Popes, Pomp and Circumstance: the Sedia Gestatoria

Pope Pius XII wearing a Tiara and carried on a sedia gestatoria, 1955. Source: wikivisual.

One of the consequences of the remarkable levelling to the minimum common denominator of almost every conceivable activity is the scaling down of those elements of ceremony once cherished as beautiful and today considered arrogant or elitist. In fact, one can go as far as to say that nowadays whatever is not absolutely and tragically plain is at high risk of being labelled as “elitist” or “snob”. We see this everywhere but what I would like to mention with you today is the style of Papal appearances.

There was a time where a Pope would – on certain and particularly solemn occasions – be carried on a sedia gestatoria.  This was a kind of movable throne, splendidly adorned, offering the advantage of making the Pope visible by a large crowd whilst at the same time beautifully stressing his (literally) exalted position. It goes without saying that the entire exercise was not entirely “democratic”, but as the Church never was and never would be  no one really cared for such matters. On the contrary, in former times – before egalitarianism started to infiltrate every aspect of public life – such shows of authority were expected, respected and not disliked at all. Men need symbols and something like a sedia gestatoria had a highly symbolic meaning.

Not anymore, at least for now. John Paul II first refused to use it, evidently considering a Pope unworthy of being revered and honoured as such.  John Paul II also started to dress down in other ways (for instance: no papal tiara).

If you ask me, dear reader, this is all very wrong. Men need symbols. They breath them. Few things are more natural and speak more directly to the human mind than the visual or aurial experience of power and authority. The Pope is powerful; he has authority. A lot of it, in fact, as we would be at a loss to find another person on the planet with the authority  to remove or fire anyone of more than 400,000 employees of his organisation at will and with the only appeal given to…. himself; let alone a person with such a high moral authority over 1.15 billion faithful.

Men need symbols and those in position of power and authority have always naturally availed themselves of various means to stress this authority and to make it visible, palpable, audible. There is nothing wrong with that.

Pope Benedict is showing some timid signs of wanting to recover the rich symbolic tradition of the Papacy, but he has still not revived the use of the sedia gestatoria (nor that of the papal tiara). The nowadays omnipresent “security reasons” cannot be brought as an excuse because the use of the sedia gestatoria can be modified to make it safer (say: only within a church) and increase both the visibility and the safety of the Holy Father. Had a sedia gestatoria been used, last year’s episode in St. Peter could not have happened at all.

We are now seeing the first signs of a change of direction, albeit things proceed – as so often in Church matters – rather slowly. We can only hope that, in time, the vast symbolic patrimony of the Church will be fully recovered and proudly considered a powerful symbolic weapon instead of an embarrassment.

Mundabor

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Posted on June 9, 2010, in Catholicism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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