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Lux in Arcana 
An Exhibition in the Capitoline Museums, Rome 2012

Petersdom, Vatikan


In 2012, for the first time in history, a selection of 100 original documents of great historical importance from the Vatican Secret Archives, where they have been preserved for centuries with many other treasures in shelves running 85 kilometers, were displayed in the opulent chambers of the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The occasion for the exhibition was the founding of the Papal Archives 400 years ago and can now be portrayed as, Light into the mysterious secrets.

Although they are 'only' documents presented in display cases in darkened chambers, together with explanations of their historical contexts, they become unique, super-exciting and living witnesses of their time. I found that so, in any case. Here are a few examples of this unique exhibition to date, which ended in September 2012.

Ausstellung Lux in Arcana

Exhibition at the Capitoline Museums

The Vatican Secret Archive is a world cultural heritage site. Secret here actually means private, because the Pope alone determines, what can be made open to the public. Researchers have had access to this unique archive since 1881 for research purposes. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) had opened it up for historical research.

The opulent chambers in the Capitoline Museums

Of the 85 kilometers long line of files there are, however, some questionable collections still locked up. In particular, the documents of Pope Pius XII (1876-1958), of which only parts were published, have aroused indignation. Many observers regard the approach that the Pope, as the Papal Secretary of State in 1933 took, against Hitler and the Holocaust, and which he had decided in agreement with the National Socialist Party of Germany, to be still inconclusive.

Galileo Galilei in the clutches of the Inquisition
 The records of the trial (1633) against the scientist

Galileo Galilei in den Fängen der Inquisition

Galileis' book, Dialogue on the two chief world systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican (in short: Dialogo) was published in 1632. In that he defended, among other things, the Copernican system with his own -  false - theory of the tides. The Copernican (heliocentric) view was based on the assumption that the planets revolved around the sun, as against the older Ptolemaic (geocentric) view, in which the earth was considered the centre of the Universe.

Die Akten des Prozesses (1633) gegen den Wissenschaftler

The obligation of censorship to ensure that the book ended with a positive closing speech on the Ptolemaic system, Galileo complied wherein he allowed the fool, Simplicio to hold a speech. Moreover, he made fun of the favourite thoughts of Pope Urban VIII: one can never test the effects of a theory predicted by him, because God can indeed produce the same effects at any time by other means (obvious, logical). That was not particularly clever of Galileo, because with this he stretched himself to the limit, gambled with the protection of the Pope, and became a matter of stress with the Inquisition. And they, as you know, did not joke!

Although he had friends among the Cardinals, he was put on trial in the year 1633 in Rome in the Basilika Santa Maria sopra Minerva (this is the one with small elephant with the obelisk in front, near the Pantheon). Only because he admitted his mistakes, cursed and abhorred them, he was 'only' incarcerated for life and so narrowly escaped execution at the stake. Puh, that was close!

Ausschnitt: Unterschrift von Galileo Galilei

Excerpt: Galileo Galilei’s signature from the protocol of the proceedings with the Catholic
Inquisition from the year 1633 against his book 'Dialogue on the two world systems'.

Galilei stayed firm in his convictions: just before leaving the courtroom, he is said to have murmured his famous sentence: Eppur si muove! ('And yet it moves!'). After five months, in December 1633, he was allowed to return to his Villa Gioiella in Arcetri, but he remained there under house arrest, coupled with a ban on any form of teaching.

A valuable honorific title for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
 Breve* from Pope Clemens XIV on winning the 'Order of the Golden Spur'

Ehrbezeichnung für Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Honorific title for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

In the year 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart travelled to Rome with his father Leopold. The concerts of this 13 year old, performed across several different cities, were extraordinarily successful. The trips also served the purpose for his musical and linguistic training. Owing to his reputation, he could participate in a Liturgy in the Sistine Chapel, where he heard the Misery for two choirs by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. The musical scores of this composer were top secret. But the young Mozart enjoyed the music thoroughly, and he wrote it down summarily from memory - the deviations from the original were exceedingly minor! 

Breve von Papst Clemens XIV. zur Verleihung des "Ordens vom Goldenen Sporn"

This news reached Pope Clemens XIV himself in only a few days, who then invited the young composer to a private audience and bestowed upon him personally, the Order of the Golden Spur ('Spereon d’Oro')

The Order of the Golden Spur is the second highest order for the contribution of services to the Roman-Catholic church. The bearers of this Order shall be entitled to use the title, Knight ('cavalier') of Spur and addressed in letters as Sacri Palatii Comites et Equites aurati. Truly fantastic! The cavalier is allowed (even today) to ride on horseback into the church. Absolutely super – I have wanted this for a long time! Mozart, however, did not want to use either of his new privileges.

