Thanks to Dan Brown’s sensational novels, the Vatican Library (formally known as the Vatican Apostolic Library), which maintained a relatively low profile for over half a century piqued the curiosity of the public. The Vatican Secret Library, which is separate from the main library and was closed to scholars until 1881, has earned a certain level of notoriety. What’s in there? What is the Catholic Church hiding? Father Michael Collins, an expert on the Vatican Library, believes that no one person really knows what the library holds. Bookshelf presents fascinating fast facts about the mysterious Vatican Library.
Established in 1475, the Vatican Library is one of the oldest libraries in the world and one of the greatest literary collections of Western civilization. Since it is a research a library, only scholars are allowed access to the library’s books. A scholar must make a case for use of the library, stating their specific research project and qualifications. The Vatican Library hosts up to 200 scholars at a time. Each year 4,000 to 5,000 scholars visit the Vatican Library.
You would think that the honor system would work rather effectively in the Pope’s library; however, book theft plagues the Vatican Library like any other library. Up until the late 17th century, scholars were allowed to borrow books from the Vatican Library. After that time, scholars are not allowed to borrow books; only the Pope can borrow a book from the library. During a restoration project (2007-2010) electronic chips were placed in 70,000 books. Attention scholars — consider yourselves warned.
The library contains more than 2 million printed books, 8,500 incunabula (broadsides or pamphlet printed by woodcuts or cast metal type), and 75,000 codices (handwritten books prior to the invention of the printing press). The Vatican Secret Archives contains 150,000 items (papal acts, correspondence, and account books).
Each year the library acquires about 6,000 new books. Not surprisingly, none are by American author Dan Brown.
If the library’s shelves were placed end to end, they would stretch more than 31 miles.
The most famous and most valuable holding of the Vatican Library is the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, the best and oldest known nearly complete manuscript of the Greek Bible that includes the Old and New Testament. It has been dated paleaeographically (a scholarly term for handwriting analysis) to the fourth century (between 325 and 350 AD).
Two other important holdings are the two papyri (XIV and XV; also referred to as P25 and P75) from the Bodmer Papyri (a group of 22 papyri that contain sections from the Bible, early Christian literature, and the work of Menander and Homer). Why did the Vatican want just these two? These two papyri contain the earliest handwritten version of the Lord’s Prayer (found in Luke 11:1-4), as well as the earliest handwritten fragments (dated between 175 and 225 AD) from the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John. And significantly, it is the first manuscript that contains two gospels, suggesting that the four gospels could have been circulated together. The papyri were purchased by an American businessman and donated to the Vatican in 2007. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s librarian at the time, stated, “With this new precious papyrus, the library of the pope possesses the most ancient witness of the Gospel of Luke and among the most ancient of the Gospel of John.” Amen.
The parchment used in most of the codices is made from the skin of sheep or goat. If scribes needed to copy a book, it was necessary to kill enough sheep to provide the appropriate amount of pages. With the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, the casualties shifted from livestock to trees — underscoring the unavoidable cost to disseminating knowledge.
The Vatican Library also possesses a valuable collection of more than 330,000 Roman, Greek, and papal coins and medals, including the type of silver coins that Judas used to betray Jesus (scholars believe these silver coins would have been Antiochan staters or Tyrian shekels).
For further reading: Vatican: Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City by Fr. Michael Collins, DK (2008)