Some documents in the Vatican Secret Archives have only been viewed by a few individuals outside the Vatican.
However, the public will now have the opportunity to look at more than 100 original documents.
Lux in Arcana (Light in Mysterious Places): The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself will be on display through Sept. 9 at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Opening March 1, the exhibit was created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Secret Archives.
Created in 1612 by Pope Paul V, the archives are the central repository of the Holy See and contain all of the deeds and documents pertaining to the government of the universal Church. Closed to the outside world until 1881, Pope Leo XIII first opened them to academics.
The Secret Archives hold some 35,000 documents on 52 miles of shelves. Some of the documents date back to the eighth century. Typically, only professional scholars are allowed access to the collection. Approximately 1,500 researchers visit the archives annually.
“They are revealed as a cultural context, as a fascinating appeal to the memory of our past, the past of the Church, of empires, kingdoms, duchies and republics,” said Cardinal Raffaele Farina, archivist and librarian.
The exhibit features documents, codices, ciphered letters, manuscripts, papal bulls and ancient parchments that span 12 centuries of history and come from around the world. They are organized into 10 sections.
Among the notable items on display is the 1521 decree from Pope Leo X excommunicating German monk Martin Luther, a 1530 petition — complete with wax seals — from British Parliament asking Pope Clement VIII to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and an 1887 letter from an American Indian Ojibwe chief to Pope Leo XIII.
Other fascinating documents include a document signed by Galileo Galilei from his trial, manuscripts signed by Michelangelo and Napoleon Bonaparte, and a handwritten letter in French from Mary Queen of Scots to Pope Sixtus V, penned just weeks before she was beheaded by Queen Elizabeth of England.
In the letter, she describes at length her sufferings, professes her Catholic faith and commends her soul to God.
The exhibit includes an original Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, who reduced the errors of the Julian calendar by introducing the leap year and eliminating the days between Oct. 4-15, 1582, with the bull Inter Gravissimas.
One document in the exhibition is a letter written in 1793 by Marie Antoinette, while she was in prison, to Louis XVI’s brother Charles Philippe, count of Artois, who became King Charles X of France in 1824. The 10-line letter is handwritten on a sheet of ordinary paper folded in two.
“The sentiments of those who share my pain, my dear brother-in-law, are the only consolation I can receive in this sad circumstance,” reads the letter, which is signed, “Your loving Sister-in-Law and Cousin Marie Antoinette.”
The exhibit also includes diplomatic letters written in the Vatican’s own encrypted code. These were used to prevent secret messages between the Holy See and its diplomats from being intercepted by hostile powers. The oldest of these texts dates back to the first half of the 14th century.
The most recent documents on display date from the “Closed Period” during the Second World War. Among these documents is a letter notifying the Vatican of the fate of Edith and Rosa Stein and photographs from the Nov. 5, 1943, air raid on the Vatican.
Cardinal Farina described the documents on display as “an incentive to raise the standard of knowledge beyond the empty stereotype to which, if I am not mistaken, much of the current so-called ‘culture of the masses’ unfortunately leads.”
To enable visitors to learn more about the exhibit and its documents, a free Lux in Arcana app is available for iOS and Android devices, enabling museumgoers to read up on the exhibit before visiting.
Up Close and Personal
“The exhibit was fascinating,” said Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey in Belmont, N.C. He visited the exhibit while in Rome in early March for a meeting. He spent three hours touring the exhibit three days after it opened.
“It was amazing to see the documents we’ve only heard about. The electronic display was very helpful to learn more about each document,” he said.
Each of the 100 documents in the collection features a nearby computer screen with scrolling text that explains the background of each document, its meaning and its place in time historically.
Abbot Solari described the exhibit as “walking through history.” As a religious, he said that the exhibits he was most struck by were the letters from Sts. Bernadette Soubirous and Teresa of Avila and the American pieces in the collection — which included a letter written to the Pope on birch bark by an Ojibwe chief and letters written by President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate president Jefferson Davis to the Holy Father.
“In addition to the intellectual history, actually seeing the letters, in their own hand, provides almost a sense of making the saints come alive,” said Abbot Solari.
John Noronha, director of Christendom College’s Rome program, said that he plans to take his college students to the exhibit.
He said he looks forward to seeing a letter dated Nov. 4, 1650, written on silk cloth from Chinese Empress Helena Wang that details her conversion to Catholicism.
“It shows the growth and struggle of the Catholic missionary activity in China, just about 100 years after St. Francis Xavier began his fruitful mission to India and the Far East,” said Noronha. “He didn’t make it to mainland China, but thanks to Matteo Ricci and the brave efforts of others like Empress Helena Wang, the Catholic faith continued to spread, despite all the challenges and persecution which continues today.”
“This is a journey among mysterious yet revealing pages that take us back to the origins of contemporary civilization and thence to the Italian Risorgimento, to the heart of the events leading to the unification of Italy and to World War II,” said Giovanni Alemanno, mayor of Rome. It is “a rigorous historical narrative that enables visitors to savor some famous events of the past and to ‘relive’ the glories and the mysteries of a history that started off from Rome and became universal.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
If You Go
What: Lux in Arcana: The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself
Where: Capitoline Museum, Rome
When: Exhibit is open from 9am to 8pm every day except Monday. Last admission is at 7pm.
Cost: 12 euro
More Information: LuxinArcana.org