- - -
* Breve is a papal document issued by the Pope, which differentiates the papal bull by virtue of its brevity and lesser solemnity. It is issued by the Pope without the counsel of the Cardinals, and always contains the official decisions, which allows it to be differentiated from the private writings of the Pope (‘motu proprio’). The German word 'Brief' is derived from the word 'breve'.

Bull of Excommunication against Martin Luther
Bull of Excommunication Decet Romanum Pontificiem from Leo X in the year 1521

Bannbulle gegen Martin Luther

Bull of Excommunication against Martin Luther

With the first Bull Exsurge Domine, a 'threat of excommunication' in June 1520, Martin Luther had to recant 41 of his theses within 60 days; however Luther burned the Bull in public! Through the second Bull in January 1521, as shown here, Decet Romanum Pontificem, Martin Luther was excommunicated. This document has never before been made open to public and it is thus definitely the highlight of this exhibition. Therefore some more background information.

Luther answered the threats, already voiced by Pope Leo X in Exsurge Domine against his writings and theses in 1517, with the means of his powerful eloquence as a publicist, which had been made possible through the recently invented printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the year 1450. In his memoir, On the freedom of a Christian ('De libertate christiana'), Luther replied: A Christian is the free master of all things and is no one’s subject.

Bannbulle Decet Romanum Pontificem gegen Martin Luther vom Januar 1521

Bull of Excommunication 'Decet Romanum Pontificem’'against Martin Luther from January 1521

Urged to take action, Emperor Karl V ordered Luther to come to the Parliament (Reichstag) at Worms. When Luther refused to recant*, the young ruler imposed the Imperial Ban ('Edict of Worms') on him. From the effects of being outlawed, he was saved by, as is generally known, the Saxon Electoral Prince Friedrich the Wise through an abduction on Wartburg. Here, Luther translated the New Testament originally written in Greek into German. The Reformation in Germany had started to take its course …

"[Because] … my conscience is captured in the words of God, I cannot and will not recant anything, because it is dangerous and impossible to do anything against the conscience. God help me. Amen." (The often quoted version, "Here I stand, I cannot help it, God help me, Amen", is not proven.)

The Rules of the Conclave

 The approval of the Ubi periculum from Gregor X in the II Council from Lyon

The Conclave (Lat: cum clave – "with the key") indicates the enclosed area, the "Polling Station" of the cardinals for the papal election, traditionally the Sistine Chapel. The term also denotes the gathering of the cardinals themselves.

Annahme der neuen Regelung zur Papstwahl Ubi periculum ("Wo Gefahrist") aus dem Jahr 1274.

The acceptance of the new rules of the papal elections Ubi periculum ("Where danger is") from the year 1274.
Each of the prelates present at the II Council of Lyon had to expressly declare his consent with his wax seal.

The longest period without a Pope (Sedisvakanz or Vacant Throne) in the papal history began after the death of Clemens IV in the year 1265: it lasted for three years. The election of the Pope always took place at the official residence of the late Pope. In these times it was Viterbo. After two years of searching for a Pope without success, the citizens decided to take action. They confined the cardinals in the palace of the Pope, deprived them of food and left the building surrounded with gunmen. When this also did not work, the mayor of the city removed the roof of the palace so that the cardinals were exposed to the weather. It still took several months more, and finally on September 1, 1271, the Archdeacon of Liege, Tedalo Visconti was appointed Pope: Gregor X.

In his opinion, such an event should never be repeated. He wanted to bring about quicker decisions in order to avoid excessively long vacancy of the Apostolic See. Therefore, he adopted new election regulations and introduced the new Conclave with the existing assumption of the Constitution Ubi periculum dated July 7, 1274 from the II Council of Lyon. If you would like to know more, you can click here

Wachssiegel der Päpste

The wax seals of the Popes

With the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregisthe Lord’s whole Flock, dated February 22, 1996, Pope John Paul II had the Election Code modified. Also the funeral arrangements and the liturgy in the Saint Peter’s Basilica, where the body is to be transferred are precisely defined. Photography of the late Pope is strictly prohibited. Exceptions can be made only after the body has been laid out for public viewing in the pontifical robes and after special permission of the Cardinal Carmerlengo.

© Copyright photos and text: Jochen Weber

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