Updated: Apr 27
Today in an extra-ordinary ceremony Pius VII was crowned Pope in a Benedictine Monastery with a temporary papal tiara made of papier-mâché. The period between the death of a Pope and the gathering of a conclave to elect a new one is referred to as a sede vacante period, to indicate that the chair of Peter is empty. The church leadership had been driven out of Rome after French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded and captured the previous Pope Pius VI, taking him as a prisoner to France, where he died in 1799.
The Papal tiara is a crown that was worn by popes of the Catholic Church from as early as the 8th century and was last used by Pope Paul VI in 1963. Today for the only time in history - one was hastily created out of papier mache, a composite of paper squashed into pulp and bound with an adhesive, usually glue or wallpaper paste. It is seen as an economical option for a variety of traditional and ceremonial activities, and is popular in arts and crafts world.
Because of the volatile political climate this period lasted approximately six months and the conclave gathered to elect his successor, not in the Sistine Chapel in Rime but in the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio in Venice. Conclave, which in Latin means with a key, means that the cardinal electors should be locked in seclusion when going through the process of electing a pope. Conclaves were mandated by Pope Gregory X because of concerns around the political interference in papal elections. A papal election is meant to be inspired by the holy spirit – and a conclave is supposed to allow the cardinals to be isolated in prayer and free of external distractions. A compromise candidate emerged from this unusual conclave as Pope, the Benedictine monk and theologian, Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti. On 14 March 1800, Chiaramonti was elected pope, and took as his pontifical name Pius VII in honour of his immediate predecessor who had effectively died as a prisoner of Napoleon in France. Chiaramonti was crowned today, a week later, in the adjecent monastery church, by means of a rather unusual ceremony, wearing a papier-mâché papal tiara. The French had seized the tiaras held by the Holy See when occupying Rome.
The Papal tiara is a crown that was worn by popes of the Catholic Church from as early as the 8th century and was last used by Pope Paul VI in 1963. By the fourteenth century it had taken a three-tiered form and was solemnly placed on the pope's head during a papal coronation. When the popes assumed temporal power in the Papal States, the base crown became decorated with jewels to resemble the crowns of princes. But by the time of Pope Paul VI in 1963, who used a tiara donated by the city of Milan, where he was archbishop before his election, and it was not covered in jewels and precious gems, and was sharply cone-shaped. The church had already begun to move away from its association with earthly power and it was beginning to be seen as an outdated embarrassment. Though not currently worn as part of papal regalia, the papal tiara still appears on the coats of arms of the Holy See and the flag of Vatican City.
Back in Venice, the new pope who we remember today then left for Rome, sailing on what we are told was a barely seaworthy Austrian ship, the Bellona.
Pius VII at first attempted to take a cautious approach in dealing with Napoleon. They signed the Concordat of 1801, which succeeded in guaranteeing religious freedom for Catholics living in France, and famously Pius was present at Napoleons coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804. Again this did not proceed in a traditional manner as Napoleon crowned himself. While the Pope recited the coronation formula, Napoleon turned and removed his laurel wreath and crowned himself and then crowned the kneeling Joséphine with a small crown surmounted by a cross, which he had first placed on his own head. Interestingly a Commemorative coin was minted with the image of Pius VII on the obverse and Notre Dame on the reverse. The coin was dated on the reverse according to the Gregorian and French Revolutionary calendars, another sign of the political uncertainty. Five years later however, Napoleon once again invaded the Papal States, resulting in his excommunication. Pius VII was taken prisoner and transported to France. He remained there until the defeat of the French and was permitted to return to Rome, where he was greeted warmly as a hero and defender of the faith.
A palpably holy and resilient man it is recorded that one occasion the pope celebrated Mass and was said to have entered a trance and began to levitate in a manner that drew him to the altar. This particular episode aroused great wonder and awe among attendants which included the French soldiers guarding him who were in disbelief of what had occurred. But also a shrewd political operator, on the United States' undertaking of the First Barbary War to suppress the Muslim pirates along the southern Mediterranean coast, ending their kidnapping of Europeans for ransom and slavery, Pius VII declared that the United States "had done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages." Pope Benedict XVI has opened the process of beatification for him.