Papal resignations: the case of Celestine V

Michael Widener

The news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation brings to mind an image from our rare book collection that illustrates a previous papal resignation, that of Pope Celestine V. Celestine appears together with his successor, Boniface VIII, in an image at the opening of a 1514 edition of the Liber Sextus: Sextus decretalium liber a Bonifacio. viij. in concilio Lugdunensi editus (Venice: Luca Antonio Giunta, 1514). The Liber Sextus formed part of the Corpus Juris Canonici ("The Body of Canon  Law") that served as the foundation of canon law in the Catholic Church from the Middle Ages until 1917. 

It is unsurprising to find images of Boniface VIII at the opening of the Liber Sextus, since he is the pope who ordered its compilation. It is surprising to find such unflattering images. The woodcut depicts two scenes from Boniface's life.

In the foreground, Boniface embraces a fox who pulls the papal tiara from the head of his predecessor, Celestine V. A dove over Celestine's head symbolizes the Holy Spirit conferring its blessing upon Celestine. In essence, the image repeats the accusation that Boniface tricked the saintly Celestine into resigning.

Celestine V had been a monk renowned for his piety and asceticism, who founded a strict branch of the Benedictines. A divided College of Cardinals elected him in July 1294 after having failed for over two years to elect one of their own. The new pope accepted his election reluctantly, and soon concluded that he was unfit and unwilling to continue to serve as pope. Some sources say Celestine's decision to resign was his alone, while others say Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani, the future Boniface VIII, goaded and tricked him into resigning. All agree that Boniface drafted the papal constitution authorizing a pope's resignation. Boniface was elected pope immediately afterward, in December 1294. Celestine tried to return to a hermit's life, but he died as Boniface's prisoner in 1296. Celestine was canonized in 1313.

Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI visited Celestine's remains in 2009, after they had survived the L'Aquila earthquake (see photos here). He proclaimed the Celestine Year from 28 August 2009 to 28 August 2010, to mark the 800th anniversary of Celestine's birth.

On the right of the image shown here is a scene from the end of Boniface VIII's papacy, in 1303. He was taken prisoner by the powerful Colonna clan of Rome, with whom Boniface carried on a bitter and bloody feud. The Colonnas and their ally, King Philip IV of France, demanded Boniface's resignation, to which Boniface replied that he would "sooner die." His wish was granted a few days later. It was Philip IV who later nominated Celestine V for sainthood.

Both Boniface and Celestine make appearances in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Dante places Boniface in the eighth circle of Hell, reserved for those guilty of simony. Dante's exile from Florence was a direct result of Boniface VIII's political machinations, and Boniface was "Dante's most reviled theological, political, and personal enemy" (Danteworlds website, University of Texas at Austin). Celestine V is believed to be the coward beside the gate of Hell who made "the great refusal" by abdicating the papacy and paving the way for Boniface's election as pope.

For citations to scholarly writings on papal resignations in the Middle Ages, see "The first papal abdication since six centuries", a posting in the excellent Rechtsgeschiedenis Blog, "Legal history with a Dutch view." The Wikipedia articles on Celestine V and Boniface VIII provide additional details and links to additional sources.

-- MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian


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