Conversion in the Vatican secret archives: Lux in Arcana

During a recent trip to Rome I had the chance to visit the exhibition ‘Lux in Arcana’ (light in secret matters) at the Capitoline museums, an unprecedented collection of 100 documents from the Vatican secret archives brought together to celebrate the 4th Centenary of the archive’s foundation. The exhibition incorporates a rich spectrum of previously unseen documents charting the Vatican’s role in epochal moments in religious and political history.

These include a register containing the excommunication of the 16th century German reformer Martin Luther, a sixty meter parchment scroll detailing the trials of the Knight’s Templar undertaken in the 14th century and a report on the 1633 trial of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. Also on display is the letter sent in 1530 by English noblemen and churchmen to Pope Clement VII urging him to annul Henry VII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Affixed with 81 red wax seals the document includes the signature of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham.

Of particular interest to the project is a letter written on silk by the Chinese empress dowager Wang, the foster mother of the last Ming dynasty emperor Yongli. While in exile in Guangzhu, after Beijing had fallen to Manchurian rebels, Wang had converted to Catholicism. Empress Wang had been counseled by the Jesuit Michele Boym, a Polish scientist and explorer who had originally traveled East on a mission to Goa. Upon her conversion Wang took the name Helena in honour of Constantine the Great’s mother and when her son Yongli also converted he took the name Constantine. Helena believed that her and her son’s conversions were a providential action which presaged the eventual conversion of the whole of China and the restoration of the Ming dynasty’s supremacy – a process fated to mirror the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity under Constantine. She also sought to use her new faith as a way of soliciting military and financial backing from Europe. Unfortunately for Helena and Yongli-Constantine this would fail to transpire and the rival Qing dynasty would hold power in China until 1912.

In the scroll on display, composed in 1650, Helena wrote to Innocent X informing the pope about her conversion and that of her son. However, the imperial message, dated to the Fourth Year, the Tenth Moon and the Eleventh Day of Yongli’s reign (November 4th, 1650), would only get to Rome at the end of 1655, in the hands of Father Boym. It was preserved in a gold-laced bamboo tube with black ink decorations on a golden background depicting a dragon, the empire’s emblem. The scroll was written in Chinese with cinnabar ink and directed “To Innocent, most holy Pontiff of the Catholic religion, vicar of Jesus Christ and Holy Father”. Once he had received the letter, Alexander VII – who had succeeded Innocent X – expressed his satisfaction at such a great event and sent his blessing to the sovereigns; more tangible aid in the form of money or troops was not forthcoming.

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