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The mystery surrounding Pope Celestine V’s skull

Painting of the pope celestinus V of 1294, about 1700. From Wikipedia

Painting of the pope celestinus V of 1294, about 1700. From Wikipedia

Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned on February 28th, 2013, is only the second pope in history to voluntarily abdicate.  The last Pontiff to resign willingly was Celestine V, who was crowned Pope in 1294, and was the first to declare that the pope had the right to resign.    Celestine V is regarded as one of the Catholic Church’s most enigmatic popes, and was at the center of a centuries long murder mystery.

Born in 1209 as Pietro Angelerio, he lived as a self-flagellating hermit in a cave in the mountains of Italy, which is how he got the nickname of “Hermit Pope.”  In 1294 Celestine V was chosen to succeed Nicholas IV by cardinals who wanted to break a two-year electoral stalemate.  He only served as pontiff for five months before resigning citing “deficiencies of physical strength” and “longing for the tranquility of the former life.”

Celestine V was succeeded by Boniface VIII, who is best known for his feud with Dante Alighieri, who put him in the eight circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy.  Boniface ordered Celestine’s imprisonment because he believed that two living popes might create a division in the church.  When he heard about the order, Celestine went on the run and evaded capture for nine months.   He was eventually caught and held captive in the castle of Fumone, where he died in May of 1296 – 18 months after he stepped down.

The death of the “Hermit Pope” has been shrouded in mystery for centuries because of the rumor that he was murdered by Boniface.   This speculation was fueled by a mysterious hole at the top of Celestine’s skull that many thought was evidence of sharp force trauma.  Many people believed he was murdered with a nail that was driven through his skull.

Interest in Celestine’s death was reignited last year when Pope Benedict resigned.  Numerous media outlets interviewed Dr. Luca Ventura, a surgical and anatomic pathologist at the San Salvatore Hospital in L’Aquila, Italy who performed the latest examination on the Pope Celestine V’s skeletal remains.

Ventura told Discovery News, “For centuries this hole on the skull has fueled speculations and legends.  But our analysis found no trace of the murder engineered by Boniface. On the contrary, we can say beyond doubt that Celestine wasn’t alive when the lesion was made.”

The morphology of the small hole is not consistent with a perimortem (near the time of death) injury, but is more in line with post-mortem damage to a skeletonized skull.  The hole was likely created with a sharp, metallic object during one of the many reburials of Celestine’s bones.

Further osteological analysis showed that Celestine stood about 5 foot 5 inches tall and suffered from chronic sinusitis, vertebral arthritis, and Schmorl’s nodes, a protrusion of the intervertebral disc caused by weight carried at a young age.

Photo of Celestine’s skull and the hole some thought was evidence of murder.

For years the skeletal remains of Celestine V were on display in a glass case in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila.  The weird part is that brown wax mask that covered his face for decades was not a reconstruction of Celestine’s face, but a mask of the face of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri (1893-1986), the Archbishop of L’Aquila from 1941 to 1950.

BEFORE: Celestine’s old wax mask, that wasn’t actually him.

In 2013 a team of researchers, led by Sergio Tiberti, of the L’Aquila University, and Giulio Sacchetti, of Rome’s University Tor Vergata, stepped in to change that.   This team used forensic techniques and a laser scanner to digitally reconstruct Celestine’s face to create a silver mask.

AFTER: The silver mask created in 2013 using a digital reconstruction of Celestine’s face

“The result is the serene face of a nearly 90-year-old man who can still inspire emotions,” Marino Di Prospero, an artist who had already worked on funerary masks of mummified saints, told Discovery News.

Today the silver mask cover’s Celestine’s skull and his bones are hidden under papal vestments, that were donated by the ex-pope, Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict XVI standing by the salvaged remains of Pope Celestine V, in 2009. The mask in this picture is the old wax one. Photo from AP/L’Osservatore Romano via NPR.  Click here to see the full size photo.


Lorenzi, Rossella (2013 May 8).  Medieval Hermit Pope Not Murdered, as Believed.  Discovery News.  Retrieved on January 14, 2014 from


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