Introduction to the Postage Stamps of Vatican City

by Thomas I. Crimando [1]

 

 

INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

There are many reasons for the great popularity of Vatican City stamps.  The Vatican has traditionally maintained a fairly conservative issuing policy, which presently consists of about a dozen commemorative series per year.  Vatican stamps feature a wide range of religious and historical subjects, including many that are of interest to topical collectors.  Adding to their allure is the fact that these stamps are issued by the world's smallest sovereign state, whose influence extends far beyond its 108.7 acres.

The political existence of the Vatican City State dates from the three Lateran Treaties of February 1929, which settled the Roman Question (see An Introduction to Roman States Philately) and provided for mutual recognition between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See.  These treaties further required Italy to cooperate in setting up a postal service for the Holy See.  Negotiations between the Vatican and the Italian government resulted in an agreement to dispatch Vatican mail from either Rome’s Ferroviaria (railway) or Arrivi e Distribuzione (Arrivals and Distribution) post office, depending on its destination.

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THE EARLY DEFINITIVES [2]

On 1 August 1929, the Vatican released its first stamps, a definitive series known to collectors as the “Conciliation” issue.  It consisted of thirteen regular issues and two special delivery stamps (1-13, E1-2).  The seven low values, which depict the papal tiara and crossed keys, are strongly reminiscent of the Pontifical State stamps.  The remaining values feature a photo of the reigning Pontiff, Pius XI. 

This series of stamps was overprinted numerous times during the next decade, making it one of the most interesting subfields of Vatican philately.  On 10 January 1931 the 30c value in the series was issued overprinted in red vermillion (14) by the Vatican Polyglot Press.  The new value, 25c, paid several heavily used domestic letter and foreign postcard rates.  On the same date, the 5c, 10c, 20c, 30c, L2, and L2.50 values were issued overprinted “SEGNATASSE” in black for use as postage due stamps (J1-6); the entire Conciliation series was also overprinted with the words “PER PACCHI” in black for use as parcel post stamps (Q1-Q15).

In 1934 and again in 1937, the six high values of the Conciliation issue were surcharged with new values (35-40).  Today, these two provisional overprints are the rarest of all Vatican stamps, and when purchased they should be expertised and accompanied by a certificate.

The final overprinting of the Conciliation series was made in 1939 at the death of Pope Pius XI.  The seven low values were overprinted "SEDE VACANTE / MCMXXXIX" (61-67) for postal use during the interregnum period preceding the election of a new pope.  This inaugurated a tradition that has been observed at the death of every subsequent pope (see A Postal History of the Sede Vacante).  

The Conciliation issue was replaced in 1933 by the so-called “Gardens and Medallions” set (19-34, E3-4) which pictures the arms of Pope Pius XI (5c); the Apostolic Palace and obelisk of Heliopolis (10c, 12½c, 20c, 25c); Vatican Gardens and Dome of St. Peter’s (30c, 50c, 75c, 80c); Pope Pius XI (L1, L1.25, L2, L2.75); and St. Peter’s Basilica (L5, L10, L20).  The special delivery stamps, denominated at L2 and L2.50, show an aerial view of Vatican City. 

Three definitive series, known collectively as the “Small Medallions,” were in use during the Second World War.  All three were printed from the same plates and picture the arms of Pope Pius XII and a profile photograph of the Pope by Luigi Baumgarten.  The first Small Medallions (72-76), released on 12 March 1940, consisted of five stamps denominated at 5c, L1, L1.25, L2, and L2.75, all watermarked with the crossed keys of St. Peter.  The second set of Small Medallions (91-98, E5-6) was released on 5 March 1945 and consisted of eight unwatermarked stamps in new colors with new face values.  Two special delivery stamps were included in this series.  The third set (102-109, E7-8) was actually a second printing of the 5 March 1945 series surcharged with new values.

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THE POSTWAR DEFINITIVES

The 1946 “Tridentine” series of 14 values (110-21, E9-10) belatedly honored the fourth centenary of the opening of the Council of Trent.  It features portraits of major figures in the Catholic Counter-Reformation; underneath each portrait are the arms of the particular religious order or the ecclesiastical headdress associated with each individual.  The Tridentines are revered by many collectors as one of the most beautiful issues ever produced by the Vatican—despite the postwar shortage of paper, ink, and skilled printers. 

The 1949 “Roman Basilicas” series (122-31, E11-12) reproduces engravings by Rossini and Piranesi of the historic basilicas and churches of Rome.  The high value of the series, denominated at L.100, features a full-face portrait of Pius XII that was originally prepared for the “Small Medallions” but not used in that series.

The 1953 “Popes and St. Peter’s Basilica” issue (158-168, E13-14) features busts and portraits of the builder-Popes who constructed the largest church in Christendom.  Under each papal portrait is an illustration of the particular architectural element begun or completed during his reign.

