This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tidings.
THE RECENT PAPAL CONCLAVE took place, as dictated by tradition, in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This is a sacred space, its mystery once confirmed by the zealous exclusivity which attached to the performance there of Allegri’s choral masterpiece, his Miserere – a piece which we are lucky enough now to hear performed annually by our King’s College Chapel Choir. But the Sistine Chapel’s sacred character is best known to everyone because of Michelangelo’s magnificent decoration both of the ceiling and of the altar wall. Because of Michelangelo, Papal elections in the Sistine Chapel occur under the canopy of the whole of human history, from the creation of Adam and Eve to the Last Judgment at the end of time.
Not missing from the gathered throng above, keeping a watchful eye, as it were, are Noah and the male prophets of the Hebrew scriptures; but, in the Sistine Chapel, they happen to be joined by the female sibyls of classical antiquity. This is a significant reminder that the messianic impulses of Christianity are not to be restricted to the Biblical heritage, but are also represented as fulfilling the ancient aspirations for a return of the “Golden Age.”
In the Foundation Year Programme, this has frequently been emphasized in our use of Vergil’s 4th Eclogue, where the poet speaks of that “crowning era foretold in prophecy”: the imminent delivery of a “first-born” who anticipates the return of “the Golden Age” which will restore all the blessings of mankind. One of the hymns frequently sung in our King’s Chapel makes the same pious point by insisting that Christ “is he, whom seer and sibyl / Sang in ages long gone by…”
The sibyls are the human voices of Apollo, and the music that is supported by Apollo’s lyre produces a poetry, which “is the sister of prophecy.” During the recent election of Pope Francis the First, I wonder if any of the Cardinal Electors, in the long bouts of extended balloting, ever had occasion to gaze up at the Sistine ceiling and ruminate concerning the presence in that august body of the Cumaean Sibyl, allegedly the most prominent of all the sibyls that Michelangelo placed to oversee the proceedings. Cumae is supposedly the most ancient Greek colony on the Italian mainland, and the home of a citadel dedicated to Apollo, and FYP students are well acquainted with this prophetic disciple of Apollo. This sibyl is the one to tell Aeneas in the 6th Book of The Aeneid that for Aeneas there is still worse to come, above and beyond what he and the other Trojan exiles have they already suffered. The sibyl informs Aeneas: “l see wars, deadly wars…You must not give way to these adversities but must face them all the more boldly wherever your fortune allows it…”
This is all of a piece with the central ethic of The Aeneid: right at the beginning of this great epic poem, it is Aeneas who exhorts his exhausted and discouraged companions: “Your task is to endure and save yourselves for better days”; an entreaty repeated later by the aged Nautes (in Book V), where he offers Aeneas the same rather stringent encouragement: “Whatever fortune may be ours, we must at all times rise above it by enduring it” (in the Penguin translation of David West). According to Vergil, the only way that Aeneas is going to be able to bear all that follows is by being granted one more encounter with his departed father, Anchises, now a resident of that Underworld which The Aeneid explores in Book VI.
The reason that the Cumaean Sibyl makes for such an extraordinary witness of the recent papal election is that (as FYP students know) she serves as Aeneas’ companion and pilot through the realm of the departed spirits; this must have put into the minds of some of the Cardinal Electors a reiteration of this journey into the Underworld (and therefore the afterlife) – but this time not with Vergil as its poetic author, but with Vergil as its experienced escort and guide; I refer, of course, to Dante’s Inferno, another subterranean pilgrimage recorded some 13 centuries after Vergil died.
What is so extraordinary about this presence of the Cumaean Sibyl (who by the way is offered a privileged allusion in the very last canto – Canto 100 – of the Divine Comedy) is that she is a silent witness to a form of living that always carries death at its heart; media vita in morte sumus our ancestors famously declared: “in the midst of life we are in death”. The sibyl’s presence among the Cardinal Electors looking down from above as it were, is a memento of the three of the most famous journeys ever made into Hades (if we also include the13th book of The Odyssey). Perhaps readers might by now feel that this point is being rather belaboured. But the emphasis is necessary: again as every FYP student knows, the very first figure that Vergil and Dante meet in his poetic Inferno – after they pass through the gate of Hell is a figure that Dante recognizes and who is characterized as the one who “made the great refusal.”
Since the earliest readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy interpreters have understood this to be a reference to Celestine V, elected to the Papacy in July of 1294, and abdicating from office in December of the same year (after a term in Papal office of five months and eight days). Since he was canonized in 1313, a minority of commentators doubt that this person that Dante recognizes in the Vestibule of Hell could have been a saintly Pope Emeritus. Some of the alternatives bandied about are, for instance, Esau and Pontius Pilate. Perhaps, however, this is still not the very best of company in which to be placed. According to Dante’s account of the very beginning of his journey into the Underworld in the 3rd Canto of his Inferno: “After I had recognized several, I saw and knew the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal” [il gran rifiuto; translated by R.M. Durling].
As indicated, the lengthy recent ballots in the Sistine Chapel occurred under the canopy of Michelangelo’s iconography. By the artist’s foregrounding of the Cumaean Sibyl, with her links to Aeneas and Vergil and Dante, and with the sibyl’s authoritative knowledge of the Underworld and the after life, we come to see that March’s election then really was “a matter of life and death”… or at least, that is how any student of Dante in FYP would have understood what was going on.
FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.