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Pontificate of John XXIII (1958-1963)

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100 lire Pope John XXIII Coat of Arms single

Blessed Pope John XXIII was intended to be a placeholder pope-a compromise candidate acceptable to both the conservative and liberal factions in the College of Cardinals because he would not 'rock the boat.' On the contrary, he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which instigated widespread reforms. One of the last stamp issues of his papacy was a 1962 set of eight commemorating the Council's opening.

In many ways, the other stamps of John XXIII's reign elaborated the themes established under Pius XII. In particular, the persecution of the church behind the Iron Curtain continued to figure prominently. A 1959 set of two stamps depicts Prince St. Casimir of Lithuania and the cathedral at Vilnius, then under the thumb of the Soviet regime. Other series approached the theme more obliquely, through references to historical persecutions; these include stamps showing saints martyred by the Roman emperor Valerian (1959); the flight of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph into Egypt to escape Herod's murderous rampage through Judea (1960); and the execution of St. Paul under the emperor Nero (1961). The 1961 set depicting Pope Saint Leo The Great can also been seen as an allegory of the Church's defiance of communism. In 1452, when the fearsome Attila the Hun threatened to invade Italy, Pope Leo went out to meet him and saved Rome from destruction by convincing Attila to turn back.

Daniel Piazza, National Postal Museum

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70 lire "The Adoration" single

Vatican commemoratives under John XXIII followed closely the precedents set by Pius XII. The most notable innovation was the introduction, in 1959, of annual Christmas stamps. For the first two years, these stamps reproduced paintings by old masters; beginning in 1961, artists around the world were commissioned to create original designs that depicted the classical Nativity scene in different cultural contexts. The 1961 issue featured a Chinese version by Luca Ch'en, 1962 brought an Indian setting designed by Marcus Topno, and 1963 saw a Japanese scene by Maria Theresa Kimiko Koseki.

Pope John XXIII's eightieth birthday was celebrated by a special commemorative issue in 1961, and this tradition has been observed for every pope since. Paul VI's eightieth birthday stamps were issued in 1978, John Paul II's in 2000, and Benedict XVI's in 2007.

The last stamp of John XXIII's reign was a commemorative marking his reception of the Balzan Prize for Peace and Brotherhood Among Peoples, just three weeks before his death from cancer on June 3, 1963.

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40 lire Burying the Dead single

John XXIII's short reign produced only one definitive series. It depicts the Corporal Works of Mercy, inspired by a frieze by Giovanni della Robbia located in the charity hospital at Pistoia. The pope himself tried to model these virtues. Two months after his 1958 coronation, he visited several hospitals and the prisoners of Regina Coeli in Trastavere, becoming the first bishop of Rome to make an official visit to his diocese in nearly ninety years.

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