Men of Music, Art, Letters and Law

The late-medieval papal chapel was a powerful jewel in the papal tiara.

Boniface VIII presiding over the college of cardinals, Italian manuscript, 14th century.Easter Day, Rome, 1300. In the Lateran Palace, 24 priests rise before dawn. They don white cassocks and proceed to the pope’s private chambers, where, silently, they dress Boniface VIII in a plain white cope and a pearl-studded mitre. In the intimate chapel of San Nicola, next to the papal chambers, they say Prime and Matins with their pope. Then the white-clad coterie processes through the palace to the chapel of San Lorenzo – the Sancta Sanctorum – and assembles before an icon. Torches and candles burn on the altar. Above, glinting mosaic words declare: ‘There is no holier place in the entire world.’ These priests are the papal chaplains. Joined now by the cardinal deacons and the papal subdeacons, they begin the special ceremonies for Easter Day.

Boniface VIII approaches the icon and removes its cover. The true likeness of Christ – the Acheiropoieta – is revealed, covered, but for its face and feet, by a jewelled silver coating. Boniface removes his mitre, stoops to kiss the icon’s feet and begins to chant: ‘The Lord who hung for us on the Cross is risen from the tomb. Alleluia!’ Two papal chaplains sing in unison with the pope, two others echo the antiphon in response and they continue, each time louder, filling the exquisitely painted chapel with their chant.

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