The Exhibition    Origin, Timing and Forms of the Rite

On 22 February 1300, Pope Boniface VIII's bull Antiquorum habet fida relatio decreed that anybody who undertook a pilgrimage to Rome during the course of the year and visited the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, having repented and confessed, would receive “the fullest and broadest pardon for all sins committed”. Through this official document, Boniface VIII effectively ushered in the Christian Holy Year, a new celebration that was exclusively the result of the authority and prerogatives he enjoyed as pontiff, and with some peculiar characteristics with respect to the several partial and plenary indulgences granted by his predecessors. He completely reinvented the special occasion, without heed to tradition or preceding and contemporary practice. According to tradition, he took the decision to establish the celebration in order to respond to the expectations of many pilgrims who, at the end of 1299, had flocked to Rome after hearing a rumour that believers who visited St Peter’s Church in the century year would gain a remission of their sins. Boniface had the intuition and the promptness of reaction to channel these high expectations and feelings, by institutionalizing them into a regular celebration governed and administered by the Pope’s authority. This “reform”, the plenary indulgence Boniface VIII granted in 1300, featured a number of elements that would form the basis of Jubilee celebrations for centuries to come. Some peculiar aspects of the rite (its timing, pilgrimage routes and the ceremonial framework, including the holy door ritual) gained ground a couple of centuries later, on the threshold of the modern age.

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The bull of indiction of the plenary indulgence of 1300 was solemnly promulgated on 22 February, the day of the Chair of Saint Peter. The papal document established that pilgrims were required to visit the tombs of the apostles at the basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul for thirty days (if they came from Rome) or for fifteen days (if they came from outside town). This requirement remained unchanged until the twentieth century, when the number of visits was progressively reduced in 1900, 1933, 1950. In 1975 Paul VI stated that a single visit to one basilica was enough. Historical sources of the 14th century concur that Boniface VIII’s call was an enormous success and that a massive inflow of pilgrims was recorded. At the end of the Holy Year, the Pope also tackled the issue of the pilgrims who wanted to make the journey but were not eventually able to go to Rome, because of an illness or other material obstacle: on 25 December 1300 he issued a non-bull pardon, which granted them “full indulgence”. Dante Alighieri, a great critic of Boniface VIII’s, was one of the witnesses of the first jubilee: his “Divine Comedy” is set in the Holy Week of 1300 and refers several times to the Jubilee of 1300. In a well-known passage from the Eighteenth Canto of the Inferno, Dante compared the procession of sinners in the first chasm moving in opposite directions to the pilgrims crossing the Tiber at Sant’Angelo Bridge.

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Between the 14th and 15th century, the papacy underwent a long period of crisis, which peaked with the transfer of the Papal See to Avignon (1309-1377), and the “Great Schism” (1378-1417). During this period, the Jubilee was celebrated much more frequently than the hundred-year interval envisaged by Boniface VIII. Between the Jubilees of 1300 and 1500, six further jubilees were celebrated at irregular intervals: in 1350, 1390, 1400, 1423, 1450, and 1475. Historians interpret this tendency as attempts by different popes to win greater support for a papacy which was losing authority. Their proclamation bulls, though, were centred on the brevity of human life, which prevented the majority of people from taking advantage of an indulgence once every hundred years: the interval was first reduced to 50 years, which became 33, until Paul II eventually set it at 25 years in 1470. The interval has remained unchanged ever since. On the other hand, the number of basilicas pilgrims were required to visit in order to obtain an indulgence, was definitively established in the second-half of the fourteenth century, with the inclusion of the basilica of Saint John Lateran in 1350, and the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in 1373. Only contingent reasons would prompt future pontiffs to alter the basilicas pilgrims needed to visit, like when the basilica of Saint Paul was replaced by Santa Maria in Trastevere, due to the flooding of the Tiber or because of a fire that destroyed it in 1823.

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In 1500, Pope Alexander VI established a solemn and detailed ceremonial for the opening and the closing of the Holy Door. The pontiff required a door to be opened not only at St Peter's, (where he himself led the ritual) but also at the Patriarchal basilicas of St Paul’s, St John's and St Mary Major, assigning papal legates to lead these ceremonies. The first Pope to personally open the four Holy Doors was John Paul II at the Great Jubilee of 2000. Still today, just like centuries ago, during the closing ceremony a box containing documents, gold and silver coins, medals and seals from the Holy Year (as well as the list of the people who donated the bricks used to build the wall) is walled up in the doorway. A few days before the next Jubilee is due to begin, the small box is retrieved and its contents checked to ensure integrity. Alexander VI’s ritual remained more or less identical until the year 1975, when Paul VI simplified it: the Holy Door is not walled up on the outside with lime and trowel; instead the door is simply closed and a wall, into which the traditional box is placed, is erected in the following days on the inside of the Basilica. In 2015, Pope Francis diverged from the official ceremony, and he started the Extraordinary Holy Year celebration a few days in advance by opening the first Holy Door in the cathedral of Bangui, in the Central African Republic.

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Twenty-six Holy Years (or universal ordinary Jubilees), were celebrated between 1300 and 2000. The next regular Jubilee is due in 2025, according to the twenty-five year calendar established by Paul II in 1470. The announcement of an extraordinary Jubilee has been accepted practice in the Church since the end of the sixteenth century. Since then, more than seventy such jubilees have been celebrated on special occasions, at times of difficulty for the Church or to request divine support at the start of a papacy. These extraordinary jubilees did not follow the ceremony that has been the blueprint for Holy Years since 1500, but were celebrated for varying periods of time (sometimes just a few days), and in many cases were called not for all believers but for a particular region or local church. Two extraordinary jubilees, though, were celebrated in the 20th century: in 1933 and in 1983, respectively for the 1,900th and 1,950th anniversaries of the Redemption. They were wholly similar to standard jubilees in terms of duration, importance and ceremonial practice, including the opening and closing of the Holy Door at all four patriarchal basilicas. The Jubilee of Mercy, announced by Pope Francis, has a universal importance, like the extraordinary jubilees of the twentieth century, and the same features of ordinary jubilees. It takes its place in the historic sequence of Holy Years initiated by Boniface VIII.

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The images embossed on either side of coins and medals are highly evocative. They are capable of restoring to us the sound of lost voices. The first references to a Jubilee on a Papal State issue appeared in 1350 on Roman Senate ducats, which featured a small Holy Face on the reverse. It was not until 1450 that references to Jubilee ceremonies began to appear regularly, initially in the form of the inscription anno ivbilei and the figures of Saints Peter and Paul, who soon enough were replaced by the Holy Door. From that moment onwards, it was open or closed holy doors revealing a horizon of light, or a room occupied by a radiant dove or the Veil of Veronica – doors increasingly thronged by pilgrims packed in around the Pope in a succession of fascinating portrayals against the backdrop of the Holy City. The “Papal Series” of medals depicts the ancient Jubilee basilicas, Christ washing St Peter’s feet, and the sun that in July 1800 greeted Pius VII on his return after a period of revolution. This buried world re-emerges from the mists of the past, shards of lived life brought back to life at Palazzo Giustiniani through precious coins from the Vatican Medagliere, and the extraordinary collection of coins and medals started in the early 1800s by Pius VII before being taken over in 1870 by the Italian State. The collection is today housed in new rooms at the Museo della Zecca in Rome. The Istituto Poligrafico and Zecca dello Stato’s collection offers public access through exhibitions and via a digital platform.

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