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Pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958)

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5c Arms of Pope Pius XII single

Pius XII's pontificate was the most troubled of the twentieth century, spanning as it did the Second World War, the rebuilding of Europe, and the early years of the Cold War. The war years saw very few stamp issues, owing to the curtailment of postal services and severe shortages of paper. Those stamps that were printed saw widespread use on mail emanating from the Vatican Office of Information, a worldwide communications network that helped families locate relatives who were being held as detainees or prisoners of war.

Following the war, inflation and the widespread use of airmail led to an increase in the number of stamps issued. Many of them bore designs heavily influenced by world political events, especially the Cold War.

Daniel Piazza, National Postal Museum

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80c Raphael Sanzio single

The commemorative issues of Pius XII's reign are remarkably uniform in their subject matter. With very few exceptions, they celebrate the anniversaries of important dates in church history; the birth, death, and canonization of saints; and religious observances such as the 1950 Holy Year and the 1954 Marian Year. Most of them are monochrome or bicolor (multicolor printing techniques were not regularly employed on Vatican stamps until the 1970s).

During the 1950s, however, some of the Vatican's commemoratives took on a distinctly political character. Three series honoring miraculous images of the Virgin Mary depicted sites behind the Iron Curtain. The 1954 series marking the end of the Marian Year illustrated the famed Madonna of Ostra Brama in Vilnius, Lithuania; a 1956 set showed the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland; and a 1957 issue celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Mariazell Basilica, home of the statue of Mary known as the 'Great Mother of Austria.' All three of these stamp issues called attention to the persecution of Catholics in Eastern Europe and reflected Pius XII's belief that the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, would protect and save the church in Eastern Europe. They were designed by Casimira Dabrowska (1890-1972), an expatriate Polish artist.

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3 lire Basilica of St. Clement single

The reign of Pius XII produced a plethora of definitives due to the runaway inflation that gripped postwar Italy. Ordinary postage series were issued in 1945, 1946, 1949, and 1953. The face value of these sets (exclusive of special delivery stamps) rose more than 1200 percent, from 30.85 lire in 1945 to 380 lire in 1953.

The Council of Trent stamps, issued on February 12, 1946, are often classed both as definitives and commemoratives. Despite the fact that they were printed during a severe shortage of paper, ink, and skilled press operators, they are often regarded as the most beautiful Vatican series of all time.

The last of Pius XII's definitives, the Builder-Popes of St. Peter's definitive set released on April 23, 1953, was also the last issue designed by the incomparable Professor Corrado Mezzana. An accomplished painter and member of the Pontifical Academy of Arts and Letters, Mezzana's first work for the Vatican was the 1935 Juridical Congress issue. From then until his death on September 15, 1952, he designed nearly every Vatican stamp issued-an eighteen-year monopoly that no other artist has ever enjoyed. Mezzana's designs, as executed by the engravers of the Italian State Printing Works, are masterpieces of modern stamp art.

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