Here in Philadelphia, Bauman Rare Books’ hometown, a lot of people are still celebrating Pope Francis’ visit, which capped his first trip to the United States. The open-air mass he celebrated on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway may not have been, as some expected it would be, the biggest event this city had seen since the American Revolution—but it was still a historic event, one that hundreds of thousands of people from Philly and beyond will remember for a lifetime.
In honor of the Pope’s visit, today we are highlighting several pieces of history that testify to the tremendous influence—artistic, intellectual, and spiritual—of the Roman Catholic tradition.
Beauty And Belief
From the day he was elected, Pope Francis has foregone many of the elegant and elaborate trappings that have traditionally accompanied his office. For example, he favors plainer vestments than the splendid ecclesiastical robes depicted in Costumi Religiosi Adobbamenti delle Cappelle Palazzi Pontifici, a scarce, early 19th-century volume of brilliantly hand-colored engraved plates. With their emphasis on sumptuous fabrics and intricate details, these plates silently speak a belief that the Vicar of Christ, as the Church holds the Pope to be, merits an earthly court reflecting the majesty of the heavenly one.
Even so, Pope Francis has urged priests to recover “the allure of beauty” when they celebrate Mass. He believes worship should show (as he states in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium) that faith is “something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy…”
Rare books used in corporate and personal worship attest to the beauty of Catholic liturgy, across the centuries and around the world. An illuminated antiphonal from 19th-century Chile, for instance, captures the reverence and gladness with which one community prayed to the Virgin Mary. Tota pulchra es, Maria, they chanted during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—“Thou art entirely beautiful, Mary.” The antiphonal’s physically beautiful initial letters, lovingly hand-illuminated in gold, blue and red inks, suggest the greater, spiritual beauty of the Blessed Mother.
Similarly, from late 13th-century France, an illuminated leaf from a manuscript missal conveys in visual art the beauty its users glimpsed when singing God’s praise. The leaf also illustrates worship’s ability to engage the imagination as well as the heart: The two large capital initial letters, gorgeously painted in gold, blue, orange and white, whimsically transform, at their ends, into dragons worthy of a medieval fantasy! And a leaf from a 15th-century Italian choir book demonstrates how an illuminator’s lavish attention can reveal glory even in something as humble as a single letter—in this case, a large “E,” exquisitely executed in blue tempera and gold leaf, surrounded by bright sprays of flowers and leaves.
The Douai-Rheims Bible
Pope Francis has encouraged believers to read their Bibles: “The important thing is to read the Word of God, by any means… [and] welcome it with an open heart.” His stress on Scripture’s importance for believers may bring to bibliophiles’ minds one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most significant contributions to the development of the English Bible, the Douai-Rheims version.
In mid-16th century England, as Queen Elizabeth I reasserted the Church of England’s independence from Rome, bitter theological battles between Roman Catholics and Protestants raged. Protestants appealed to the Geneva Bible’s textual readings and (often barbed) marginal notes to support their doctrine. Roman authorities realized their priests needed a resource to let them do the same. Bibles produced in England—often handsomely illuminated—existed prior to the Protestant Reformation, but the Reformers’ stress on reading the Bible in everyday language sparked Rome to produce a new, doctrinally authoritative version in English.
The Douai-Rheims Bible—named for the cities in France where it was published (the New Testament in 1582 and again in 1600; the Old in 1610-11, and again in 1635)—served that polemical purpose. It highlighted scriptural support for Rome’s faith and practice. It exposed some deliberately biased, textually untenable readings in the Geneva and other Protestant English Bibles.
But the Douai-Rheims proved more than a weapon in theological debates. An accurate translation of the Latin Vulgate, its prose is sometimes ponderous, but its transliteration of some terms gave English such words as “evacuated,” “allegory,” “character,” and “evangelize.” As Gordon Campbell notes, much of the Douai-Rheims is “fluent and elegant”—and many of its distinctive phrasings found their way into the King James Version (1611). The Douai-Rheims thus contributed directly to one of the English language’s incomparable masterpieces; and, as revised in the mid-18th century, it remained the basis for Roman Catholic English Bibles until the 20th.
A Fore-Edge Flight Into Egypt
The Roman Catholic-related rare book we currently have that intrigues me most may be this edition of the Chi Chiu Chang, the oldest known text about Chinese calligraphy. What grabs my attention isn’t the text itself, however, but the way the book has been decorated.
Around 1939, Chinese artists at the Catholic University of Peking (today Fu Jen Catholic University) adorned the book’s fore-edge with a beautiful painting of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus—making their way into Egypt, refugees from King Herod’s homicidal terror. Executed with minute attention to detail, the art shows Joseph, in traditional Chinese dress, asking a Chinese villager for directions. It’s based on a painting by noted Chinese religious artist Lu Hung-Nien, who studied at the University, titled “The Holy Refugees.”
The longer I look at this fore-edge painting, the more I appreciate it. A humble Chinese village, a farmer speaking to (as far as he knows) ordinary travelers—yet the artists’ eyes see the mystery beneath the surface, and allow us to see it, too. It’s one more example of how the Roman Catholic tradition can inspire creators—painters and writers, to architects and scholars and more—to express their unique vision, their ability to see and celebrate the transcendent amid the seemingly mundane.
Whether or not your collecting interests include religion, contact our team of rare book experts to start shaping a collection that communicates your unique vision.
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