Post-classical history



After the papal election of 1294, when the Church authorities came for him, Peter, by then eighty-four years old, must have thought that he would never return, that he would never again be able to live quietly on his mountain. Every pope before him had died in office. That’s what popes do. They lead the world’s Church. They minister. They die. It’s all part of the job.

Yet Peter wasn’t the only one with a sense of foreboding. Many saw a negative omen when one month and five days after the election Cardinal Latino Malabranca died. The dean of the cardinals who had nominated the new pope was taken by God before the new era could even begin.

Peter probably dreaded the journey to as far away a place as Perugia. There the cardinals expected him to come so that he could be invested as pope. But Peter’s days of journeying were over. So instead Charles II told him that he should choose his own place of coronation, encouraging him of course to remain within the Kingdom of Naples. Insiders within the papal curia were already growing suspicious. Why were the Neapolitans surrounding the new holy father? Why did Peter seem to have no interest in consulting with the cardinals on important matters of transition? Signs seemed to be mounting that the Sacred College had made a mistake.

Whatever agreement was made between Peter and Charles II, the hermit would not be inaugurated as pope in Rome. He was to stay in Charles’s kingdom. By mid-August, after a month of waiting, the cardinals began giving up hope that Peter would come to them in Perugia, from where they all would have made a procession to St. John Lateran, the cathedral church in Rome where Saint Peter himself once celebrated Mass on the high altar. This was the sancta sanctorum of Christianity, where the most sacred objects, offerings, vessels, and sanctuary of Christ were kept, equivalent to the “holy of holies” of the ancient Temple in Judaism.1 Sitting adjacent to the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the Piazza San Giovanni is the Apostolic Palace of the Lateran, which had been the primary residence of popes since the fourth century. Instead of proceeding as they had expected, the cardinals began making their way one by one to L’Aquila, a place that some of them had never before visited.

Sitting close to the Apennine mountains, a town surrounded on all sides by peaks, L’Aquila is cool by comparison to other cities in central Italy. A reporter for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet recently characterized the place this way:

It’s a chilly place, L’Aquila, at the best of times. The historic city, its centre a maze of narrow medieval streets opening on to graceful piazzas, lies on a mountainside at an altitude of over 2,000 feet, wedged between no less than four snow covered peaks rising to more than 6,000 feet. Locals like to joke that L’Aquila enjoys 11 cold months, and one cool month, which is called summer.2

The city hadn’t been a place of importance for very long. In the 1240s Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II made it Abruzzo’s capital, building on what were then much smaller villages. Wealth poured into the town and infrastructure boomed. The prestige L’Aquila gained led to unwanted attention, and the city would be ravaged by competitors to the emperor’s throne, only to be restored and thoroughly protected by Charles I of Anjou, when he ultimately brought Frederick II’s reign in Italy to an end. To many of the people in the region, a papal coronation in their midst was a sign that the Church was finally recognizing the southern peoples of Italy. They had been dominated by emperors of the north for too long, and even a Roman pope would not have represented the savior that this southern pope did.

Peter’s coronation ceremony took place in L’Aquila on August 29, 1294, at the Basilica of Santa Maria of Collemaggio, the church that he’d built only a decade earlier. As was often the case when Peter seemed to be acquiescing to the wishes of Charles II, it is not simply the case that he was easily convinced to be the first pope crowned outside of Rome. The new pontiff also enjoyed the idea of staying close to home, and he insisted on beginning his reign as a pope of the people. Peter wanted to be crowned at home among his spiritual brothers. Perhaps he also wanted to emphasize that he was more than just the lord of Rome. He would lead a Church that was decentralized politically, and spiritually more universal.

As many as 200,000 people attended the celebration. Legend has it that Dante Alighieri was in the crowd. By 1294 the great Florentine poet was a close associate of Charles Martel of Anjou, the one who had walked Peter down Morrone. Hopes were high for the future of Christ’s kingdom on earth now that it was in the hands of such a man as Peter.

