“Lux in Arcana” : Vatican Secrets Revealed

Standing on Rome’s Capitolini Hill, the Capitolini Museums are housed in three palaces previously the papal seat of government arranged around a courtyard with a larger than life statue of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) at the centre. Known as the philosopher emperor, he was also an active ruler.
International NewspapersFor the first time ever an exhibition “Lux in Arcana – The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself” was held in Rome between February and September 2012. In the darkened rooms of the city’s decorative Capitolini Museums, one hundred precious documents and treasures were on display. The exhibition was enriched with multimedia installations, guided by an intriguing and rigorous narration, helping to enhance some famous events and to “relive” the documents with tales of the context and people involved.
From the marvels of the Vatican secret archives, they covered conclaves, heresies, popes and emperors, crusades, excommunications, ciphered letters along with manuscripts, codices and ancient parchments recounting history through its sources with interesting stories about the people and events, and behind the scene facts and ‘curiosities’.
“Lux in Arcana”
The title in Latin conveys the main objective of the exhibition – to shed light on the innermost mysteries of the Vatican secret archives. The unprecedented exhibition celebrated 400 years of the Vatican secret archives founded in 1612 by Pope Paul V where over 15,000 documents dating from the eighth to the twentieth century are now held in eighty-five kilometres of shelving. While accessible by special advance permission to scholars and historians, the archives have never previously been outside the Vatican walls.
Among the scrolls, parchments, manuscripts and writings of the last twelve centuries were the Inter Cetera papal bull of Pope Alexander VI, dated 1493, just after the arrival of Columbus in the Americas ; the document sets out the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries in the New World. There are two extant copies of this bull, one on display in Rome and the original is held in Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain. The Proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) were displayed from the original summons to appear before Bellarmino in 1616 through to Galileo’s conviction in 1633 on“grave suspicion of heresy”.
Displayed was the letter sent in 1530 by the members of the English parliament to Pope Clement VII urging swift ruling on the matter of the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This parchment contains the wax seals of eighty-three parliamentarians and Henry’s most trusted advisers, including Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), English churchman and statesman. As Papal Legate to the English court, he fell from power after failing to persuade the pope to permit Henry’s divorce, dying on his way to face trial.
There was a letter from Pope Clement VII written to the Incas in the Quecha language at the time of the siege of Cusco, and another sent to Pope Leo XIII by Pierre Pilsemont, Chief of the Native American Ojibwa tribe, Grassy Lake, Ontario. Written on birch bark the letter was written in May, datelined “where there is much grass”, thanking God and the Pope for sending “a guardian of prayer” to his tribe.
On display was a summary of the trial of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), accused of heresy by the Inquisition, and burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. So too was a parchment almost sixty metres long containing the testimonies of 200 Knights Templar in fear of their lives after fifty-four of their order had been burned at the stake as relapsi – heretics who had recanted and fallen once more.
Other documents included the papal bull by which Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther (1483-1546) founder of the Protestant Reformation, a note written in prison by Marie-Antoinette (1755-93) before her execution, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, letters from the young visionary Bernadette to Pope Pius IX, a letter from Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1590) to her father, the Spanish Pope Alexander VI, a letter from priests imprisoned in the Nazi death camp of Dachau. A separate exhibition displayed pictorial, correspondence, documents and artefacts relating to prisoners of war and the Nazi camps.
Representing a cultural world heritage centred in Rome, the vast range of writings and exhibits displayed in ‘Lux in Arcana” shed light on some of the unique treasures of the Vatican secret archives and how they entwine with history … not just of the Catholic Church … but of the world as a whole.
Ita Marguet
Note : Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows a visit to Rome and the exhibition “Lux in Arcana”, June 2012.