Vatican Secret Archives Revealed

Historic letters to and from popes are on display in new museum exhibit in Rome.

(photo: Wikipedia)

For the first time in history, the Vatican is making public more than 100 historical documents from its Secret Archives.

“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 of the Holy Roman Church.

The “Lux in Arcana” exhibit at Rome’s Capitoline Museum was created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Vatican’s Secret Archives and includes notable items such as the 1521 decree from Pope Leo X excommunicating German monk Martin Luther.

The display also features a 1530 petition asking Pope Clement VIII to annul Henry VIII of England’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and an 1887 letter from a North American Indian chief, written on a strip of bark, addressing Pope Leo XIII as the “Grand Master of Prayers.”

Cardinal Farina sees the Secret Archive documents 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.”

The Vatican archive has 52 miles of shelves that hold 35,000 documents, some of which date back to the eighth century. Usually only professional scholars are given access to the collection, which is one of the greatest and oldest institutional archives in the world.

The exhibition is a joint venture between the Vatican and, among others, the city authorities in Rome. It was inaugurated on Feb. 29 with a private visit by Cardinal Farina, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the head of the Vatican’s council for culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, and various other dignitaries from Church and state, including Mayor Gianni Alemanno of Rome.

Although most of the documents are written in Latin, other languages are also on display.

A 1603 letter written by Pope Clement VIII to a religious community in Cuzco, Peru, is written in the indigenous Peruvian language of Quechua.

Also featured is 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 it she describes at length her sufferings, professes her Catholic faith, and commends her soul to God.

There are even diplomatic letters written in the Vatican’s own encrypted code. They were used to prevent secret messages between the Holy See and its diplomats from being intercepted by hostile powers. The oldest of these “ciphered” texts in the Vatican Archives dates back to the first half of the 14th century.

The Secret Archives were created in 1612 by Pope Paul V. It remained closed until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened them to academics. Around 1,500 researchers now visit the archive every year.

The “Lux in Arcana” exhibition at Rome’s Capitoline Museum runs until Sept. 9.