Pope Celestine V was not killed by a nail in the skull

Celestine V’s papacy was doomed from the start. Born Pietro Angelerio in Sicily, from his early 20s until old age he was an ascetic hermit who lived in a succession of remote caves on top of mountains and modeled his life after John the Baptist. He founded the Celestine monastic order whose rule was based on his own strict practices of hair shirts and bread-and-water fasts, but left it to somebody else to run so he could retire to his beloved mountain-top cave. He was only dislodged from there very much against his will when the cardinals declared him Pope in 1294.

That was the last thing he wanted. The problem was the cardinals had been trying for two years to decide who should be pope after the death of Nicholas IV in 1292, but divisions between Guelph and Ghibelline factions and rivalries between the great Roman families of the Orsini and the Colonna (out of the 11 cardinals, three were Orsini, two Colonna and one, Benedetto Gaetani, Colonna-affiliated) had caused a seemingly unbreakable stalemate. At that time there was no conclave locking them in the Vatican until the decision was made, so two years of dithering were entirely comfortable. Pietro sent them a stern letter telling them God had told him that if they didn’t elect a Pope in four months, His wrathful vengeance would fall upon them. Much to his horror, their response was to elect him Pope.

At first he categorically refused and even tried to run away, but he was 79 years old and 200,000 people had flocked to his mountain after the news broke. Finally a delegation of cardinals and two kings (the Angevin King Charles II of Naples and his son, King Charles I Martel of Hungary) convinced him to don the mitre. On August 29th, 1294, almost two months after his election, Pietro was crowned Pope in L’Aquila and became Celestine V.

He was awful at it. Charles II hadn’t climbed that mountain just to pay his respects; he was looking to secure himself a pet Pope and secure him he did. Celestine never entered the Papal States, never went to Rome. He moved from L’Aquila, then a territory of the Kingdom of Naples, to Naples proper. He lived in a spare room in the Castel Nuovo — he had a tiny cell built so he could be properly eremitical during Advent — and appointed everyone who wanted anything to whatever they wanted, even if he’d already appointed someone else. For Charles he created 12 new cardinals, seven of them French and three or five of them Neapolitans. That completely altered the makeup of the college, giving the French massive new weight which would directly lead to the disaster of the Western Schism and the Avignon papacy 80 years later.

After a mere five months on the job, Celestine couldn’t take it anymore. He asked canon law expert Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani whether a pope could abdicate and Gaetani replied that he could, so long as he promulgated a decree saying that he could. On December 13th, 1294, Celestine V decreed that he was out of there. Eleven days later, the college of cardinals assembled in Naples and elected Benedetto Gaetani the new pope. He took the name Boniface VIII and hightailed it to Rome and out from under Charles II’s control.

Celestine headed back to his mountain top but he didn’t make it. The abdication was contentious, and there were factions within the Church and in the temporal world who Boniface feared might attempt to install Pietro as an anti-pope. While still in Naples, Boniface ordered Celestine to be taken to Rome. The old man, remarkably spry considering his age, hair shirt, the chain he wrapped around his body and his only eating on Sundays, managed to escape. He was captured and escaped again. He tried to leave the country but a storm forced his ship ashore in Vieste, in Apuglia, the spur of Italy’s boot. There he was captured yet again and this time Boniface dispatched him to the Castle of Fumone in the Campania region.

By all accounts, this imprisonment was not a gentle one. Even for a man with his taste for the Spartan, Celestine’s cell was tiny, so narrow that the two younger monks who accompanied him got sick. He died 10 months later, on May 19th, 1296. The circumstances of his death were immediately seen as suspicious. Boniface was accused of having had the old man killed to remove the potential anti-pope with undeniable finality. His enemies got their revenge in the end by having Celestine canonized a saint in 1313.

Pietro’s body was moved repeatedly after death, finally finding a permanent resting place in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, although it didn’t get to rest easily. The silver coffin he was laid in was stolen in 1529; a new one was stolen in 1799; his remains were stolen in 1988 but found two days later, and in 2009, the glass casket that held his remains in public view was buried under the rubble of the church during the earthquake that devastated L’Aquila.

For hundreds of years, a square hole in Pietro’s skull was considered evidence that he had been murdered by a nail driven through his head. Now pathologists at the San Salvatore Hospital’s in L’Aquila can confirm that the nail hole was definitely not the cause of death. Dr. Luca Ventura, son of the pathologist who last examined Celestine’s remains after the 1988 theft, studied the bones.

“[O]ur 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.”

According to the researcher, the morphology of the lesion clearly shows it was produced on a skeletonized skull. Most likely, the hole was made with a pointed, metallic object during one of the many reburials of Celestine’s bones. […]

“We can’t establish the real cause of death,” Ventura said. “A previous research carried test for heavy metal poisoning with negative results.” […] “Contemporary sources cite pneumonia and a possible hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body),” Ventura said.