He took the name Celestine, which means “heavenly one.” In some ways Celestine’s coronation ceremony looked like many others before it. Throngs of people lined the streets to watch as incense bearers, archbishops and bishops, cardinals, and abbots and monks processed. There was festive music from the region, a lushly prepared altar in the church, and a papal seat upon which Peter would sit. Symbols of imperial power were everywhere—as they had been at papal ceremonies ever since the emperor Constantine insisted that red cape, tiaras, and white horses mark such occasions, just as they did the coronations of Roman emperors. Constantine gave to Pope Sylvester I (314–35) and, by extension, each of his successors, permission to be invested in their office with full use of imperial regalia and ritual. This included processions, guards of honor, ceremonial costume, attendants from among the most noble men and the imperial militia, to the acclamation of all the citizens of the empire. With rare exception, this is what followed in papal ceremonies from the fourth century until the fourteenth.3

In the case of Peter, the man who followed this magnificent train was not being carried aloft like a king under a canopy; he wasn’t riding on a splendid white steed. He was aloft a simple donkey whose reins were held by the king of Naples.

Saint Francis and the Spirituals

The people in the crowd that day were shocked by the symbolism of Peter’s conveyance, and began to ask each other for more information about this unusual pontiff. They knew him by reputation, and some had met Peter in brief moments upon Maiella or Morrone or as he passed through their cities. Perhaps some were also his Angelerio relatives: cousins, or the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of his siblings. All of those present watched Celestine’s every move. To see this pope’s hands and feet was to see his age and a lifetime of physical asceticism; his hands were misshapen and calloused like those of a farmer and his toes curled up like those of a dancer, from many decades of asking much of them. There was no doubt that something unusual was happening, and it wasn’t lost on the crowd that an event like this had never before been held in such a humble place.

As the people watched the procession of this old monk on a donkey, some must have thought of Saint Francis of Assisi. As we glimpsed in the last chapter, people believed that “the new world of the Spirit was to be built on the final ruin of the old, and the mendicant orders were to be its prophets.”4 The most influential of these orders were the Franciscans.

As a young man, Francis heard a sermon preached on a text from Matthew’s Gospel—and he took it literally. The text reads:

And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff [Mt. 10:7–10].

A spoiled, highborn young man, he changed his entire life upon hearing these words. He zeroed in on each of the phrases as if Jesus was speaking directly to his heart. He devoted himself to others and to a life of literal poverty. Francis’s movement began with a handful of followers, mostly uneducated men, who were required to give away all of their belongings to neighbors and friends and to imitate Jesus. Francis and his brothers often showed themselves as more humble than the religious authorities around them, and their way of life was a self-conscious critique upon the social structures of Francis’s day. Italy and all of Europe were transformed by his movement within a decade. By 1217 tens of thousands of men and women were counted among the Franciscans, and their numbers were large enough that they could send members to Spain, France, and the Middle East, founding provinces in each of these places.

Francis created the “friar,” a man who worked outside the cloister, with the people, preached in the streets and city squares, begged for his daily bread, and lived joyfully without concern for the morrow. But within a generation the friars fell into disrepute. With wicked humor Boccaccio would summarize the perceptions of the common people of Italy in one of the stories in the Decameron, first published in 1353:

There was once a time when friars were saintly and worthy men, but those who claim the title and reputation of a friar today are nothing like the friars of old—except for in the clothes they wear. No, even the habits they wear are inauthentic, because those who invented them said that they should be tight, coarse, shabby, and humble, showing the disdain that a friar feels for the things of this world. But today’s “friars” wear flowing gowns, smooth, pontifical habits, and they strut like peacocks in our churches and city streets showing them off.

What happened?

Within a few years of Francis’s death, his followers were deeply divided between those who wanted to remain absolutely faithful to the founder’s teachings about poverty—they were called the “Spirituals”—and those who viewed Francis’s instructions as more temporary—they were called the “Conventuals.” The latter was by far the larger of the two groups, consisting of the leaders of the order, including all but one of its ministers-general since the saint’s death in 1226. Nicholas IV, the Franciscan pope whose death left the vacancy that Peter filled, was a former minister-general and a Conventual. As often happens in such cases, the two sides tended to move to the ideological extreme edges of their positions.

