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On a tapestry that can be seen in a gallery in the Vatican Museums, we find one of the oldest witnesses of the chalice-urns that served to gather the ballots of the cardinals voting in the election of a new pontiff.
The tapestry refers to an episode narrated in the chronicles of the election of Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644).
In the final scrutiny, during the counting of the ballots, one ballot was missing. To the right of the tapestry, one can see a scrutineer who is looking inside a large chalice with attention and interest, as if to verify the presence of the lost ballot.
A chalice very similar to the one in the tapestry and a pyx (ciborium) are preserved in the pontifical sacristy of the Sistine Chapel. This chalice and pyx have been used to gather the voting ballots in the conclaves of the last century, up to John Paul II.
With the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici gregis” concerning the vacant see of the Apostolic See and the election of the Roman Pontiff (John Paul II, February 22, 1996), the need arose to adapt the urns to the new norms. In fact, it was necessary to add a new urn to the chalice and pyx foreseen in previous regulations to receive the votes of any cardinals having the right to vote but who are impeded through illness from leaving their room to be present for the vote counting in the Sistine Chapel. Rather than creating another urn, three new ones have been designed, principally to make them more functional for the intended use, but above all to make them uniform and in the same style, dignified and artistic.
The function of the urns is described in Chapter V of the Constitution, which also speaks of a plate to be placed on top of the first urn. Every cardinal, in fact, must “place his ballot on the plate, with which he drops it into the receptacle beneath.”
The second urn, as has already been noted, will be used only in the case of the presence in the Conclave of cardinals impeded by illness from leaving their rooms, and the third urn will be used to gather the ballots after the scrutiny, before they are burned, which causes the traditional smoke to announce to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square the non-election (black smoke) or the election (white smoke) of the new Pontiff.
To create the new urns an artist of renown was needed who could undertake such an assignment. The choice fell to the sculptor Cecco Bonanotte, well known in the Vatican as the author of the new entrance doors of the Vatican Museums, inaugurated on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000.
Collaboration between this artist and the Holy See began in 1975 with the “forziere” (a coffer) walled into the Holy Door of the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls at the closing of the Jubilee of that year and the votive lamp given by Paul VI to the catacombs of St. Callixtus to mark that same Holy Year. In 1985 Bonanotte created the sculpture “The Journeys of St. Paul,” which was donated by John Paul II to the United Nations headquarters. For the Holy See pavillion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, the sculptor created a three-dimensional work in bronze, which is now in the gardens of the new apostolic nunciature in Berlin.
The three urns, done in silver and gilded bronze, are further confirmation of an aesthetic, artistic path of notable prestige, and underline the appreciation for Bonanotte not only in Italy, but especially abroad.
Bonanotte’s sculpture is marked by the use of bronze, worked with refined and ancient techniques: “cera persa,” (a method of fusing bronze through the liquefaction of a model in wax) for works in the round, and with models in plaster for reliefs. These are treated with a light patina which underlines the various chromatics of the bronze, the irregularities on the surface and the contrast between opaqueness and brightness. The sensation received is that of a space which opens up beyond the visual plane. And this is precisely the characteristic of Bonanotte’s art: ancient and modern harmonize in barely accented forms where the classical tradition of perfection is tempered in a vision of open lines that suggest infinity.
The language of the urns is fundamentally linked to two symbols: the first, iconographically emerging, is that of the shepherd and his sheep, the other, barely accented, of birds, grapes and ears of grain. In the symbols chosen by the artist the three urns are united in a simple and direct way to the meaning that the person of the Pope has in the Church: the shepherd, indeed the Good Shepherd who, in the name of Christ, has the duty of “confirming his brothers” (Luke 22,31) in the faith. In that “confirm” is the declaration of the primacy of Peter over the Apostles and, as a consequence, the primacy of the Pope over the other bishops. But the symbolism of the Good Shepherd also underlines the style of exercising this primacy, linked indissolubly to charity. This idea is clearly expressed in the Gospel of John (21,15ff) where “feeding” the flock is joined inseparably to loving care: “Simon of John, do you love me?…” Peter tells him: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you: “Feed my lambs.”
The relationship of love between Jesus and Peter, and as a consequence between the Pope and the Church, is underlined and confirmed by the artist in the other symbols used to decorate the urns: birds, grapes and the ears of grain.
In a mosaic in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6th century) there is a scene of the Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles. At the center of the table, on a plate, instead of the chalice of wine, there are two fish: an original way to synthesize the Eucharist that, under the signs of bread and wine, make Christ present in His Mystery of death and Resurrection. The word “fish,” in fact, translated in Greek, in the letters that compose it is an acrostic, that is, a word composed of several letters which in, our case, leads us to a sentence: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” And this is the reason why paleo-Christian art often has the image of a fish as the symbol of Christ.
But it is the symbol of the ear of grain that in a more direct and immediate way links to Christ, “the living bread.” The ear is at the origin of bread, the basic nourishment for man and, as such, at the origin of Eucharistic symbolism.
Eucharistic bread and wine, which are Christ, accentuate the idea of charity underlined by the sharing of this very bread and the chalice: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (I Cor 10, 15-17).
The Pope, in the sign of the Eucharist, thus becomes the living sign of unity between Christ and His Church.
The very placement of the symbols chosen by the artist for the diverse urns confirms and develops this meaning.
The idea of the Good Shepherd, underlined by the three little sheep and the bas relief, adorns the urn that will hold the ballots of the cardinal electors: the plate that will serve to introduce the single ballots into the urn bears the symbols of the birds, the grapes and the ears of grain.
On the top of the urn which will hold the just-counted ballots, there is the figure of the Good Shepherd. At the feet of the little sculpture are two crossed keys, the traditional symbol of papal “power.” The symbol is rooted in the Gospel, the Lord tells Peter that He will give him: “…the keys to the Kingdom of heaven…” (Mt. 16,19), prescinding from every interpretation on the human level of the term “power.” The structural organization of the urn underlines that the sign of power takes specific form in the figure of the Good Shepherd that dominates and rises above the symbol of the keys.
Bonanotte’s artistic intuitions come from a passionate research. The structure of the urns, “meteors” of light and the images which adorn them, seem to give visual consistency to the archetypes of the human soul. This type of operation is very complex and difficult; everything must be brought to the basic essence of things, beyond any abstruseness or easy ideological and intellectual schematics. The result on Bonanotte’s three urns is evident: the barely perceptible embossed lines and the indistinct figures: everything serves one purpose, so essential as to constitute the sense and scope of a service, such as that of the Roman Pontiff for the entire Church.
Thus, beyond their value as instruments, the urns reveal the importance and the responsibility of the cardinals called to elect the successor of Peter. The task cannot be dismissed, as often happens in journalistic services, as a tactical-political operation. If it was like this it would have been difficult to have pontiffs of the stature of John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II, just to cite the names of only a few Popes of the last century.