: “. . . cantor cum cantatorio ascendit et dicit responsum. Si fuerit tempus ut dicat Alleluia, bene; sin autem, tractum; sin minus, tantummodo responsum.”

[18] Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica, III, 230–234.

[19] The introductory dialogue at the gospel is found for the first time in OR V, a Romano-Germanic ordo from the second half of the ninth century.

[20] Righetti, Manuale di storia liturgica, III, 294–298.

[21] Johannes Brinktrine, Die heilige Messe, 4th ed. (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1949) 131.

[22] For Antoine Chavasse, the Oremus in the context of the stational Mass is not meant to prepare for the collect super oblata, but to announce the Eucharistic prayer.

[23] On the question of the Roman offertoria, see Bernard, Du chant romain, 437– 438: “The most ancient offertoria may have been in place before the creation of the stational liturgy. They date from the end of the fifth century, just like the schola. . . . on the liturgical level, the Roman-style offertory is the introit of the Mass of the Faithful. It became a processional chant thanks to the addition of versets, but originally, when it was limited to the offertorium alone, it was the shortest of the chants of the Mass, along with the alleluia. It did not accompany the offertory procession, performed by the clergy, which was only created later, but simply marked the moment when the oblations were placed on the altar. As for literary form, the offertory became a sort of second gradual by the addition of one or more versets by the schola; the offertorium acquired the nature of a refrain very close to that of the gradual. Thus it appears to have evolved in an ambiguous relationship with the latter, which was the fruit of a revision of ancient responsorial psalms by the schola, and so a form familiar to the soloists of the schola. The offertory underwent another transformation when the versets were suppressed beginning in the tenth century finding itself more in line with the antiphons of the Mass, the introit and communion.”

[24] St. Cyprian of Carthage, Ep. 63 ad Caecilium (CSEL 3/2:711): “nam quia omnes portabat Christus qui et peccata nostra portabat, videmus in aqua populum intellegi, in vino vero ostendi sanguinem Christi. Quando autem in calice vino aqua miscetur, Christo populus adunatur et credentium plebs ei in quem credidit copulatur et iungitur.”

[25] Chavasse, La liturgie de la ville de Rome, 37: “The offertory unfolds in two ordered and complimentary movements: bringing (offerre, once; oblationes, three times; oblatas, five times) and reception (susceptio, no. 77; suscipere, seven times). Each movement is executed by the assembly as such, following a basic structure: the bringers, named in the order in which they come (men and women, pontiff, bishops, priests, deacons, etc.); the recipients, the ministers who receive the oblations (from the pontiff to the acolytes). Each of these two groups, acting together, has its own proper structure. On one hand: men and women in their hierarchies . . . on the other: the ministers, cooperating according to their position. . . . In itself, the rite of the Ordo I is an immense collective ‘gesture’ that corresponds to the structure of the celebrating assembly and by which the latter is expressed in its march toward the Eucharistic action. . . . a ritual arrangement so full and complete has no need of any ‘word.’ The chant of the scola suffices for its festive character. For this carefully disposed rite that takes place in the station where the Roman Pontiff is presiding, a concluding prayer (super oblata) is not present and actually not required. It is the great prex, announced by the initial Oremus and opening with the preface, which presents to God the assembly’s oblation.”

[26] Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. II, 95–96, fn. 88. This brief recension, which represents the most ancient form of OR I, is accessible in the manuscript Sangallensis 614.

[27] OR XXVIII, a Franco-Roman ordo redacted around 800 (Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. III, 391–411) where we read a propos of the chanting of the Exsultet: “. . . decantando quasi canonem” (no. 62).

[28] OR XV, a Franco-Roman ordo redacted before 887 (Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. III, 95–125): “. . . a circumstantibus altare tantum audiatur” (no. 39).

[29] See, for example, OR V, a Germano-Roman ordo redacted at the end of the ninth century (Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. II, 171–238): “. . . surgit solus pontifex et tacito intrat in canonem” (no. 58).

[30] The chant Per ipsum introduced in 1965 and designed to emphasize the doxology and the elevation that accompanies it, is not actually drawn from any manuscript source. We know that it was composed by Dom Eugène Cardine, who relied on an ancient melody.

[31] This is attested by an authentically Roman fragment contemporaneous with OR I, included in OR III, a Franco-Roman ordo from the second half of the eighth century (Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. II, 131–133): “In diebus autem festis, id est pascha, pentecosten, sancti petri, natalis domini, per has quatuor sollemnitates habent colligendas presbyteri cardinales, unusquisque tenens corporalem in manu sua et venit archidiaconus et porregit unicuique eorum oblatas tres. Et, accedente pontifice ad altare, dextra levaque circumdant altare et simul cum illo canonem dicunt, tenentes oblatas in manibus, non super altare, ut vox pontificis valentius audiatur, et simul consacrant corpus et sanguinem domini, sed tantum pontifex facit super altare crucem dextra levaque” (no.1).

