By Frithjof Schuon
Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2. (1970)
Introduction: One of the contradictions, real or apparent, to be found in the Divine Comedy is the fact that Dante places in hell a saint, namely Pope Celestine V, whom the poet reproaches for having abdicated and for having thus betrayed his charge. Here is the story, one that is well known but inevitably lost sight of by many people: the holy see having remained vacant for more than two years—following the death of Nicholas IV towards the end of the 13th century—the cardinals elected the hermit Pier Angelerio from Murrhone in the Abruzzi, an aged holy man who had founded the Celestine order; the reason for this unexpected election was that the hermit had threatened them with hellfire if they delayed any longer in electing a pope. From the moment of his election, the holy man—who took the name of Celestine V—was held more or less prisoner in Naples by King Charles II and the Colonna clan, protagonists of the moral and political reform of Christianity. The new pope soon proceeded to nominate some cardinals of the same tendency, which was the only thing to do, but which aroused lively protests from the opposing “worldly” party, represented especially by the Caetani clan; and it was a cardinal of this family who entreated the pope to abdicate in his favor, and who, having become pope in his turn—under the name of Boniface VIII—held his predecessor prisoner in Rome; it was there that Celestine died after two years of captivity.