The 1960 “Corporal Works of Mercy” definitives (284-291, E15-16) depict a series of seven bas-reliefs by Della Robbia and Paladini from the 13th century Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia.  It was followed six years later by the “Works of Man” issue (423-432, E17-18), depicting bas-reliefs from the bronze chair designed by Rudelli in the private Pontifical chapel.  The 1966 series is generally regarded as the last of the classic definitives because it was the last to include special delivery stamps. 

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THE AIRMAILS

The Vatican released its first airmails, distinguished by the inscription Posta Aerea, in 1938 (C1-8).  This series of eight values shows a statue of St. Peter and three additional motifs of symbolic, Biblical, and legendary air travel: a dove bearing an olive branch (Genesis 8:11); the prophet Elijah ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11); and the airborne Holy House of Loreto.  Angels, particularly the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael, are also a common subject of Vatican air mail stamps (C16-17, C24-32, C45-46, C53-54, C59).  The pre-1958 airmails were generally issued in extremely small quantities and are now fairly uncommon.  For example, only 100,000 complete sets were printed of the Vatican’s first commemorative air mails honoring the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union (C18-19).

More recent Vatican airmails have depicted the world travels of the “Pilgrim Pope,” the late John Paul II.  These include the airmail series of 1980 (C66-72); 1986 (C75-82); 1988 (C83-87); 1990 (C88-91); and 1992 (C92-95).  The 1992 series was the last to be inscribed Posta Aerea, and it remains to be seen whether special-purpose airmail stamps will be issued again or have become a thing of the past.

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THE COMMEMORATIVES

Undoubtedly, the best known Vatican postal issues are its commemorative stamps.  The first commemorative series was issued in 1935 to honor the International Juridical Congress (41-46), but commemorative stamps were issued only occasionally prior to 1953.  Their number has since increased dramatically, and these stamps are noted for their colorful and symbolic designs.

Many Vatican commemoratives honor famous persons and events associated with the history of the Roman Catholic Church, and are therefore of special interest to topical collectors of religion or art on stamps.  Among the great Popes of the past who have been honored on stamps are St. Pius X (145-48, 182-84); Nicholas V (197-99); St. Leo the Great (301-03); Pius IX (632-34); and Leo XIII (882-84).  The “Popes of the Holy Years” series (1065-72, 1095-1102, 1141-49), released between 1998 and 2000, pictures every Pope who has proclaimed a Holy Year since Boniface VIII began the tradition in 1300.

The Popes have also been great patrons and collectors of art, and thus many Vatican stamps honor great Catholic artists and their work, including Fra Angelico (195-96); Antonio Canova (243-46); Titian (590-91); Peter Paul Rubens (629); Gian Lorenzo Bernini (673-76); Piero della Francesca (904-07); Giotto (916); and Perugino (1303-06, 1307).

Perhaps no other Catholic artist has been more frequently commemorated on Vatican stamps than Michelangelo Buonarotti.  His Pietà, which depicts the body of Christ in the arms of His Mother after the Crucifixion, has twice graced Vatican postage stamps: once in 1964, when the statue was on display at the World's Fair in New York (383-386) and again in 1973 to mark that year's international Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne (531-533).  His Sistine Chapel ceiling first appeared on a series of monochrome stamps (387-91) released in 1964 for the 400th anniversary of his death.  It was featured again on a set of three marking the twenty-fifth year of the United Nations (492-494).  More recently, two glorious issues (870-81, 944-51, 952) commemorated the restoration of the ceiling carried out between 1981 and 1994.  Much of the world got its first glimpse of the ceiling’s smoke, soot, and varnish-free colors from these stamps. 

Pre-Christian works have also been featured on a number of Vatican stamps.  One of the most impressive of these is a 1977 series (617-22) that features close-up photography of the statue of Laocoön and His Sons being strangled by sea serpents.  This monumental sculpture was acquired by Pope Julius II in 1506 after being unearthed at the site of the Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace.  Other antiquities can be found on several souvenir sheets from the 1980s, including a set of three (718, 719, 720) issued in 1983 to publicize the Vatican art collection then touring the United States and one issued in 1989 (829) for the 150th anniversary of the Vatican’s Egyptian Museum.  A set of four issued in 2001 (1197-1200) features gold work created by the Etruscan civilization, which flourished in Italy a millennium before the birth of Christ. 

Many famous saints from past centuries have been depicted on Vatican stamps, such as Vincent de Paul (295-97), Ignatius of Loyola (212-13), Patrick (313-16), Thomas Aquinas (555-57), and Francis of Assisi (607-12).  In 1954, when Pope Pius X was elevated to sainthood, an unusual and attractive polychrome series (182-84) was issued for the occasion.  This began a custom, which has continued to the present day, of commemorating select new beati and saints with postal issues.  Recent stamps for the canonizations of Padre Pio (1105, 1106) and Fr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (set of 1 issued 2003) as well as the beatifications of Pope John XXIII (1166) and Mother Theresa of Calcutta (1467) have proven very popular.

