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An Ancient Pallium Displayed at the Vatican Museums

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From March 24th until June 25th, the Vatican Museums is hosting a small but very interesting show about St Caesarius of Arles (470-542), an important figure in the early Merovingian church. After spending his earlier years at the famous monastery on the island of Lérins, Caesarius was sent to Arles for health reasons; the local bishop, a kinsman of his, was so impressed by him that he asked the abbot of Lérins, St Porcarius, to release him to clerical service. In due course, Caesarius was elected bishop by popular acclamation in 502 A.D., and served in that role until his death 40 years later, at the age of about 72. As bishop, he was an assiduous preacher, and over 250 of his sermons have survived. He also presided at a number of important synods, and strongly promoted the monastic life, writing two monastic rules, including the first Western rule specifically for women. (In time, these would both be completely superseded by the more gentle Rule of his contemporary St Benedict.) He is said to have been the very first bishop to have received a pallium from the Pope, and this object has been loaned to the Vatican Museums for this display by the diocese of Arles, along with several relics of the Saint.

Here are some photographs of the main object in the show; given their extreme antiquity, several of them are of course very fragile, and therefore displayed in sealed plastic cases which do not provide optimal conditions for photography.

The pallium of St Caearius, given to him by Pope St Symmachus (498-518). The two bands of cloth on the right are part of a cover added to it later on to protect it; the original part is the decorated band on the left. (detail below.)

 A second pallium which also belong to him.

A child’s sarcophagus of the 4th century, with an image of Christ as teacher; later reused for his relics.

This early ninth-century manuscript is a collection of the ecclesiastical canons of several different councils held in Gaul, and includes this letter written by Pope St Symmachus to St Caesarius, whom he addresses as his “most beloved brother.”

On the left, the painted cover of a reliquary, early 6th century, from the collection of the Papal chapel; on the right, a leather belt once owned by St Caesarius, with a buckle in ivory depicting the soldiers in front of Christ’s tomb.

Three leather sandals, also once his property.

A reliquary of the year 1429, containing fragments of St Caesarius’ bones and hair, along with relics of several other Saints. The principal relics of his body were destroyed during the French revolution.

Among the show’s didactic panels is this interesting reconstruction of what the cathedral of Arles might have looked like in the days of St Caesarius’, who is shown here preaching from an ambo set in the middle of the nave in front of the sanctuary. (The mosaic work of the apse is reproduced from the contemporary church of St Apollinaris in Classe, just outside Ravenna.)

A lantern made ca. 400 A.D., with the Alpha and Omega inside a chrismon, the chi-rho monograph surrounded by a circle, which in this case is formed by laurel leaves.

A silk cushion formerly used as part of the reliquary of the True Cross in the Papal chapel, late 8th-early 9th century.

A tunic said to have belonged to St Caesarius; only fragments of some very ancient cloth are preserved, attached to a much newer piece for support.

A fragment of a sarcophagus, ca 400 A.D., with the Chi-Rho monogram, Alpha and Omega, and the soldiers who guarded the tomb of Christ.

Fragments of cloth woven in the first third of the 12th century, with a running hare motif. (The pallium of St Caesarius was half a millenium old when this was originally woven somewhere in the Islamic world.)

The base of a gilded glass bowl, with figures names Genesius and Lucas, second half of the 4th century.

A sarcophagus made at the end of the 2nd century, reused for a group of martyrs in the ancient Roman city of Portus.

“Here lie the bodies of the holy martyrs Hippolytus, Taurinus, Herculianus, and John the Calibite; Bishop Formosus laid them here.”

These decorated pieces of ivory were formerly attached to the relic of St Caesarius’ pallium.


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