Francis had raised awareness of the role of money in the Church (its uses and abuses) to new heights: He taught his followers that they weren’t even to handle it. Money was never to be in their pockets. They were never to accept it, store it, bank it, or use it. This was a radical step and one that he believed had been inaugurated by Jesus himself. And even before Francis’s death the Franciscans were divided between those who would follow this teaching to the letter, and those who would interpret it metaphorically.

Francis foresaw that faithfulness to his Rule would become an issue of contention between his brethren. He wrote: “I, Brother Francis, firmly command and decree that no one delete or add to what has been written in this life. The brothers may have no other Rule.”5 But the Conventuals came to believe that at least popes could add to or alter their Rule. If a holy father couldn’t do so, what did it mean that Christ gave Saint Peter the power to loose and to bind? But the Spirituals, who sought to retain the ideals of Saint Francis, remained implacable. They went so far as to say that popes who acted to change the Rule to suit the Conventuals were acting against the Gospel of Christ and therefore had lost their papal authority.6

The dominant voice of the Spirituals, Angelo Clareno (1247–1337), liked to depict Christ speaking directly to Francis of Assisi, as if Angelo himself had been privy to their conversations. In one vision or account, Angelo depicts Christ appearing to Francis and speaking in the context of Joachimite prophecy: “I have asked my father to give me in this last hour a particular kind of people, namely poor, humble, gentle, and mild persons. This people should be in everything like me in poverty and humility.” Christ then instructs the Franciscans on how to live in the ways of poverty—ways that the Spirituals believed they were modeling perfectly:

[Y]ou and all the brothers whom I will give to you, living like foreigners and pilgrims dead to the world in my likeness, ought to establish yourselves, your Rule and your life on the poverty and the nudity of my cross.… The places where … the brothers will dwell in order to worship and praise me should be vile, impoverished, built of sticks and mud, segregated from the tumults and vanities of the world, and free from any right of ownership.7

This is personal revelation for political purposes par excellence.

Mainstream Conventual Franciscans had many reasons to be suspicious of the Spirituals. Spirituals were accused by Conventuals of being dissenters and defectors who were tearing apart a beautiful movement because they believed they knew best the intentions of their famous founder. The dispute about poverty was not simply theological. It often resulted in ugly and violent episodes. There were cases when Conventuals tortured their brother Franciscans in order to force recantations, and such events were witnessed throughout Italy during Peter’s time. News of these struggles and atrocities traveled rapidly in religious circles—even up into the mountains where hermits lived. It is even likely that Spirituals spent time hiding out in the caves of Peter and his brethren.

As Peter rode to the Basilica of Santa Maria of Collemaggio on August 29, 1294, for his coronation, he carried himself with great humility, insisting on being treated no better than his Lord, who had ridden into Jerusalem on an ass. But was that all it was? Was this also an example of his power?

To the medieval imagination, a man with a reputation for sanctity communicated a superior, lasting, eternal endowment that could not be matched by the most stately regal authority. Peter’s early decision to make his identity known in this way—as more of a holy man than a pope—may actually be an example of a pope who carefully crafted his image.

Pope Celestine would not be like the men who had come before him. The cardinals, curia, and ecclesiastics in Italy, as well as the princes and kings at home and abroad, watched carefully for the direction of this new papacy.

The contrast between the life this man had led and the office he now held was unmistakable. The people lining the streets of L’Aquila were witnessing a man already showing signs of “going his own way.”

More Symbols

We don’t know what Peter was thinking on that day. He left no diary behind. Perhaps he also thought of the fourth-century Saint Martin of Tours. When the bishop of Poitiers wanted to ordain Martin he insisted that it be to the lowest possible rank. He thus became an exorcist. Martin began to live like a hermit, and people would come from long distances to seek his counsel. Eventually a community grew up around him, much to Martin’s disappointment. Then when the bishop of Tours died, the diminutive Martin was pressed to accept the job of bishop. He agreed, but only if he could sit on a wooden stool in the cathedral and not in the bishop’s ornate chair. Throughout his time as bishop, Martin refused to ride a horse or be driven in a chariot. He also rode a donkey.

