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Pontificate of John Paul II (1978-2005)

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50 lire Annunciation single

One of the shortest papacies in history-that of John Paul I-was followed by one of the longest. Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, former archbishop of Krakow, Poland, was elected by his brother cardinals on the eighth ballot of the conclave. Taking his predecessor's name, John Paul II was the youngest pope in more than a century and the first non-Italian since 1523. He served as Bishop of Rome for more than twenty-six years, a tenure surpassed only by Pius IX (thirty-one years) and Saint Peter himself (thirty-four years).

The philatelic program during John Paul II's reign was equally as eventful. Where previously one or two artists at a time tended to dominate Vatican stamp design, Poste Vaticane in the 'eighties and 'nineties employed a range of designers with different styles. Janos Hajnal fled to Italy from his native Hungary in 1948 to escape the Rakosi's Stalinist regime. A book illustrator and mosaic artist, he blended those two genres in his Vatican stamp designs. Luca Vangelli and Antonio Ciaburro, staff artists at the Italian State Printing Works (IPS), designed many of the issues printed by that firm. Irio Ottavio Fantini, a graphic designer for the Vatican's shortwave station, produced successful radio-themed stamps for the Vatican in 1981 and 1985. He went on to design dozens more, most of them portraits executed in watercolor.

Besides enlarging its stable of artists, Poste Vaticane expanded its circle of printing firms. Since 1929 the IPS had enjoyed a near-monopoly on the production of Vatican stamps; in the 1990s, contracts were awarded to the Austrian State Printing Works; Courvoisier of Switzerland; Cartor of France; and Enschede of the Netherlands, among others. Surface printing began to supplant line engraving (this shift occurred much later than in most other stamp-issuing countries), but a significant number of stamps continue to be printed by the traditional method.

In 2002, Vatican City abandoned the lira as its unit of currency in favor of the euro. (Although the Vatican does not belong to the European Union, it has adopted the euro through a special agreement negotiated with the EU.) In preparation for the transition, Vatican stamps issued during 2001 had their face value expressed in both euros and lire. All Vatican stamps issued since March 12, 2002, have been denominated solely in euros.

Daniel Piazza, National Postal Museum

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800 lire Evangelical Council single

Art was always a popular subject for the Vatican's commemorative stamps, probably because the Vatican possesses the finest collections in the world. During John Paul II's reign, however, pre-Christian art came to the fore with issues depicting Greek, Etruscan, and Roman vases and busts (1983), Roman mosaics (1987), and treasures of the Gregorian Egyptian Museum (1989). Similar subjects appeared for the 2000th birth anniversary of the Roman poet Virgil and Raphael's painting The School Of Athens, which depicts great ancient philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates.

The church's contributions to and uses of science were also explored philatelically for the first time. In this vein are issues celebrating the equipment and astronomers of the Vatican's famous observatory (1979 and 1991); shortwave radio (1981); Pope Gregory the Great's use of mathematics and astronomy to reform the calendar (1982); and Fr. Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian priest known as the father of genetic theory (1984).

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650 lire Asa single

For the first decade of his papacy, John Paul II's definitive series celebrated primarily his international travels. He quickly surpassed Paul VI as the most-traveled pope of all time, undertaking more than a hundred apostolic voyages outside Italy and flying more than 725,000 miles — three times the distance from the earth to the moon. One of his earliest foreign voyages was to his native Poland. John Paul II was the only pope from a formerly communist country, and his travels behind the Iron Curtain drew enormous crowds, helping coalesce opposition to Soviet domination. He also made more than a dozen visits to Africa, a continent that had been visited by a reigning pope only once before.

The last definitive series released during this time span was the 1991 set for the Sistine Chapel. The set shows details from the lunettes above the windows. Completed in 1984, these were the first of the chapel's features restored, and these stamps picture the lunettes in their newly revealed colors.

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500 lire "Creation of Adam" single

John Paul II's world travels continued to be commemorated on stamps right up until his death. During the second half of his papacy, his voyages were targeted at bolstering the emerging church in the former Eastern Bloc and improving relations between Catholics and other world religions. In the Holy Land, for example, he became the first pope to pray at the Western Wall and visited Mount Sinai to pray with the heads of the Coptic and Greek Orthodox faiths (2000, stamps issued 2001).

In 1993, the Vatican began participating in the annual Europa stamp program, inaugurated in 1960 by the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunication Administrations (CEPT). The Vatican joined CEPT in 1963 and participated in the Europa issue of 1969, but abstained in future years on the grounds that the subjects chosen by CEPT were too political. Once PostEurop took over the program in 1993 and changed its focus to culture, however, Vatican City began issuing Europa stamps annually.

Two other themes resurfaced regularly. The first was the Sistine Chapel, which emerged from a two-decade-long restoration in 1999. Stamps depicting different stages of the restoration were issued in 1991, 1994, 2000, 2001, and 2002. The second was the approach of the Holy Year 2000, which was heralded with two different, long-running series. The first, which lasted from 1995 to 1999, featured four stamps per year depicting historiated initials and illuminations from medieval codices. The other, which ran from 1998 to 2000, featured the portraits and coats of arms of every pope who has proclaimed a Holy Year observance since the first in 1300.

The pope's eightieth birthday was celebrated in 2000 by a Vatican joint issue with his native Poland. The stamps were engraved by Czeslaw Slania, a fellow Pole widely recognized as the world's foremost stamp designer and engraver. Slania engraved two other commemorative issues for the Vatican before his death on March 17, 2005.

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350 lire St. Mary Major's Basilica single

The international voyages of John Paul II, a popular subject of the definitive stamps in the first half of his pontificate, were replaced in the second half by series featuring art and architecture. A change in currency from the lira to the euro occasioned the release in 2002 of the Vatican's first euro-denominated definitives, showing ten different images of Mary from paintings in St. Peter's Basilica. The euro was again featured in a 2004 definitive series, depicting the national flags and one-euro coins of all fifteen countries that had adopted the currency to that point.

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