The following commentary is from the EWTN series, The Papacy: A Living History, The Papal Artifacts Collection of Father Richard Kunst. This very interesting item was featured on the fourth episode of the series, Popes of the 19th & 18th Centuries.
A DVD of the entire series is available through EWTN.
Here is Father’s commentary from that episode:
Leo XIII’s reign as Pope spanned the 19th and 20th centuries since he reigned from 1878-1903.
This item was used at liturgies. I don’t know its official name, but we have always referred to it as simply a page-turner. In olden days, the Roman missal wasn’t made of paper, but of parchment. The more you touched parchment with you bare hands, the more it could actually corrode the pages. And so what they used to do was to make these items that would turn the pages so you didn’t have to touch them. So they would just go and turn the pages with a page-turner. This one is from the pontificate of Leo XIII.
It is hand-carved ivory and a very delicate and precious item that is intricate in its carving. It has an image of a snake eating a rabbit. We can imagine Pope Leo taking it, or maybe his assistant taking it, and turning the pages of his missal during Mass.
The page-turner is in its original red case, which, again, always adds a certain amount of importance and rarity to the item. It has the papal coat of arms on the cover, the cross keys and tiara, in porcelain and gold metal. It is about fourteen inches long.
The item is not only rare and educational in that it surrounds the Eucharist, in terms of how liturgy was celebrated in the past, but also, because of its function it reveals the type of paper used for books in the past. In this case we are speaking of the use of parchment, which was derived from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. And since it is very reactive to changes in temperature and humidity all care was taken not to touch the parchment. So page-turners were the solution.
Each pope has his own coat of arms that really acts as his signature. On this artifact we have Pope Leo XIII’s, and his has a very tall pine tree with a star shooting above it and two flowers on the bottom. What is the origin of that coat of arms? It probably has something to do with his family or his birthplace, which was near Carpineto, about 40 kilometers from Rome.
In Rome you see different coats of arms all throughout the city on all the buildings. They’re really the imprint of the various popes and are saying, “This is what I built.”
Even documents on a regular basis display a particular pope’s coat of arms.