In a seat above the crowds

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | May 17, 2022

Papal carry chair dates back to times before ancient Rome

Red silk-covered gestatorial chair with two large fans (flabella) made of white ostrich feathers kept in the Treasury of the Cathedral of Lisbon, Portugal. (BigStockPhotos.com)

It’s unlikely to see the pope carried by you, with ostrich feathers waving overhead, but Pope Francis recently referred to that tradition, due to a persistent health issue with his knee.

“I have a torn ligament; I will have a procedure with injections and we will see,” the pope said in an interview published May 3 in Corriere della Sera and reported by Catholic News Service. “I’ve been like this for a while now, I can’t walk. Once upon a time, popes would go around on the ‘sedia gestatoria.’”

The sedia gestatoria, used by popes for centuries, resembled a throne-like armchair, covered with red silk and gold adornments. It had iron rings attached on each side, so poles could be threaded through, and the chair lifted onto the shoulders of footmen. And, yes, ostrich feather fans — called flabellum — were waved around the pope to create a breeze and to keep the flies away.

Its ornateness makes it doubly unlikely Pope Francis would use the sedia gestatoria. Being carried in one resembles the passage of a monarch, like a state carriage would transport the Queen of England to Parliament. Pope John Paul I was the last pope to use this form of papal chair.

The tradition of the carry chair is tied to the Chair of St. Peter, an actual chair that is kept in St. Peter’s Basilica above the Altar of St. Peter and under the famous window of the descending Holy Spirit. The chair behind the bronze monument there dates back at least 1,600 years, though probably not to the first pope.

The sedia gestatoria was used for processions by newly elected popes, when the pope carried the Blessed Sacrament in procession (there was even a special table that could be attached to the chair to hold the monstrance) — and, generally, for processions through crowds to allow the pope to be more easily seen. 

Some venerable examples of the portable chair are now kept at the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, and one or two are on display there.

The history of the sedia gestatoria has been linked to ancient Rome. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes it may be compared with the Roman sedia curulis, a special seat upon which newly elected Roman consuls were carried through the city to which they had been assigned. In turn, the Roman sedia curulis, developed from Etruscan times, dates back to 800 years before Christ. And the chair is not all that different from similar processional chairs used in pharaonic Egypt. (The Egyptians also used ostrich feather fans, which can be seen in tomb paintings.)

The fans, called flabella, were also used at Mass at least back to the fourth century. A fourth-century document, known as the Apostlice Constitutions, notes that two deacons were to stand with these fans — sometimes made from peacock feathers — on either side of the altar to “drive away the small animals that fly about, that they may not come near the cups.” The Catholic Encyclopedia adds that the flabella were commonly used until the 14th century. However, they are still used today in some counties, like Malta, for Eucharistic processions.

Pope John Paul II was the pope who discontinued use of the sedia gestatoria when he was elected pope in 1978. Pope John Paul I, who reigned for 33 days, was known to be reluctant to use the chair, but did do so on the day before he died (Sept. 28, 1978).

In his later years, Pope John Paul II used a modification of the sedia tradition, with a raised platform upon which he could be wheeled through crowds when he was no longer able to walk easily.

But the true successor to the sedia gestatoria is today’s popemobile, which was often used by St. John Paul II and his successor popes. The vehicles serve the same purpose of making the pope more visible and moving him more easily through crowds.

The first popemobile — not including horse-drawn carriages — was a 1930 Mercedes Benz Nurburg model given by the German carmaker to Pope Pius XI.

SOURCES: The Catholic Encyclopedia; liturgicalartsjournal.com; FSSPX.news; washingtonpost.com; smithsonianmag.com, catholicnews.com and Medieval.eu

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