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Pope Benedict XVI Resigning and the Role of the Sistine Chapel

Today Pope Benedict XVI announced to the world that he would be resigning and stepping down from his Pontiff role as of February 28, 2013.  You might wonder what this trending news has to do with art.  The fact is that when the pope steps down, the process to select a new leader of the Catholic Church will begin and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel will play a role.

When the College of Cardinals meets to select a successor to the current pope the meeting is referred to as a papal conclave.  Following several long vacancies of the pope’s position, Pope Gregory X, in 1274, declared that the cardinals should be locked in seclusion “cum clave”, in Latin, “with a key”, and not allowed to leave until a new Bishop of Rome, or Pope, had been elected.  The first papal conclave to be held in the Sistine Chapel was in 1492, some 20 years before the completion of Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling.

Since 1846 the Sistine Chapel, home of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, has been the set location of the election of the new Pope.  The rules have changed a bit over the years and the cardinals are no longer locked in the Sistine Chapel throughout the entire election process.  Instead, they are housed in comfortable living quarters located within the Vatican and then transported to the Sistine Chapel for voting under Michelangelo’s fresco.  While considering the future of the Catholic Church the cardinals will be surrounded by visual reminders of God’s great love and man’s human weaknesses.

In the middle of the 18th century a special stove and chimney were installed in the chapel to act as the only form of communication between the papal electors and the outside world.  Tradition holds that when balloting takes place and is unsuccessful the ballot papers are burned with a liquid dye and the chimney emits black smoke.  Once the balloting is successful and a new pope has been elected the chimney emits white smoke.

There is no doubt that when the cardinals gather to elect a new pope, possibly in mid-March, eyes from around the world will be focused once again on the Sistine Chapel, a location filled with amazing art and history.

Read about visiting the Sistine Chapel.

Read more about how the pope is elected.


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