Chair in the shape of a horseshoe for a pope with balls

In Rome a horseshoe shaped chair played an important role in the Roman Catholic Church for a long time: a pope chair with a seat in the shape of a horseshoe. What did the Vatican want with such an uncomfortable chair? At least it was not meant as a lucky charm chair, at most one that had to prevent bad luck.

pope Joan

The movie about female pope Joan(played by German actress Johanna Wokalek) tells the legendary story about the woman who poses as a man and so reaches the top. © Trouw

Giving birth during papal procession

Joan from Mainz

This is the story of the horseshoe shaped chair. It could be a legend but it also may well be that the Catholic church has kept the tale out of the history books out of shame. A woman disguised as a man is alleged to have been elected as pope in the 9th century. Her name was Joan and she came from Mainz.She and her lover fled to Greece and later on to Rome to study. As ‘man’ she greatly impressed the cardinals in Rome through her scholarship. In the end she was unanimously elected pope. Joan called herself John VIII. Only after more than two years was she exposed when during a papal procession she gave birth to a baby and died in the process.

Pauselijke stoel
A horseshoe shaped chair for the papal test

Testiculos habet et bene pendentes

After her death the cardinals had a chair made with a seat in the shape of a horseshoe. A new pope had to sit on it before his election, his buttocks bare under his habit. Then, through a hatch some especially selected priests had to check with their hands if the pope was indeed male. If the test was successful they would say Testiculos habet et bene pendentes(“He has testicles and they are hanging well”) and the election could go through. The attending cardinals would then say: “The Lord be praised”. A French poet wrote about this test: The fixed law that applies from now on, is that no pope will be installed no matter how well-read or notable, before all his fingers have been counted and one has established he has more than ten.”

chair for the pope
'He has testicles and they are hanging well'

Female Pope Agnes

Inside the Catholic Church the story about female Pope Joan has always been surrounded with a lot of mystery. Some people see an explanation in it for a short period that in the official church history was considered a pope’s interregnum. In some writings on the female pope her name is not John but ‘female pope Agnes’. As far as we know the use of the horseshoe shaped chair has guarded the Catholic Church for further accidents with regard to choosing a new pope. The chair has not been used since the sixteenth century and is said to be kept in the Gabinetto delle Mascheren. Female Pope John VIII is buried in Saint Peter’s Cathedral.