A Dead Man on Trial

How does a workplace dispute end up in a dead man going on trial?

The setting for this bizarre court case is the famous Cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Despite what most people believe Saint John Lateran is the main cathedral in Rome and not St. Peter’s. As you enter Saint John Lateran you see these words in Latin set into the stonework: “This is the head and mother of all churches in the city and the entire world”.

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The entrance to Saint John Lateran Cathedral

The cathedral was first built over seventeen hundred years ago and during the centuries has seen the crowning of popes, the convening of important conferences, and the signing of dramatic documents.

This church claims to hold the severed heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul and regularly the masses are held under the canopy that holds these heads. When Emperor Frederick II was threatening the city of Rome in 1241AD Pope Gregory IX brought out the skulls of Peter and Paul and held them up to the people of Rome in order to rally the population to resist the Emperor’s attacks.

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The interior of Saint John Lateran with the statues of the twelve apostles lining the side walls

One of the more bizarre incidents this cathedral has seen is the trial of Pope Formosus by his successor Pope Stephen VI in 897AD. What was different about this trial was that Pope Formosus had been dead for nine months. Pope Stephen had Formosus’s corpse dug up and dressed in his papal clothes. Formusus’s body was placed on a throne and tried for perjury, covetousness and disloyalty to the church. The dead body even had a lawyer assigned to it, but despite the lawyer’s best efforts the mute corpse was found guilty of the charges. Part of the court’s judgment was to have three fingers cut off Formosus’s body – the fingers he would have used to give a blessing when he was alive. He was reburied in a commoner’s grace – but Pope Stephen IV still wasn’t done with disparaging his predecessor’s legacy. Stephen later had Formosus’s body re-exhumed and thrown into the Tiber, the main river in Rome.

“Pope Formosus and Stephen VI – The Cadaver Synod” painted by Jean-Paul Laurens (1870) 

So, if you ever hear that a former work colleague is being critical of your efforts remember it’s probably not as bad as the fate of Formosus!

Since this bizarre trial in the ancient cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome no pope since then has chosen to take the name Formosus when they’ve been crowned.

Wise choice, don’t you think?….

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