vatican city
AP Photo/Luciano Del Castillo

Vatican City: Art, Lore and Christmas Celebrations

December 14, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Vatican City is the world’s smallest independent country and is ruled by the Pope, known as the Bishop of Rome. But Vatican City’s close proximity to Rome makes it almost synonymous with the “eternal city.” Learn more about the abundance of history, art and artifacts in Vatican City, which led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

History and Lore

The Official Vatican Web site is a great starting point for research on Vatican City. Learn about past Popes, and read about coats of arms, written letters and speeches, and information about each Pope’s travels. Explore the Vatican Library and museums online, including the Roman Curia—the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church. Photo galleries featuring Popes and important religious sites are also featured.

Where are the seven best places to pray in St. Peter’s Basilica? How does a couple get to be married in St. Peter’s? Find answers and a host of professional photos at the St. Peter’s Basilica Web site.

The Vatican Philatelic Society showcases the stamps, covers and postal history of the Vatican City State. Vatican stamps carry a unique allure, partly because of the institution’s “conservative issuing policy” of approximately one dozen annual “commemorative series,” typically with religious-themed or historical images.

Dan Brown’s recent bestselling novel, "Angels & Demons," is a thriller that takes place mostly within the walls of Vatican City, revealing historical facts and insights.

The Artistic Side of Vatican City

To get oriented with the layout of Vatican City, and discover the whereabouts of all that hidden, famous artwork, view the map of Vatican City from Pellegrino Cattolico.

In 2003, the Vatican Museums successfully created online versions of their art collections. Now you can study the Sistine Chapel ceiling without flying to Italy. According to CBS News, Vatican officials hope the site will use “the ‘universal language’ of art to spread Pope John Paul II’s message.” Each image of artwork is described and translated into five different languages, including French and Spanish.

One of Michelangelo’s greatest works was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. provides descriptions of the ceiling, which reveal biblical symbolism and artistic techniques employed by the great artist. Photographs of different parts of the ceiling are also available.

Il Papa

When Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, NPR Morning Edition did a special segment on the history and process of selecting a new pope. The segment features an interview with Greg Tobin, author of a book on the process of choosing a pope.

A group of cardinals, called a “conclave,” gather at the Sistine Chapel for the weeks-long selection process, according to Tobin. Their “sealed-in” process of determining the new pope requires that the cardinals are “cut off from the outside world,” and forbids them from using “technological devices.” The conclave debates “how a particular candidate or a regional candidate could impact the life and governance of the Church, going forward,” according to Tobin.

With the creation of the post-World War II Lateran Treaty, Vatican City was established as a sovereign state. A modern version of the Lateran Treaty was written in 1985, but the first Treaty of Lateran was written in 1929, and included three parts: the Treaty of Conciliation, the Financial Convention and the Concordat. Text of the Lateran Treaty and the modern amendment are available online.

Christmas in Vatican City

Vatican City comes alive at Christmastime, with special masses and gatherings in celebration of the birth of Christ. Typically, a midnight mass is held on Christmas Eve inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Christmas Day features an event at noon, when onlookers converge at St. Peter’s Square to listen to Benedict recite a holiday reading from his perch on the basilica’s central balcony. The schedule for this season's events has not yet been released. gives a rundown of Christmas happenings all over Italy. At Christmastime in St. Peter’s Square, a “big screen TV” is set up, allowing gathered crowds to see the midnight mass live. In addition, a massive Christmas tree and accompanying nativity scene are set up inside the square.

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