Friday, July 6, 2012

Lux in Arcana/ The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself

I arrived in Rome last week, just a few days before the rest of our pilgrimage group. Time to dive into the atmosphere and cultural life of this famously beautiful city and to enjoy a few mildly pagan days before the start of our retreat. At dinner with several other friars, I casually asked if they had any particular recommendations of things to see, half expecting to hear about all the standard hits: St. Peter’s basilica, St. John Lateran, the Villa Borghese, the Pantheon, etc. But one friar took my request seriously and said, in a rather understated manner, “Well, you might enjoy a show of old documents from the Vatican called ‘Lux in Arcana.’ It’s really quite interesting.” Old documents. Indoors. In Rome. At the end of June, with 90-degree heat and humidity. Let me think about it.

I did think about it. And as I passed the city’s Capitoline Museums, I decided: Well, why not take a chance and drop in for a few minutes. It couldn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. Not one little bit. On the contrary, for my money, “Lux in Arcana: The Vatican’s Secret Archives Reveals Itself” (May-September 2012) is one of the most exciting and fascinating exhibitions I have seen anywhere in recent memory. It’s lengthy title bears a bit of deconstruction. “Lux in Arcana” suggests a “light piercing into the depths”—in this case, the ‘depths’ of the Vatican’s literary holdings, which occupy approximately 85 km of space in various locations throughout the papal city state. The term “secret archives” is Vaticanese for the “private” or “personal” documents of the collection. It is not meant to give a Dan Brown-type allure to the event. Or is it? Truth be known, actually, is that many of the documents in this show have, in fact, been top secret items at one time or another during the four centuries of the Archive’s existence.

Consisting of 100 actual documents (not copies or reproductions) on loan from the Vatican, the material in this exhibition describes—in both literary and literal terms—the trajectory of some of the most significant events shaping both Church and European/ world history from the 8th through 20th centuries. Including items ranging from official pronouncements to the personal correspondence of the pontiffs, this exhibition presents an historical inventory of incomparable interest and value.

Here are a few examples of the items on display:
• The papal bull (Regula Bullata) of 1223 containing the final and officially approved Rule of the Franciscan order. (Might as well put first things first, friarwise).
• A petition, dated in 1530, and signed by members of the British parliament petitioning Pope Clement VII to grant King Henry VIII an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The petition, of course, was rejected, and almost all of the signatories eventually lost their heads.
• The papal document formally excommunicating Martin Luther.
• Proceedings of the Inquisition’s trial against Galileo Galilei
• The surrender of the Papal States to the nascent Italian government (1870) and the conclusive concordat establishing the Vatican state (1929).
• Letters from both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to the Pope Pius IX (1863) expressing their separate thanks for his prayers in the wake of the terrible destruction at the Battle of Gettysburg
• The official abdication of Queen Christina of Sweden upon her conversion to Catholicism (17c)
• A beautiful letter from the Chipewa/ Obijwa nation of North America to Pope Leo XIII (19c) written in their language directly onto a birch bark base.
• A lengthy transcript of depositions taken by the Inquisition (14c) against members of the Knights Templar (eventually, 54 of the Knights were executed and the Order suppressed under pressure exerted by the French king)
• Correspondence and other documents involving various popes and signed by the tsars of Russia, patriarchs of Constantinople, Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), Michelangelo, Erasmus, the Great Lama of Tibet, the khan of Mongolia, and so on.

The list is exhaustive, exhausting, and truly engaging. Actual contact with such significant literary artifacts as these can leave a strong impression on the viewer. In the first place, it makes the people and events involved more real, pertinent, and concret. There really was an Inquisition, Henry VIII really did try to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, there truly was an organized effort to silence and condemn Galileo for his scientific findings, etc. Secondly, one realizes that these same people– no matter how celebrated or infamous—are not only real, they are also surprisingly finite. Michelangelo, Mozart, Queen Helen of China, and everyone else whose autograph has been included in this exhibition really did live, walk the same earth and breathe the same air as we do. But they are not immortal; they are, ultimately just as vulnerable and limited as you or I, no matter their grand deeds or great decisions.

Unfortunately, given the fragile nature of the materials shown, it is virtually certain that this important exhibition will not travel. Still, considerable documentation is available on the Internet and well worth consulting. //

No comments: