Bartolomé Román (c. 1587-1647)
St Peter Celestine, Pope
Oil on canvas
208 cm x 110 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Pope Saint Celestine V (1215 – 19 May 1296) was a monk and hermit who founded the order of the Celestines.
In 1294, he was elected pope but after only five months of poor administration, he resigned.
In 1313, he was canonized
Our view of this great man has been unduly coloured by Dante`s Inferno where some have argued he is portrayed as a nameless figure in the antechamber of Hell "Who by his cowardice made the great refusal" —Inferno III, 59–60
In another section of the Inferno (28, 58), Pope Boniface is called "Prince of the Pharisees" and declares:
"I can open and close Heaven, as you know, with the two keys that my predecessor, Celestine, did not prize."
Dante appears to have been critical of Celestine because his resignation paved the way for the succession of Pope Boniface VIII whom Dante detested and placed firmly in the centre of Hell
But Dante`s view of Celestine was perhaps exceptional and coloured by how the acts and decisions of Boniface VIII materially and adversely affected him.
On the other hand, Petrarch regarded Celestine V as one of the great figures who ever occupied the Papacy.
In his treatise De vita solitaria, he wrote:
"This gesture [of abdication] by the solitary and Holy Father Celestine may be attributed by those who will to cowardice of spirit, since the diversity of temperaments allows us to express on the same argument opinions which are not only different, but conflicting. For myself, I believe the gesture was above all useful to himself and to the world.
In fact, for both [the world and himself] that lofty dignity could be full of dangers and risks and disturbances, because of Pietro's inexperience of human things -- he had neglected them in order to contemplate divine things too much -- and because of his constant love of solitude. ...
I consider his act as the act of a most lofty and free spirit which knew no impositions, of a truly divine spirit. I think a man could not have so acted if he had not rightly evaluated human affairs and had not set beneath his foot the proud head of fortune. ..."
Celestine was of course canonised. His resignation or abdication was not a bar to his canonisation. Rather, his resignation was a sign of his heroic virtue
Pope Paul VI saw the abdication of Celestine as being derived from Celestine`s virtue and sense of obligation and duty and certainly not cowardice:
"Ed ecco rifulgere la santità sulle manchevolezze umane: il Papa, come per dovere aveva accettato il Pontificato supremo, così, per dovere, vi rinuncia; non per viltà, come Dante scrisse - se le sue parole si riferiscono veramente a Celestino - ma per eroismo di virtù, per sentimento di dovere."
The Spanish Baroque painter depicted Celestine in his simple Benedictine garb. He does not appear in grand dress
The three tiered papal tiara is at his feet as a symbol of his renunciation
He has turned his back on the tiara. His attention is on Christ on the crucifix and Scripture, the only things needful
There are other symbols of the hermetic life which he embraced: meditation and contemplation on Scripture and on death