The Four Burials of Pope Formosus

In 897, Pope Formosus was put on trial for violating various church laws. He sat there in the ecclesiastical court and faced stern questioning and accusations. Only snag? Formosus was dead at the time of his trial. He’d been dead for almost a year.

Pope Stephen VI, the pontiff who presided over the proceedings, had Formosus’ body disinterred so that the corpse could attend the trial. He got the corpse all dressed up in proper papal vestments and had it set on a throne. Then he directed his questions and harsh judgments right to the propped-up, dolled-up corpse. This fun moment in papal history has come to be known as the Cadaver Synod.

Here’s a painting by French artist Jean-Paul Laurens depicting the Cadaver Synod. The painting is called “Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII*.” I like the positioning of Formosus here. I like the way his hands are slightly crossed in his lap. I also like his red papal mittens, which are not unlike those red Team Canada Olympic mittens that were so popular a few years ago.


Even though Formosus was provided with a deacon to speak on his behalf, he wasn’t able to put on much of defense. The corpse of Formosus was found guilty. It was stripped of all its pretty papal adornments and buried in a common grave. But not before the three fingers of the right hand were chopped off. Those were the fingers with which he performed blessings. I’m not sure what happened to those fingers. Probably nothing. But the rest of the body still had some wild adventures ahead of it.

From the common grave, the body was promptly dug up (for reasons I’m not exactly sure of), and chucked into the Tiber river. Luckily, a monk was able to fish the body out of the river and bury it quietly in a monastery. But that quiet monastery grave wasn’t where the corpse’s journey ended! Later that year, Pope Stephen VI was deposed, and soon after, the newly established Pope Theodore II had Formosus’ body restored to St. Peter’s Basilica. And that’s where the story finally ends. For now at least. I suppose anything could still happen.

*There’s some confusion about the numbering of the Popes Stephen. The trouble stems from a Pope-elect Stephen having died before he was inaugurated as pontiff, but after he was elected.


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