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What does white and black smoke mean?

What does white and black smoke mean?

The color of smoke emitted from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City carries special meaning. White smoke indicates that a new pope has been elected, while black smoke signals that no consensus has been reached during a papal conclave. The tradition of using smoke signals to communicate the outcome of papal elections dates back centuries and holds great symbolic significance. This article will explore the history behind the use of white and black smoke, explain what each color signifies, and outline the process behind the secret ballots in the Sistine Chapel.

History and Origins

The use of smoke signals during papal conclaves began in the Middle Ages as a way for the cardinals gathered to select a new pope to communicate with the crowds waiting outside. As early as the 12th century, wet straw was burned to produce black smoke signifying an inconclusive vote. White smoke made from burning the ballots with wet straw or chemicals signified a successful election.

This system enabled the large crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square during a conclave to know when a new pope had been chosen before an official announcement was made. Before this tradition, the waiting crowds often became restless and sometimes riots broke out before a formal proclamation was made. The smoke signals helped restore order and anticipation during the selection process.

Over the centuries, the exact mechanics of how the smoke was produced changed. Originally, the ballots and straw were burned in a makeshift stove inside the Sistine Chapel itself, causing damage to Michelangelo’s frescoes from the soot. In the 19th century, the system was moved to a specially constructed zinc and copper stove connected to the Chapel chimney.

More recently in 2005, the old stove was replaced with an electronic stove capable of producing clean white or black smoke. Despite these modern upgrades, the symbolic meaning behind the color of the smoke remains unchanged.

Meaning of White Smoke

White smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel chimney carries enormous significance. It means that the 115 cardinal electors have successfully elected a new pope, with at least a two-thirds majority reaching consensus.

The white color comes from burning the ballots along with potassium chlorate, lactose, and pine rosin – a mix that ensures clear white smoke when burned. The white signifies the Holy Spirit descending upon the cardinals during their solemn deliberations, guiding them to select the new leader of the Catholic Church.

When white smoke is seen, it means the conclave has concluded successfully and the anxious crowds can rejoice knowing that a new pope has been chosen. Bells also ring out from St. Peter’s Basilica to herald the joyous news.

The wait for the white smoke can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks as the cardinals cast their ballots twice per day in the Sistine Chapel until a consensus is reached. Seeing the white smoke is the first thrill indicating that the next pope has been elected and the name will soon be revealed.

Meaning of Black Smoke

In contrast to white smoke, black smoke emerging from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signals that the cardinals’ votes have not resulted in an election during a particular ballot.

The black color comes from burning the ballots along with potassium perchlorate, anthracene, and sulfur to produce a thick black smoke when no consensus has been reached. The black color historically signaled that the cardinals need more time for discussion, prayer, and reflection before the next round of voting.

When black smoke appears, it means no new pope has been chosen and the cardinals will return to the Sistine Chapel on the next voting session to cast another ballot. Traditionally, they vote four times per day during a conclave.

Seeing the black smoke implies that deliberations are ongoing and that white smoke likely will not appear until the next ballot at a minimum. The black color serves to dampen initial excitement and reminds the public to keep waiting patiently.

Voting Procedure in Papal Conclaves

The secret balloting procedure undertaken by cardinals during a papal conclave is meticulously choreographed to both maintain confidentiality and transparency through the smoke signals. Here is an outline of how the voting transpires:

– The cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel and swear oaths of secrecy.

– Two ballots are held in the morning and two in the afternoon on the first day.

– Each cardinal writes their choice on a paper ballot and pledges “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge” before depositing their vote.

– Ballots are counted, checked, and burned by selected “scrutineers” after each vote.

– Chemicals are added to the burning ballots to produce either white or black smoke from the chapel chimney.

– Smoke color indicates to the public if a new pope has been elected or not during that particular ballot.

– If after three days no consensus is reached, runoff ballots are held between top candidates.

– A two-thirds majority (77 votes) is required for election.

– Once consensus is reached, the ballots are burned to produce white smoke and the new pope is revealed.

This rigorous procedure ensures secrecy while allowing the waiting world to follow along through the symbolic smoke signals emanating from the Sistine Chapel.

Famous Examples of White Smoke

There have been many memorable moments in history when crowds in St. Peter’s Square erupted with joy as white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney announced a new pope. Here are some of the most famous recent examples:

Year Pope Chosen
1978 Pope John Paul II
2005 Pope Benedict XVI
2013 Pope Francis

The election of Pope John Paul II in 1978 after a marathon conclave of three days saw a weary crowd explode with jubilation when the white smoke appeared. In 2005, the election of German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI took the world by surprise. Most recently in 2013, the election of Argentine cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis necessitated a runoff vote but delivered the exciting white smoke to the waiting faithful.

Changes in 2022 to Smoke Color Meanings

In January 2022, Pope Francis issued new regulations changing the smoke signal meanings for future papal conclaves. Beginning in 2022, white smoke will signify only that a new pope has been elected and accepted the role. Black smoke will mean an inconclusive vote during a ballot. But new regulation also adds gray smoke, which will signal that a new pope has been elected but not yet accepted. This rare situation allows more time for the chosen cardinal to prayerfully consider before accepting the heavy papal responsibilities. While rarely used previously, the new gray smoke allows for this contingency.


The tradition of white and black smoke during papal conclaves is a storied and dramatic way for the Catholic Church to communicate with the public during one of the most important procedures in Christianity. While updated with technology over the years, the core meaning behind the smoke colors endures as a vital link between the sealed-off cardinals and the outside world yearning for a new spiritual leader. Whether white or black puffs emerge, the smoke carries tremendous symbolic weight and remains one of the most anticipated sights in Vatican City.