When it is suspected that a pope has reached his end, an expert is sent in to complete his reign. The papal chamberlain (or camerlengo, a title much in the public’s mouth both through recent reports of Pope John Paul II’s death and the weirdness of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel Angels and Demons) approaches with a small silver hammer. He taps the pope’s forehead with this hammer three times, calling out to him in Latin and addressing him by his baptismal (rather than papal) name. If there is no response, the pope’s ring is removed and the same hammer is used to shatter it. His reign is over and a conclave is called.
The high-sounding conclave had a rough beginning. Its name (Latin cum, “with,” and clavis, “key”) does not stem from the fact that its duty is to elect a new bearer for the keys to heaven, which Christ first passed to Peter. The pope receives a great many things—miters, robes, staffs, rings, riches—but no keys. The origin of the conclave’s name is more humble—and coercive.
In the 13th century, after a series of trying papal vacancies during which next to no church business could be conducted, it became clear that a reform was in order. In 1271, as a stalemate in the election process was nearing its fourth year, the flock took things into its own hands. The local officials in Viterbo—where, due to chronic instability in nearby Rome, the papal residence was then located—hastened the process. By order of the mayor, the doors to the Episcopal Palace, where the Sacred College of Cardinals was in session, were locked and boarded up. Guards were posted to prevent escape or entry. The town’s secular officials then began to exert temporal pressure. The 15 feuding cardinals inside were told that if after three days they had not arrived at a decision, their meals would be restricted. If five further days elapsed without an election, only bread, wine, and water would be supplied. This nutritive window was to be further narrowed if a decision was not yet made. Even for the elect, fasting has its limits, but the proactive officials of Viterbo did not cease here. They clambered to the roof of the palace and tore off the majority of the tiles of the chapel in which the cardinals were deliberating. Exposed thus to indignity and the elements, the deadlock between the French and Italian contingents was finally broken and a new pope was elected.
A papal name is a papal program. Innocent calls up a heritage of innocents, just as John Paul calls upon a dually apostolic one (though there is no restriction imposed upon a new pope—a point a Vatican official recently illustrated by noting that “a Pope Kevin I is possible, though unlikely”). The pope whom the Viterbians sequestered and starved the Sacred College into electing wasn’t a cardinal, or even a priest, and took the prudent name of Gregory (Greek for “watchful”). His vigilant eye told him that further successions could be menaced by further deadlocks and so, to the horror of the cardinals, declared sequestration—or conclave, as it was tactfully called—to be the best way of keeping the holy seat occupied. (No mention was made in the formal constitution of the conclave—”Ubi Periculum”—about de-roofing recalcitrant cardinals, though Viterbian roofers would re-enter papal history a mere three years later: Pope John XXI’s brief reign ended when the roof of his study collapsed on him.)
Local changes have been made, but the fundamental features of the conclave as laid down by Gregory X have remained unchanged. One thing that has changed is the roof over the sacred cardinals’ heads. There’s no risk that in the coming days or weeks the impatient in Rome—or a contingent of visiting Viterbians—will try to expose them to the rough elements. The location where they have met since is nothing short of ideal.
Ever since Michelangelo completed his work in the Sistine Chapel in 1541, all but an isolated few conclaves have been held there. Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, the wisest of men, served as the chapel’s model, and it was accordingly built with the same dimensions: twice as long as it is high, three times as long as it is wide. Aware of the model’s fate (destruction by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E.), the builders outfitted it at construction (which began in 1475) with walls 10 feet thick, a walkway around its roof for sentinels, arrow slits for archers, and holes in the walls for pouring boiling oil out of. The ceiling was adorned with an image of the firmament made from the richest materials in the world—precious gold, and still more precious ultramarine (derived from lapis lazuli and more expensive per ounce than gold). But only a few years after its construction a rift opened in the firmament. The rock of the church is built, as history would have it, on unstable ground. The marshy base beneath the Vatican’s 180 acres leads to shifting in the buildings’ bases. Just a few years after the chapel’s construction, it had to be reinforced with metal bars—and a new firmament was needed.
Contrary to popular opinion, the commission to repaint the Sistine Chapel was no great gift. Ceiling painting was usually left to relatively minor painters employing simple motifs—more complex paintings, like Mantegna’s famous ceiling fresco in Mantua’s ducal palace, required an extreme foreshortening that was exceedingly difficult to master. Michelangelo—who signed letters “Michelangelo, sculptor”—was not an experienced painter when he received the commission, and even less experienced in the special atmospheric and perspectival requirements that such a fresco would demand. He was thus angry when he received the commission from il papa terrible, “The Terrifying Pope,” Julius II. The two reasons he accepted the commission were a moderately grounded fear for his life and a desire for something he did want to do: construct his tomb, a commission that he ardently sought, both for the sculptural challenges it offered and because the idea of Julius’s eventual death was a consoling one. Raphael was working—with more warmth—in an adjoining room to the Sistine Chapel and took inspiration from the figures Michelangelo was painting on the ceiling. (A less enthusiastic Leonardo, working in the Vatican a few years later, said they reminded him of great “sacks of nuts.”) Contrary to many expectations, the ceiling was a resounding success. Even the impulsive Viterbians wouldn’t try to remove the roof whose underside bore Michelangelo’s great work.
In Roman Triptych, his 2003 book of poems, Pope John Paul II wrote about his inspiring experiences during the two 1978 conclaves in the Sistine Chapel that led—shocking everyone including himself—to his papacy. In the prolific pope’s final work, Memory and Identity (just out from Rizzoli), we see a different side of man and pope. The book’s epilogue, “Someone Must Have Guided That Bullet,” refers to the assassin Mehmet Ali Agca’s bullet diverted from its fatal trajectory in the attempt on the pope’s life in front of St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The professional assassin engaged to ice the pope was to receive a visit singular in the annals of contract killings: his intended victim visiting him in prison—to pardon him. This personal and papal pardon was followed, nearly 20 years later, by a secular one and Agca was returned to his home country, where he immediately began serving a sentence on an earlier murder charge.
The preceding chapters of the pope’s book tell of what the magic bullet, which “someone” must have guided, saved him to do. Elsewhere, the pope discusses the fall of Nazism and Communism, regimes built upon “ideologies of evil.” The “forms of extermination” they practiced lead him to another form of “extermination” that has not yet been brought to an end: “the legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn.” He says of pro-choice and gay marriage advocacy that “it is . . . necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family.”
The reader might easily wonder whether the aging pope was capable of justifying such an analogy. “Over the years,” he writes, “I have become more and more convinced that the ideologies of evil are profoundly rooted in the history of European philosophical thought.” By grounding a philosophy that gives pride of place to the cogito over the sum, to an ens cogitans that eclipses the esse illuminating the philosophy of Aquinas, the seeds for the “ideologies of evil” that ravage our present day were sown. A darker dialectic of enlightenment would be difficult to imagine (one almost can understand why Brown’s illuminati are ready to blind the Vatican with their science).
On Friday, April 8, the pope’s body—along with a sealed text in Latin detailing his reign and a pouch full of papal coins for his journeys—was laid to rest. In the coming days the conclave of cardinals will convene to cast their ballots. No Viterbian contingent will force a vote, and a decision will come soon enough. A plume of white smoke will rise from the Sistine Chapel and a cry will come forth: “Habemus papam!”
Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.