Vatican Secret Archives

Galileo's heresy trial and Henry VIII's divorce plea

Parchment documents relating to Galileo's heresy trial, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry VIII's divorce will go on display today in an unprecedented exhibition of 100 documents from the Vatican Secret Archives.

The archives, jealously guarded by popes and cardinals for centuries and kept under lock and key, contain one of the world's richest collections of historical papers, spanning more than 1,000 years, from the 8th century until modern times.

They reflect the Holy See's dealings with a who's who of famous historical figures, including Michelangelo, Voltaire, the Borgias, Mozart, Adolf Hitler and Abraham Lincoln, and are normally seen only by strictly vetted scholars.

Few of the leather-bound documents, which are packed into more than 50 miles of shelves and protected in climate-controlled chambers, have ever left the walls of the city state.

They have been specially brought together for an exhibition which will run until September in Rome's Capitoline Museums.

The exhibition, called "Lux in Arcana: The Vatican Secret Archives Revealed", commemorates the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the archives in their present location.

It is also designed to counter some of the myths and mystique created by works of fiction such as Dan Brown's Angels and Demons.

The archives provide one of the key settings in Brown's thriller, in which Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, races against time to stop a secret religious order, the Illuminati, from destroying the Vatican.

The priceless collection includes legal documents relating to the 14th century heresy trials of the Knights Templar and a letter written on birch bark in 1887 by the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario, Canada, to Pope Leo XIII.

The collection also features the papal order which excommunicated Martin Luther in 1520 and a letter written by Mary Queen of Scots to Pope Sixtus V a few months before she was beheaded for plotting against her cousin, Elizabeth I.

The collection includes an appeal by the English Parliament asking the Pope to annul Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The letter, which bears the red wax seals of more than 80 English lords, cardinals and bishops, was sent to Pope Clement VII in 1530 but failed to resolve the dispute, which eventually led to religious schism and the founding of the Church of England.

One of the most unusual documents is the abdication letter of the 'hermaphrodite' Queen Christina of Sweden, who caused a scandal when she stepped down from her throne and converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism in 1654.

(Published by The Telegraph - February 29, 2012)

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