Holy years, unholy popes
The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced extraordinarily beautiful Papal coins in Rome and other pontifical mints. Some of them were directly related to the Holy years or Jubilees and others only indirectly. We present here three of the largest silver coins minted in Rome, the piastre, connected to some of the popes who were protagonists of Holy years, together with some of the main steps in the history of these periodical celebrations. We highlight the frequent cases in which the personalities and political actions of the popes diverged significantly from the purpose of the celebration itself. Holy years had from the beginning a mixture of spiritual purposes (to promote pilgrimage to Rome, confession and repentance and grant remissions and indulgences for sins) and material purposes (to refill the coffers of the Church through the inflows of pilgrims to Rome, particularly to undertake expensive religious building projects or fight wars).
The first Holy year was called in 1300 at the initiative of Boniface VIII Caetani (1294-1303), who was placed in Hell in the Divine Comedy by the Dante for simony (selling religious offices for money).
The ceremonial Jubilee rules still largely used today were initially set by the Spanish pope Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503), one of the most notorious libertine popes, officially father of four children with Vannozza Cattani. The most famous of them were Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia, “il Valentino”, who was a model for Machiavelli’s Prince. The nepotism of Alexander VI included appointing as cardinals his own son Cesare and the brother of his lover Giulia Farnese. The latter became pope several decades later, as Paul III Farnese, another champion of nepotism as well as art and architecture. The Jubilee rules, set in a document called Bull of Indiction, included a procession in which the Pope was carried in the sedia gestatoria to the Basilica of Saint Peter. He would then un-wall the Holy door, sealed since the previous Jubilee, using a silver hammer especially made for the occasion. Once the door had been removed by aides, the Pope entered the Basilica, followed by the clergy and then by pilgrims, to start a period of penance and reconciliation. The rules of Alexander VI Borgia included the death penalty for whoever would trespass the Holy Door during the ceremony before the Pope. At the end of the Jubilee year the Pope would start the process of re-walling the door using a silver trowel. Coins and celebratory medals were inserted in the new wall.
One of the emerging problems encountered by Alexander VI Borgia was that, contrary to popular belief, it was not possible to identify any such Holy door to open. Therefore a new one had to be built on purpose in the old Basilica of Saint Peter in 1499. When the new Basilica was completed under the Architect Maderno in 1618 a further new Holy door was inserted in the long portico placed behind the façade of the Basilica (the narthex), which is still in use today for that purpose.
The gate is visible in a piastra of 1675, minted under Pope Clement X Altieri (1670-76). Instead of the usual flat frontal depiction of the door, the Roman engraver Girolamo Lucenti produced a fabulous perspective of the narthex. In front of the Holy door pilgrims kneel and pray or stand with their pilgrimage stick (bordone), waiting to cross the threshold and obtain a general indulgence under the protection of the Holy Spirit. The coin was so appreciated that it was often transformed into religious jewels (the specimen here depicted had a ring fixed to it so that it could be worn, which was later removed). The Pope himself personally confirmed Lucenti as pontifical engraver. This decision, however, survived only for the first 48 hours after the election of a new Pope, Innocenzo XI Odescalchi, the following year.
Urbano VIII Barberini (1623-44) called for several Holy years, despite and because he was one of the most nepotistic and squanderers of all popes. He amassed debt for the Papal States by enriching his family, fighting wars with the pontifical army and spending on massive artistic projects. The regular Jubilee of 1625 brought few pilgrims because of war in Northern Italy, a sideshow of the Thirty Years’ War. Therefore he tried again in 1628 and in 1629 with two new additional universal or extraordinary jubilees to pray for peace. We have here illustrated a piastra of 1643 representing the profile of Urbano VIII Barberini and the Archangel Saint Michael chasing a demon, engraved by the Milanese Gaspare Morone Mola.
A different type of Pope, more akin to Francis I Bergoglio, presided over the 1700 Jubilee. Innocent XII Pignatelli (1691-1700) issued a papal bull strictly forbidding nepotism under its various forms, including simony, the distribution of benefits to relatives and the appointment of cardinals’ nephews. He tried to introduce simplicity in the Roman Curia, reduce spending, give priority to the poor and founded the Charitable hospice of St Michele a Ripa in Rome. The Pontifical piastra of 1693, here illustrated, symbolized this program. It shows the bearded profile of the pope and an allegory of Pontifical Charity as a young woman feeding three small children, under the motto novit ivstvs cavsam pavperem (the just cause of the poor), engraved by the Swiss Pietro Paolo Borner.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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