These pages briefly deal with the evolution of the monuments to the popes from the XIIIth century to the XIXth century. In most cases the monuments are very large and it is difficult to take an acceptable picture without professional equipment and special arrangements: for this reason the images accompanying the text occasionally show details of the monuments.
In several cases the monuments are not the actual location of the bodies of the popes, which either are lost or are buried elsewhere. The hearts and other inner parts of the body (praecordia) are kept in the church of SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio. The burial places of some medieval popes were discovered during the restoration of S. Giovanni in Laterano, S. Maria Maggiore and other churches and this led to building some Renaisssance or Baroque monuments to them. An example is the Monument to Pope Sergius IV which was decorated with the heraldic symbols (six mountains and a star) of Alexander VII, the ruling pope. Some monuments were designed if not actually completed during the lifetime of the pope; Boniface VIII, Julius II, Sixtus V, Paul V, Urban VIII, Clement IX are among the popes who took care of their own monuments. Other monuments were commissioned by the Cardinal Nepote (i.e. a nephew of the pope who assisted him in the government of the Papal State) soon after the death of the pope. In some cases however the monument was designed many years after the death of the pope so while there is a broad correlation between the death of the pope and the execution of his monument, there are some remarkable exceptions and for this reason in page three the monuments are listed also chronologically. Most monuments to the popes are in S. Pietro, but not all of them: some monuments were moved to other churches when the old basilica was pulled down at the end of the XVIth century. Other monuments were erected in other churches because the popes had a special affection for them. In conclusion there are more than ten churches having monuments to the popes.
During the first millennium A.D. the role of the pope was almost entirely confined to religious matters and although he had a significant say in the political life of Rome and took decisions such as building walls and castles there is no evidence of monuments to the popes. The first pope who deemed it necessary to emphasize his role by means of a monument was Pope Anastasius IV (1153-1154) who wanted to be buried in a large porphyry Roman sarcophagus, which was found in the ruins of the assumed mausoleum of St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. The sarcophagus was initially placed in S. Giovanni in Laterano.
His example was followed by other popes. When the monuments to the popes developed a more complex structure, the use of a Roman sarcophagus was not totally abandoned, but it was restricted to the popes who had been in office only for a matter of days and whose relatives did not have the financial means to erect a monument. During the Renaissance many Roman sarcophagi were recovered and this led to an ample choice of sarcophagi with a suitable (non pagan) decoration.
The first monument to the pope which was not just the assemblage of Roman sarcophagi followed a Gothic pattern (Pope Clement IV (1265-1268) was French) and it consisted in a statue of the pope lying down on a sarcophagus under a Gothic arch. These monuments are called gisant which means Statue d'un personnage couché in French. You may wish to see the Monument to Pope Innocent VI in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon.
The gisant pattern was soon embellished with mosaic decorations made of the
various marbles and stones which were largely available in Rome.
Many gisant monuments were erected in S. Pietro Vecchio and were moved to other churches when the old basilica was pulled down (that to Honorius IV was moved to S. Maria in Aracoeli in 1545).
Other monuments were completely lost or only the statue of the pope was saved. That of Pope Boniface VIII is of particular interest because the Pope himself decided to be portrayed as a (relatively) young man and with the papal insignia (in particular the elaborated crown).
Some deviations from the gisant pattern were experimented with in the XVth century in part because of the great development in the use of
bronze which had occurred in Florence with Lorenzo Ghiberti. The Monument to Pope Martin V
by the Florentine sculptor Simone di Giovanni Ghini in S. Giovanni in Laterano is made of a
large bronze plate portraying the Pope. Ghini followed the old pattern of
slabs in the pavement of churches indicating where the important people were buried,
but by using bronze rather than marble and by placing the figure of the Pope within a richly decorated frame, he
updated the medieval tradition.
The Monuments to Pius II and to his nephew Pius III, which were moved to S. Andrea della Valle in 1614, both show the gisant of the pope in a complex design which includes other statues and reliefs.
The large and low bronze Monument to Pope Sixtus IV by Antonio del Pollaiolo was given a unique structure as it was designed to be located at the centre of a chapel (it is now in the Treasury of S. Pietro). The reliefs around the statue of the Pope show the Seven Virtues (*) (inner circle) and ten allegories of Art and Science (outer circle). This monument brought Pollaiolo the commission for the Monument to Pope Innocent VIII which became a turning point in the history of papal monuments as it portrayed the Pope both lying down in the traditional gisant posture and seated on his throne in the act of blessing and holding a fragment of the Lance of St. Longinus.
In the XVIth century the monuments to the popes abandoned the gisant posture and showed the pope seated on his throne in the act of blessing. A change was introduced in the monuments to Pope Sixtus V and Pope Paul V who preferred to be portrayed in the act of praying on their knees (they both were alive when the monuments were completed and this explains why they preferred a humble posture). The statue of the pope was usually located in a niche at the center of a complex structure resembling a triumphal arch and decorated with other statues and reliefs. The two monuments to the popes in Cappella Sistina (Pius V and Sixtus V) and those in Cappella Paolina in Santa Maria Maggiore show the final (and very expensive) development of the Renaissance pattern of monument.
(*) 3 theological virtues (Faith, Charity and Hope) and 4 cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Strength and Temperance).
The image used as a background for this page shows a detail of the Monument to Pope Leo XI by Alessandro Algardi in S. Pietro.