In contrast, older Catholics today might remember the last great papal ceremony, that of John XXIII in 1958 in St. Peter’s Square. It lasted the traditional five hours and was full of the pageantry that used to be common for the holy fathers. John XXIII was crowned with tiaras made specifically for the occasion, encrusted with jewels, and paraded like a king through Rome. Such celebrations were abolished by the Second Vatican Council. Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI did not include an actual coronation in his installation ceremony.

In the basilica, a pallium was placed upon Celestine’s shoulders. A pallium is a narrow strip of white lamb’s wool with black crosses woven into a design that was intended to be worn solely by popes. (The 1431 Council of Basel would condemn the practice of popes’ granting their palliums to their cronies.) Only three cardinals were in attendance at Celestine’s investiture, because only three had arrived by the time the ceremony began since Charles II insisted that the installation move forward. As one historian has written, it all appeared as if Charles “t[ook] the simple old man into honorable custody.”8 Speculation swirled that Charles wanted the ceremony wrapped up before the cardinals could gather again and try to change their minds. Charles II’s haste was later remedied; as a compromise the whole ceremony was repeated for the sake of the rest of the Sacred College several days later. Celestine V’s is the only instance in history of a double papal coronation.

In addition to the pallium, every pope was invested with other symbols of his power as both supreme religious leader and head of state, including the sacred mantle or coat (scarlet, to match the ancient color of the imperial monarch’s garment), a tiara upon his head, the Fisherman’s gold ring on his finger connecting him to the lineage of Saint Peter, the triple cross, and the crossed keys—to heaven.

Consider the tiara, encrusted with jewels. This piece of liturgical gear was designed to set the pope apart from every other bishop and leader of the Church, marking him as the supreme monarch on earth. The placing of the crown on the pope’s head was accompanied by the following symbolic words: “Receive the tiara and know that thou art Father of princes and kings, Ruler of the world, Vicar of our Savior Jesus Christ.” It wasn’t long before ruling sultans of the Ottoman Empire were having their own three-tiered, and then four-tiered, tiaras made for their own coronations. Celestine V’s tiara didn’t match well the ass he rode in on, but it was at least less ostentatious than the “double crown” of his successor, Boniface VIII, and the “triple crown” that would sit on Clement V’s head in 1305. In recent memory, Pope John Paul II also refused to wear the tiara, reflecting in his inauguration homily: “This is not the time to return to a ceremony and an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes. Our time calls us, urges us, obliges us to gaze on the Lord and immerse ourselves in humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ himself.”

After the crown was placed on Peter’s head, the cardinals and princes would have knelt and kissed his sandaled feet.

Consider, too, the crossed keys that are featured so prominently in papal regalia and insignia. One is made of gold, and the other of silver; they are always pictured bound together by a red cord. The crossed keys symbolize the power to open the gates of heaven, as is shown in two verses from the Bible, the first from a prophecy of the Messiah, and the second from the words of Jesus to his disciples:

And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; he shall shut, and none shall open. (Is. 22:22)

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt. 16:19)

We don’t know how Celestine felt about these symbols, only that he endured them. They would have been largely unfamiliar to him, as he’d never been a member of the curia or even a bishop or cardinal.

Chief among all papal symbols of authority is the Chair of St. Peter. Since the late Renaissance, the apostle’s famous chair has been enclosed in a tall gilt bronze casing created by the Renaissance sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and it stands in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions, visited by thousands of visitors each day. Before Bernini designed the casing, the chair was more than a symbol; it was an actual relic. At the time of Celestine V’s coronation, many believed the Chair of St. Peter was the very chair sat upon by the saint himself in the first century. (We now know that the chair within the enormous and ornate Bernini structure was a gift of Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII in 875 C.E.)

The Bernini chair sits within an apse that has these verses inscribed in gold lettering, in Latin:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this Rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt. 16:18–19)

This is a chair upon which Celestine V never sat. This pope would never make it to Rome.

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