That doesn’t let Boniface off the hook. Even if he didn’t put a hit out on him — and we still don’t know if Celestine was killed by some other means — Boniface is responsible for walling up an sickly old man in a tortuously cramped castle cell. Osteological evidence indicates Celestine was 5’5″ tall, had chronic sinusitis, parodontopathy (a chronic bacterial infection of the gums), vertebral arthritis and Schmorl’s nodes, herniations of vertebral discs probably caused by heavy labor done as a youth. It’s impressive he lasted 10 months, all things considered.

Researchers at L’Aquila University took the opportunity to do a laser scan on the skull so they could make an accurate facial reconstruction. There’s a practical reason for this reconstruction beyond just curiosity. When on display, Celestine’s remains are clothed and his skull face covered by a wax mask. The mask wasn’t a likeness of the saint, however, but rather that of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the Archbishop of L’Aquila from 1941 to 1950. With the new facial reconstruction, artists were able to make a handsome silver funerary mask that is an accurate likeness of the face it now covers.

9 thoughts on “Pope Celestine V was not killed by a nail in the skull

  1. It’s a real shame, what happened to Celestine V…he was a good man, just not cut out to be Pope, especially when the Cardinals were full of corruption. Dante implied that Celestine V went to hell for not remaining Pope, but that’s just because he (understandably) didn’t like Boniface VIII more than anything that Celestine did “wrong.” Actually, Pope Benedict XVI had great devotion to Celestine V and even laid his pallium on Celestine’s tomb when he visited in 2009…rather revealing, considering that Benedict himself would later abdicate.

    By the way, I wanted to mention that I really like your blog. I’ve been reading it pretty regularly over the past few months, but this is my first comment on here. I especially like the Medieval/Catholic stuff, being a bit of a Medievalist and a full-blooded Catholic & researcher on Catholicism.

    1. I know Dante’s “grand refusal’ verse is often interpreted as a reference to Celestine, but I tend to agree with the scholars who think it may be a reference to someone else entirely, Pontius Pilate, for instance. Dante, as brilliantly irreverent as he was, didn’t put any other saints in hell. Plenty of popes in there, of course, what with the simony section and all, but saints are a whole other ball of wax. Like you say, Celestine was a good, pious man, who was simply incapable of fulfilling the administrative and political requirements of the job. His failures of leadership led to bad things, but he himself really doesn’t fit the Inferno badness profile.

      Thank you for reading and congratulations on your first comment! I’m a sucker for Medieval history as well, and although I am not Catholic, I went to Catholic school for 12 years and remain fascinated by the cultural and political history of the Church.

  2. That square hole is remarkable close to where a brim(hat) line would be. My guess is that some crown or tiara had been ‘mounted’ onto Celestine’s skull/relic. If Carlo Confalonieri died in 1986, the waxen mask was more or less a recent one. They probably used a waxen copy after the corpse had been rediscovered in 1988. – Pax vobiscum, fratres ot sorores.

  3. Ahem! If I do the math, it would seem to me that Celestine would’ve been 80 or so when he died. Well, even with today’s advances, numerous people die in their 80’s. By even modern standards, Celestine would’ve been considered an old man. ..And don’t forget what we heard about concerns related to Pope Francis’ age a few months ago, or the idea that Pope Benedict arguable resigned due to age-related concerns.
    Even if Celestine’s castle cell WAS small, I can’t imagine that his mountaintop cave would’ve been a lick better for him. It might’ve been much worse in fact.

    I contend that he could easily have died of simple old age.

    1. I’m fond of him as well. It’s not often in history that you encounter people who genuinely eschew power, even rarer that they realize promptly they’re no good at wielding it and step away.