One might get the impression that only popes, saints, and artists are depicted on Vatican stamps.  This was the case until 1965, when a set of four stamps (410-13) was released for the 700th birthday of the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri.  Since Dante, a select few ordinary mortals from a variety of fields have been similarly honored: the astronomers Copernicus (537-40) and Galileo (954), the Roman poet Virgil (685-86), Guglielmo Marconi (978), explorer Christopher Columbus (898), composer Giuseppe Verdi (1182-84), and the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca (set of 1 issued 2004).  

A number of stamps celebrate the history and institutions of Vatican City itself.  Among these have been issues honoring the anniversary of the Lateran Pacts (174-75, 254-55, 657-63) and the 1985 Concordat with Italy (765, set of 2 issued 2005).  The Vatican has its own small but proud military units, including the now defunct Palatine Guard (140-42) and the Swiss Guard (203-08, 1038-39, set of 2 issued 2005).  In addition to its postal service, the Vatican communicates with the rest of the world by means of shortwave Vatican Radio (262-63, 681-84) and its daily newspaper L'Osservatore Romano (310-12).

The Vatican also issues stamps in connection with current events in the Church.  After a new Pope is elected, he soon appears on Vatican stamps (68-71, 250-53, 365-68, 645-47, set of 3 issued 2005).  Every twenty-five years, the Catholic Church observes a special Holy Year, during which Catholics traditionally make pilgrimages to Rome to gain special indulgences.  These are always accompanied by commemorative stamps (132-9, 561-71, 1128-40).  An extraordinary Holy Year, decreed in 1933 for the 1900th anniversary of the crucifixion, was the occasion of the Vatican’s only semipostal issue (B1-4).  Other events honored on Vatican stamps have included Christian Archaeological Congresses (55-60, 579-81, 960-62), Eucharistic Congresses (592-94, 687-90, 927-30), and Synods of Bishops (897a, set of 1 issued 2005). 

The Vatican regularly joins with other countries to recognize major international observances.  Among the events so honored have been the World Refugee Year (275-80), the Malaria Eradication Campaign (326-29), International Peace Year (768-72), and the European Nature Conservation Year (980-87)

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JOINT ISSUES

The earliest Vatican joint issues were released as part of the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations’ Europa series.  Although the Vatican joined CEPT in 1963, it did not participate in the Europa series until 1969 (470-72) and 1993 (932-33); it has participated in the program every year since then.  The Europa stamps are now coordinated by PostEurop, who chose gastronomy as the common theme for 2005.  This posed a problem for the Vatican, which obviously does not have a distinctive national cuisine of its own.  The problem was solved by resorting to the immense holdings of the Vatican museums; the 2005 Europa stamps (set of 2) feature plated fish painted by Pablo Picasso.

The first joint issue that was not part of the Europa series was a 1998 stamp (1085) issued for the philatelic exhibition Italia '98; this was a joint issue with San Marino.  The 21st century has seen a sharp rise in the frequency and number of Vatican joint issues with other countries.  During the last years of the reign of Pope John Paul II, his native Poland especially released many stamps jointly with the Vatican.  In 2000 both countries issued a set of three stamps beautifully engraved by the great Czeslaw Slania for the pope’s 80th birthday (1153-55); in 2003 a sheet of 25 stamps and a silver-foil single (1237) for the 25th anniversary of his pontificate; and in 2004 a set of miniature sheets commemorating his many apostolic voyages to his homeland.  The high water mark thus far has been 2005, in which five of the eleven stamps series issued were joint issues with one or more countries.

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CONCLUSION & ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

The postal issues of the Holy See are among the most handsome in the world.  They chronicle the history of the Roman Church: from its origins as a persecuted Jewish sect; through its ascendancy during the medieval Age of Faith and its patronage of the greatest artists of the Renaissance; down to its present role as a force for peace and holiness in the modern world.  More than that, however, they carry to all corners of the Earth an extraordinary, universal message of faith, charity, beauty and tradition.  I hope that the stories, stamps, and history recounted in this article will inspire you to begin your own collection of these philatelic gems.

 

Also see the following PDF files:

 

Vatican City Through Its Stamps A brochure produced by the Vatican's Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico. [2.03 mb]

 

Vatican Philately: An Introduction A handout produced by the VPS for distribution at the Washington 2006 international show. [2.28 mb] 

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[1] All catalog numbers in this article are Scott. Originally written c. 1983, this article was revised and updated for posting on the web in 2006 by Daniel Piazza.

[2] Pre-1967 definitive series can be identified by the inclusion of special delivery stamps inscribed “Espresso.”  Significant exceptions are the wartime “Small Medallions” series, which did not include special delivery stamps.  Because of wartime shortages, remaining stock of the special delivery stamps from the “Gardens and Medallions” set continued on sale until 1946.