[32] See the letter of Gregory to John of Syracuse about the place of the Pater after the canon in the Roman liturgy: “Sed et dominica oratio apud Graecos ab omni populo dicitur, apud nos vero a solo sacerdote.” Ep. IX, 12 (CCSL 140a:587).

[33] The reason for this first commingling is found in the ancient use of fermentum, but here with the difference that the fermentum links two successive Masses celebrated by the pope, and not the Mass celebrated by the priest of a titulus with the stational Mass of the Roman Pontiff. See the commentary of Andrieu, Ordines Romani, vol. II, 58–64.

[34] Note how the rite of fraction is surrounded by a great solemnity. The fraction of the pope’s oblations is made at the throne; all the bishops and priests perform it (and this for a very practical reason). The allegorical commentators did not leave glosses on the fraction and communion at the papal throne. Recalling that the expression fractio panis served in the early centuries to designate the Eucharistic sacrifice, we may ask ourselves whether the solemn fraction (and thus, the communion) ad sedem is not meant to manifest, in the Eucharistic celebration of the supreme pastor, the unity of the entire Church achieved by participation in this sacrament.

[35] OR I, no. 113: “. . . descendit pontifex a sede . . . ut communicet eos qui in senatorio sunt, post quem archidiaconus confirmat.” It seems that at this time the mixture of a little consecrated wine with non-consecrated wine was held to procure consecration by contact. Even though this opinion was not admitted completely, a certain sanctification of the wine was believed to be effected either by the infusion of the Precious blood, or by the commingling of a consecrated particle; see Michel Andrieu, Immixtio et consecratio: La consécration par contact dans les documents liturgiques du moyen âge (Paris: a. Picard, 1924).

[36] OR I, no. 126: “. . . deinde milites draconarii, id est qui signa portant.”

[37] Josef A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia), trans. Francis A. Brunner (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2012) vol. I, 73.

[38] On the subject of the progressive concentration of various functions in the hands of the celebrant, see the remarks of Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to the Sources, ed. and trans. William G. Storey and Niels K. Rasmussen (Washington, D.C: The Pastoral Press, 1986) 156.

The Lenten Stations of the Rite of Paris, by Henri de Villiers

This article by Henri de Villiers was originally published in French on the blog of the Schola Sainte-Cécile. Since it is fairly lengthy, it will be presented in six parts over six weeks, each covering the Lenten stations celebrated that particular week. Today’s article includes the general introduction; there is only one station this week, that of Ash Wednesday. 

Part 2: The First Week of Lent

Following the example of the Pope in Rome, the Bishop of Paris led his people in prayer during the stational liturgies of Lent. As in Rome, these liturgies included a procession followed by a Mass in the most notable sanctuaries of our city.



Among the ancient Romans, the word station designated an outpost of armed men or sentries keeping watch. Christians took up this terminology very early, at least from the 3rd century. Tertullian in particular frequently uses this term; for him (cf. De oratione XIX) a Christian’s station was the “guard” that the faithful—”the soldiers of God”—kept on certain days through fasting and ardent prayer, as a way of crowning the holy sacrifice of the Mass:

The station has taken its name from the example of the army—for we are indeed the soldiers of God— because in the camp neither joy nor sorrow interrupts the soldier’s station duty (Tertullian, De oratione XIX, 5).

In Tertullian’s time, the station days were Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. On these days, the fast lasted until the hour of None (around 3 p.m.). The Wednesday and Friday fast—universal in the East and West—had been established from the earliest days of the Church, as attested by the Didache, the ancient Christian work from the 1st century, contemporary with the New Testament itself:

“But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second (Monday) and fifth (Thursday) day of the week; but rather fast on the fourth (Wednesday) day and the Preparation (to the Sabbath, i.e. on Friday)” (Didache VIII, 1).

During Lent (and later during the season of Septuagesima), Monday was added to Wednesday and Friday as a third station day in the West.

In Rome, the practice of the stational liturgy is attested under Pope Hilarius († 468); it was reorganized both by his successor Simplicius (468-483) and especially by St Gregory the Great (590-604). At the hour of None, the Roman people convened in a church—called the church of the collect—that had been announced by the archdeacon at the end of the preceding station. There, the Pope sang an oration, the collect of the day (collecta meant the prayer over the people assembled at that place), and then a large procession was organized towards another church—the church of the station. Walking in procession behind the cross borne by the stational subdeacon, the faithful and the clergy chanted the litanies (including the invocation Kyrie eleison). At the church of the station, the Pope celebrated Mass and often gave a homily.

