The following commentary is from the EWTN series, The Papacy: A Living History, The Papal Artifacts Collection of Father Richard Kunst. This very rare artifact, a matrix that shouldn’t exist, was featured on Episode 5 of the series, Popes of the 17th Century and Earlier.
Here is Father’s Commentary:
The item presented here is an item that shouldn’t exist. It is one of two items I own that should not exist, a very rare matrix. When we talk about papal bulls, and we’ve talked about papal bulls, basically the word comes from the Latin, “bulle”, meaning, “bubble”, which was the lead seal, the process of making a lead seal that would seal a document of the pope’s.
Papal bulls were traditionally not signed. And they had these little lead seals hanging from the parchment document. On one side of the seal would be an image of Saints Peter and Paul, their faces, and on the other side would be the pope’s name. And that acted as his signature.
For a thousand years, maybe a little more, the papal bulls have been used, and their seals have always been consistently identical. With one exception: Pope Paul II, who was Pope from 1464-1471. He changed the seal during his pontificate.
Talk about a man who was really self-assured. I mean he was pretty comfortable in his own skin, very confident. He totally changed the matrix. That is, he totally changed the papal ‘bulla’, that little lead seal that authenticated the document. What he did instead of taking just the face of Saints Peter and Paul, was he used an image of their whole bodies.
Then, on the other side, he put his picture and then wrote his name. And so that only lasted for the years that he was pope, and of course the next pope went back to the traditional image. They said, “Pope Paul was crazy. We’ll just go back to the traditional matrix.”
But because they’re so old these bullas don’t always stay attached to the parchment; they will fall off, and people will buy them and sell them independent of the document to which they were attached. And the papal bull from Paul II is exceedingly rare, because it’s so unique, and this is actually one side of the matrix that made it. This is the side of Saints Peter’s and Paul’s full profiles.
Again this should have been destroyed upon the Pope’s death. The mere fact that it wasn’t destroyed, and also, that when you add the fact that in the 1000 plus years of history of papal bulls, this is the only one that was changed so uniquely, that makes this an incredibly unique matrix.
The brass seal, the brass matrix, would have been on something like pliers, and they would have molten lead and hold it tightly to make the little seal.
So this is one side of the matrix, the side that has Saints Peter and Paul in full profile. It doesn’t have Pope Paul’s name anywhere, but we know this is from his pontificate, because it has the full bodies of Peter and Paul. We also know because no other popes used this particular matrix.
Again, this is one of those items that when I walk through the Vatican museums, I look at some of their things, and as awesome as those things are, there’s nothing that compares with this, because this shouldn’t exist. Not only should it not exist but also it’s just so unique and is a part of this Collection. But the fact that it is in existence and is outside of the Vatican makes it as rare as an item can possibly get.
Among all the items in the Papal Artifacts’ Collection, this is the rarest one. It is a device called a matrix that made the reverse side of bulls, (the lead seals), during the papacy of Pope Paul II. Bulls are legal documents that contain official church business. The bulla, or lead seal counts as the signature of the pope. They hang from either twine or silk, depending upon the importance of the document which is made of some type of parchment.
Matrices are destroyed when popes die so they can no longer be used. The authority of the pope has ceased and so the matrices are destroyed. The Church has been using papal bulls for over a thousand years and during that time, they have never changed. One side is always the profiles of Saints Peter and Paul and the other side always has the name of the pope who has issued it.
Only one pope has ever changed the appearance of the matrix and that was Pope Paul II. Instead of the profiles of Saints Peter and Paul, his matrix shows not just their faces but full profiles of them. On the other side, in addition to his name there is also the pope’s image. It is the only time in papal history that this has been done. After he died, the traditional way of making papal bulls was resumed by Pope Sixtus IV.
In the field of collecting papal bulls and seals, this is the rarest one to find and the hardest one to purchase. Father Kunst believes this is the rarest item outside of the Vatican Museum. In fact, there are not too many artifacts in the Vatican Museum that could compare with the rarity of this matrix.
The handle of the matrix is not original. At a later date a wooden handle was added.
In the past, as well as today, the two brass matrices for making each side of the lead seal would be put between two vice grips and warm lead would be squeezed together to form the image. It would then be cooled and hardened and would be ready for use.
The matrix is truly an incredible addition to the Collection.