As if the task of choosing the Vicar of Christ and the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics wasn’t daunting enough, the voting must also take place under the gaze of Michelangelo’s brilliant but imposing frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
That’s what the late Pope John Paul II decreed when he rewrote the conclave rules in 1996, and so it shall be starting today — and for however many days it takes the 115 cardinal-electors to choose a successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who retired last month.
In the Sistine Chapel, “everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged,” John Paul II wrote in his 1996 Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” which regulates papal elections.
The Polish pope even devoted a part of his 2003 poem “Roman Triptych” to the chapel, stressing the relationship between Michelangelo’s “marvelous polychromy” and the task of the cardinal- electors during the conclave.
Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sat there for the two conclaves of 1978 as well as for the 2005 balloting that elected him pope, wrote in his introduction to John Paul’s poem that the image of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” “insinuated in our soul the vastness of our responsibility.”
Nevertheless, even if the tradition of voting for the new pontiff in the Sistine Chapel dates back to the Renaissance, the location of the voting didn’t become a fixed feature of the conclaves until the 19th century — and only with John Paul II’s rules did the Sistine Chapel become the official theater of papal elections.
The 115 cardinals who will assemble under Michelangelo’s frescoes Tuesday afternoon will see a very different chapel from the one usually seen by millions of tourists.
According to Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museum, about 25,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel every day, for a total of over 5 million visitors a year.
Last year, one of Italy’s leading intellectuals complained in the Corriere della Sera newspaper that visitors thronged the sacred space “like drunken herds,” while the vapor from their breath and the noise from their voice made “any form of contemplation impossible.”
Cardinals, however, will have more than enough time to gorge their eyes on the masterpieces as voting slowly proceeds.
While lighting in the chapel is usually suffused, for the conclave, the frescoes by Michelangelo and Botticelli will be bathed in a brilliant light.
The sensors were scheduled to be replaced anyway, Paolucci told Catholic News Service. Efforts by the Vatican police to prevent electronic snooping on the vote led to the removal of climate-control sensors that help regulate the atmosphere inside the chapel and protect the frescoes from soot and humidity.
Security measures are so strict, he added, that cardinals won’t even be able to use the Vatican museum toilets during the voting.
“I believe they may be installing portable chemical toilets inside the chapel,” he said.
Inside the chapel, the ornate inlaid marble floor has been covered by a wooden platform to smooth out the uneven patches, while two rows of desks line the walls.
Cardinals will sit there as they watch their colleagues approach the altar under the “Last Judgment,” one by one, to take the oath — “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected” — and place the ballot in an urn on the altar.
In a corner, two stoves — one for burning the ballots and one, introduced in 2005 specially designed to produce the famous smoke that signals whether a pope has been elected or not — have been installed, surmounted by a metal scaffolding supporting the copper pipes that lead up to the chimney.
Throngs of tourists and faithful in St. Peter’s Square will have their eyes fixed on the chimney, trying to tell whether the smoke coming out of it twice a day is white (signaling that a pope has been elected) or black (meaning that cardinals still haven’t been able to agree on a name).
Like everything surrounding the election of the new pope, even the stove carries the weight of history: Etched on its top are the dates and number of ballots of the previous conclaves it has been a witness to since Pope Pius XII’s election in 1939.
The last marking reads “2005/IV,” for the four ballots that led to the election of Benedict XVI.
Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and started writing for Religion News Service in 2011. Born in Rome, he studied literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and journalism at City University, London. He has appeared as an expert on Vatican affairs on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English. Via RNS.