It was like an antechamber to the afterlife, as if directed by Fellini

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The staircase of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace was beautiful and broad; the plaster of the walls was painted to resemble marble of a delicate amber hue, the ceiling was coffered, vaulted and illuminated. And the ghostly wisps of hymns, chants and prayers came drifting up or down the stairs - it was impossible to tell which.

The staircase of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace was beautiful and broad; the plaster of the walls was painted to resemble marble of a delicate amber hue, the ceiling was coffered, vaulted and illuminated. And the ghostly wisps of hymns, chants and prayers came drifting up or down the stairs - it was impossible to tell which.

"Dependants" of the Vatican - including this correspondent - were invited yesterday to pay their respects to the late Pope while he lay in state in the Apostolic Palace, before the corpse's transfer to the basilica of St Peter.

My companion in the sea of dark-suited dependants cramming up the stairs said the experience reminded her of the boy in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining, trapped in the haunted house. My own thought was, there is not much you can teach these folks about theatre. We had filed into the Palace in a sort of galloping crocodile, entering through a tradesman's door at the back, at the end of a line that included priests and cardinals.

Up a marble staircase we crammed past a statue of St George killing the dragon and another of St Joan. The pace slowed and then stopped; we were a still sea of dark suits, filling the staircase. And wisps of music, of hymns and chanting and prayer, continued to float down - or up - starting abruptly and as abruptly breaking off, while the throng of dependants remained frozen to the spot.

It was like being in an antechamber to the afterlife, as filmed by Fellini. Finally we started moving again. We passed under an arch inscribed CLEMENS VIII PONTIFEX MAXIMUS ANNO MDXCV - 1595. John Paul II was lying in state in the Sala Clementina, the Clementine Hall, named after the "saintly but realistic" Pope Clement VIII who reigned from 1592 to 1606 and poured huge sums into driving the Muslim infidel from Hungary. The walls and ceilings are covered with sublime frescoes by the Alberti brothers, who were Clementine's contemporaries.

The corpse at the hall's far end was decorously presented, tilted upward by the inclined podium so it was possible to see the body without standing on tiptoe and craning. The Pope's face had lost the heaviness and involuntary ferocity it had assumed in his last terrible weeks, replaced by an expression of pained serenity. He was dressed for celebrating mass, in the blood red chasuble he had worn on Good Friday 2001: ready for action, as ever. He looked remarkably life-like. Cardinals were kneeling in prayer beside the body as we passed.

The task of embalming a pope is not one to be undertaken lightly: the penalties for getting it wrong are severe, in terms of public obloquy if nothing else. When Paul VI died in 1978, the morticians were instructed only to embalm the corpse lightly, as it was expected that it would be closed in a coffin for the lying in state. Instead the body was put on open display, despite the intense heat of August. After 48 hours, it is reported, decomposition become painfully obvious: a sagging jaw, discoloured face, fingernails turning grey. The morticians were summoned to provide emergency aid, but the rot went on. This time too, only light embalming techniques have been used. The Vatican officials responsible must be banking on the unseasonably mild weather continuing.

Six hours after my brief inspection, Karol Wojtyla left the building that had been his home for 26 years, for ever. He was accompanied by archbishops (including his faithful secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was holding his hand at the moment of death) and cardinals, carried on a bier by Vatican retainers dressed in white bow ties and tuxedos.

He was not placed in a coffin for the journey, as some had speculated that he might be; exposed to the spring air, the body looked pitifully vulnerable as it was jogged along the sumptuous corridors. He was dressed in the same red chasuble as he had on before, a stiff white mitre, and the distinctive papal shoes, slipper-like and deep crimson in colour. His hands were clasped on his stomach, a rosary entwined in his fingers.

The retainers carried the corpse on its bier out of the Sala Clementina, through more fabulously decorated Renaissance rooms, down the magnificent staircase known as the Sala Regia and out into the piazza. Chanting - mellifluous, monotonous, hypnotic - accompanied its progress. When the procession emerged from the Palace into St Peter's Square, the thousands waiting there burst out clapping in the Italian gesture of respect. The procession was a ritual out of the remotest past, as elemental as a crucifixion: here is the body of the man you loved, the ceremony declared, here is the proof that he is gone, that he must be replaced, however bitter the task.

"You must not let in daylight upon magic," Walter Bagehot, the English journalist, declared in 1867, urging his fellow countrymen not to "poke about" in the British Royal Family, because "above all things our royalty is to be reverenced".

The Vatican has been much better at observing Bagehot's principle than the Windsors; for all his common touch, Karol Wojtyla was as dedicated to preserving the Vatican magic as his predecessors. But now he's gone they've thrown open the Vatican's gates: television cameras as well as monastic chanting accompanied the corpse every step of the way; millions saw the Vatican as the common people have never seen it before. And the magic survived.

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