Missale Romanum - Mercredi des Cendres - station à Sainte-Sabine.
Missale Romanum – Ash Wednesday – Station at Sancta Sabina

Originally, stations were held in Rome only on penitential days: Ember Days, Advent, and Lent. But in Rome, contrary to the custom in Africa and the East, Saturdays were fasting days as well (Ember Saturdays therefore have stations). Then, very early on, the collect, procession, and station were also performed on Sundays and great feasts, which were not fasting days (Christmas, Easter and its octave, Advent and Lenten Sundays, for example). This stational liturgy lasted in Rome up until the 12th century, when it fell into disuse. The exile in Avignon dealt it a serious blow. Some elements nonetheless have survived until our time. Thus, the term given to the first oration at the beginning of the Mass—the collect—and the singing of the Kyrie eleison are vestiges of the ancient church of the collect and the stational procession. Above all, the Roman Missal has preserved until the present day the practice of naming the churches where the Roman stations were carried out from the time of St Gregory the Great (one also finds mention of the churches of the collect in mediæval manuscripts). Pope St John XXIII restored the ancient usage of the Roman stations during Lent. The practice was partially taken up again by St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, who have hence several times celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass in the church of Santa Sabina, as indicated in the Missal of St Pius V.



One might be tempted to think that the Lenten stations in Paris were nothing more than a clever local adaptation of a purely Roman papal liturgy, imported just as it was during the Carolingian era. We should note, however, that the existence of stational liturgies in Gaul is attested from the 5th century, before the importation of the Roman liturgy. Curiously, the framework of the Parisian stational liturgy remained limited to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Lent, probably the sole days that were stational during Lent in Rome before the 6th century. The survival of this quite archaic trait until the end of the 18th century is very interesting. In Rome, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Lent were characterized by a more marked penitence, and included the singing of a Tract during Mass (which the other Lenten ferias did not). These same days also had special Epistles and Gospels during the three weeks of preparation for Lent (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima), readings which the majority of medieval diocesan uses (including Paris) preserved, but which fell into desuetude in the missal of the Roman Curia on which the Missal of St Pius V is based.

The order of the Lenten stations in Paris is not mentioned in Parisian missals. It is only known through the Processionals and is described very precisely in the Parisian Ceremonial published under Cardinal de Retz and edited by Martin Sonnet in 1662.

Lenten stations were held in Paris on Ash Wednesday and then all Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays beginning with the first week of Lent until the Friday before Palm Sunday (Passion Friday). They were characterized by a procession that set off from Notre-Dame and headed for another church where the stational Mass of the day was sung. These stational churches—as noted in the Parisian Processional of 1662 (ch. VIII, 18)—are among the most ancient, dignified, and noteworthy in Paris. In fact, this stational itinerary through ancient Christian Paris can lead us to rediscover large swaths of our patrimony, often, alas, destroyed by the Revolution and then by the attentive care of Baron Haussmann, a Protestant[1].

This stational itinerary of Lenten Paris follows a rigorous geographical plan, beginning with the nearest church on the first day—Saint-Christophe, on the Place Notre-Dame —and finishing with the furthest on the last day—the Royal Abbey of Montmartre. During the first week of Lent, one visited three of the most ancient churches of the Île de la Cité. During the second week of Lent, it was the turn of the three most ancient churches of the neighbourhood and faubourg of Saint-Jacques du Sud to be visited. During the third week of Lent, one processed towards the great abbeys of the southeastern region. On the fourth week, one headed towards the ancient churches near the city on the right bank of the Seine, in order to finish, during Passion Week, with the abbeys further north from there. Note that the procession and the stational Mass were suppressed if a double or semi-double feast fell on the day.

Here is the list of stational churches of Parisian Lent:

  1. Ash Wednesday: station in the church of Saint-Christophe près l’Église Métropolitaine (Sanctus Christophorus prope Ecclesiam Metropolitanam).

    Saint-Christophe sur le parvis de Notre-Dame - plan de Turgot de 1739.
    Saint-Christophe on the Place Notre-Dame – plan by Turgot (1739)

On the Place Notre-Dame there used to be a collection of buildings that in 690 housed a convent of nuns, then in 817 a hospice for the poor and infirm, and subsequently for travelers and foreigners. It was known as the Saint-Christophe hospital, and had its own chapel. This church was rebuilt a bit further north of the square in the 9th century and transformed into a parish in the 12th century. The canons of Notre-Dame administered this collection of buildings from 1006. Rebuilt in 1494, the church was demolished in 1747 in order to allow for the construction of the Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés (a hospice for abandoned children).


[1] Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was appointed by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive renovation of Paris.

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.50.04 AM
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.

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


[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?’”

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.


[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.