Tag Archives: conclave

Lock Them Up ! Clausi Cum Clave !


How does an ancient institution develop a foolproof system of choosing a leader ? Firstly, it is never foolproof. Secondly, it always evolves.

When the cardinals begin their deliberations, locked in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, on March 12th, their closed meetings follow a tradition established in 1268, in Viterbo.

It had taken 3 years to elect a Pope. The wheeling and dealing amongst the participants was so convoluted, that desperate city magistrates locked the cardinals in the papal palace (clausi cum clave – locked with a key) and eventually resorted to giving them only bread and water for sustenance. When this still proved ineffectual, they apparently pulled the roof tiles off from over their heads to expose them to “heavenly” inspiration. They finally reached a decision and the Visconti Pope Gregory X who emerged, used this precedent to establish rules for what became known as the “Conclave”.

It is only in recent years that the cardinals were no longer bricked up in the Sistine Chapel and were instead finally allowed to sleep comfortably in the Domus Sanctae Marthae in the Vatican, a decision of John Paul II.

Today cardinals represent congregations from across the world in person. In the past the difficulties of travel could result in a small number of easily influenced electors. This was the case in the landmark year of 1492. Columbus had sailed west to find a new world, Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of the Renaissance, had passed away aged only 43, and the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, bribed his way to the throne of St Peter . Once in power Alexander and his enforcer-son Cesare, were known to invite any wavering cardinals to dinner . The main course would normally be pheasant, a delicacy, but served in a human skull , to remind them of their mortality. They quickly agreed to all papal requests, which almost led to the destruction of the Church. The sale of indulgences, a payment for forgiveness of sins past, present and future, undermined ecclesiastical credibility. A mere 14 years after the Borgia Pope died, Martin Luther was nailing his 95 theses on the All Saints Church door in Wittenberg. In 1529 the Germanic Princes issued their Protestation in Speyer. The Reformation had begun.

Papal conclaves have always aroused interest, curiosity and flights of the imagination. In the year 2000, Dan Brown followed up his best-seller The Da Vinci Code with an equally successful thriller, novel and film, Angels and Demons, set in an imaginary conclave.There potential papal front-runners are kidnapped and ritually murdered at symbolic sites in Rome. The killer makes his hide-out behind the forbidding walls of the Castel SantʼAngelo, linked to the Vatican by a secret, enclosed passageway.

Real life stories can be far stranger than fiction. This was the case in 1978 when the non-curia, would-be reformist Pope John Paul I was elected only to die 33 days later, the shortest Papacy of modern times. Conspiracy theories abound . One that has been outlined by David Yallop is his carefully documented 1984 study called In Godʼs Name. There were competing alternative theories, but no convincing resolution to the mystery of the sudden papal death.

On October 16 1978, cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected on the eighth ballot of the second day of the conclave. He adopted the name of John Paul II to emphasize continuity within the Church and followed his predecessor in an inauguration ceremony without a coronation.

I was in Rome to meet a touring group on October 22nd and stood for six hours in St Peterʼs Square, privileged to witness the start of what would become one of the longest Pontificates of all time, 1978-2005. This most widely travelled and popular of all church leaders has already earned the posthumous description of John Paul the Great. His successor Benedict XVI surprised the world this year by offering his almost unprecedented resignation, leading to the current assembly of cardinals .

PS: HABEMUS PAPAM! – In what has been the shortest Conclave for 100 years, Cardinal Bergoglio , of Buenos Aires, has been declared Pope. The popeʼs Twitter account has now been changed from “Sede Vacante” to “Pontifex”.



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The Creator Made Italy, from Designs by Michelangelo


“The Creator Made Italy, from Designs by Michelangelo” MarkTwain

With the Papal conclave starting this week, it’s interesting to note that, while inside the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals are surrounded on all sides by masterpieces meant to provoke them. As George Braque once said: “Art is meant to disturb”!

In his book “When in Rome “, Robert J. Hutchinson noted that “the papal apartments in Castel SantʼAngelo are decorated in frescoes that would have made Hugh Hefner proud…” while the Sistine Chapel “ is covered with naked men and women, all piled on top of one another in what looks for all the world like some sort of biblical orgy “.

Scandalous! Well, that is how some cardinals saw the progress of work in the Sistine Chapel when Michelangeloʼs Last Judgement wall began taking shape.


In fact Biagio di Cesena, papal Master of Ceremonies, visiting the Sistine with Pope Paul III gasped at the naked figures in church and threatened that, if the Pope did not act, he would take it up with the Curia.

Asked to explain his work, Michelangelo pointed out that Armageddon (the Second Coming or end of the world) would find us before God in the form in which He had created us. The Pope said nothing more but, as they left, Biagio was heard still muttering about the “immorality”.

When they returned a few days later the official had a fit because amongst the figures in hell, he had found his portrait. “Holy Father, order him to take me out of there!” – but the Pope would only say that, had he wished to be taken out of Heaven, it could have been arranged, but that Hell was outside his authority. Biagio is still there.

A much-told old story but this is the dramatic spectacle that will confront the cardinals as they take their oath of secrecy at the start of the 2013 conclave. They will also be aware of the spectacular presentation of Old Testament stories above their heads, the only ceiling that “everyone must see before they die

ImageDuring pauses they may also note a macabre detail on the upper part of the famous wall. It is a self-portrait of a long suffering Michelangelo as a skin hanging from the fingers of St Bartholomew who was flayed alive. Pope Paul III himself is gratefully portrayed as St Peter, holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

These are but a few of the stories held within the walls of the Sistine Chapel, meant to remind the conclaved cardinals of their duties to the outside world.

The conclave starts with a cry of “Extra Omnes!” (everybody out) to outsiders, and as the cardinals start their pensive gazing at their surroundings for the next few days or weeks, we too applaud and murmur “Go Cardinals! The whole world is watching!”


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