  4. The Lee Harvey Oswald connection; a conspiracy based upon facts that you can look up for yourselves: I saw something on the History channel the other day about the complete story of Lee Harvey Oswald’s last day or week alive regarding his “wedding ring.” This is when he shot President Kennedy.
    There was one thing that stood out. The ring that he left in his old lady’s Russian tea cup. Well, it was his old lady’s mother’s tea cup (who was hooked up with someone from the Russian interior ministry, or something to that effect).
    This ring had the Russian sickle and hammer stamped in it (left behind symbolically by Oswald). The Russian sickle and hammer is the equivalent of the Freemason square and compass.
    The compass represents God’s intelligent design (the compass, measures angles, degrees, and an imperfect circle according to PI as far as I understand it).
    The square represents Man’s architecture, because nature doesn’t build in right angles; as for straight lines, well you could argue that a crystal is a straight line, but built upon natural imperfections. Note: you can gain the proportion of a square from a compass according to Pythagorean’s theorem, because a straight line is 180 degrees, and a right angle is 90 degrees. The “G” is supposedly represents the Great Architect.
    In order to have a proper order of operations, the word God should be above the compass, which is above the square. It is not according to “be your own god,” or “do whatever thou wilt.” This plan is specifically against the Catholic Church.
    Now take the Russian sickle (agriculture, or God’s intelligent design) and hammer (industry, or Man’s industry) and you can see the connection. The reason why there is no “G” is because the governmental ideology of Russia is communist from the beginning; thus, no freemason structure according to the way the United States manifests the Great Architect’s plan in its “free” people.
    The plan is a One World Order with mankind’s enslavement according to the Federal Reserve System here in America. Reportedly, every country in the world is on a One World Order type banking system, with the exception of Iran (Kaddafi was supposedly assassinated because he wanted to back his country’s economy with the country’s own gold). This is what “they” call their manifest destiny; that men are too stupid to run their own world, so they should be enslaved.
    This is the thinking behind the Supreme Court’s ruling (here in America) regarding the R.F.I.D. chip, which is currently in the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare), which is a class II transponder system. It is an implantable medical device in the FDA database that is going to contain you records that are life sustaining (your medical records), and your records that are life supporting (your bank records). Note: this is why the A.C.A. was over a thousand pages long; to hide their plan regarding the R.F.I.D. chip, and this is why the current congress is only speaking of repealing Obamacare in part (today is 12/2/2014).
    According to this R.F.I.D. chip (which is literally the “mark of the beast,” because it was first used to mark your pets as your property) it is part of the A.C.A. under the “commerce clause” of the United States Constitution (where the judicial branch does not have substantive powers to legislate; much like Obama and his immigration bull) as a tax. This is manifest destiny thinking!
    This is because the Federal Reserve System is a Ponzi scheme utilized to bankrupt America, where the R.F.I.D. chip is based upon the Hollerith machines of Nazi Germany, and the fact that there is a number on the bottom of your birth certificate that is on the stock market (more manifest destiny thinking). Note: Obama’s stimulus package is a giant step towards bankrupting America due to inflation, where you received a one-time payment of 300 dollars, but your prices at the grocery store tripled permanently (so the State can indoctrinate you children to Obama instead of saying the Pledge of Allegiance to their country by having you work two jobs, with no benefits, for the same food; is this Marxist?). Note: Obamacare is also Obama’s second stimulus package.
    You do know that Obama is a Marxist President in his ideology don’t you? You should, you elected him. Now back to Lee Harvey Oswald. According to sources, the Freemasons infiltrated Russia in 1917.
    Now take this fact with Italics in the 1954 Douay (Catholic) bible (they are not supposed to be there look at the book of Jerimias; I think this book manifests this fact (that they are not supposed to be there, which is due to a lack of purpose). The England version of this Bible uses the word “shew bread” instead of “show bread (which is in the American version of the same year).” Why is Old English (the language) used in a modern Douay Bible?
    Maybe it’s Ed Sullivan: “that a really big shew.” Maybe it’s Khrushchev banging his shoe on a podium before the U.N. stating “America we will bury you.” Maybe it’s the fact that Gorbachev won a Nobel Peace prize for dismantling his country. Maybe it’s the fact that Obama won a Nobel Peace prize for being elected President (for dismantling his country before it even happened; more manifest destiny thinking).
    So, how does this tie in to Lee Harvey Oswald. Well according to the documentary that I saw, he met with the K.G.B. guy in charge of Assassinations back then, the week before he assassinated President Kennedy, where President Kennedy (in a press conference) told the world press to manifest any One World Order corruption. This is what is the Great Architect’s plan is. I am a “gangstaking” victim, but I paid attention to their attacks over the years. I went to college and learned their ways with the basis that “they” are 100 percent anti-God. This is due to their cruel methods; I am a Catholic.
    On one more note: there was a prophecy by Saint Malachy that the “black” Pope would be assassinated with the Russian federation flag flying about the Vatican. Take this and apply this to the movie Stripes. “call me Psycho.” “You call me Francis and I’ll kill you.” I like how Psycho was shooting at that flock of birds with his M-16 don’t you. Maybe this is according to Saint Francis; the Patron Saint of Animals.

  5. Unfortunately, the History Channel saw that DaVinci Code made a lot of money by making up a story and tying a lot of symbols together, and now they do that too! The quality of a lot of it is, well, Lee Harvey ws wearing green socks that day and so was Kennedy, and that means that they collaborated to fake his death so that…. yada yada

    It is sad that they put this kind of thing on TV and call it “The History Channel,” because a lot of people don’t know better. Some of their shows are ok, but many are just connecting some dots randomlt saying oh, look at this picture!!!

  6. I’m confused as to how they can reconstruct his face…I understand the bit with bone structure, but how can they know how big his nose was, or what kind of mouth he had?

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