Famous Religious Leaders and Their Spectacles

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This is adapted mostly from the work of Nicoletta e Maurizio Pallone.
All photographs are courtesy of Maurizio Pallone.

“It is clear that the Catholic Church, via its educated and industrious monks, played a significant part in the fabrication of vision aids and their dissemination throughout the world. Had it not been for missionaries, man might have waited several hundred more years for this marvelous invention which has helped man in intellectual pursuit and to better toil in trades requiring near vision.”

From “Vision Aids in History”, Muth

Slide Show of Other Representations of Religious Figures

ST. PHILIP NERI (1515-1595)


Philip Neri was born in 1515 in Florence from a well-off family. He was educated in the Dominican monastery of St Marco. At the age of seventeen he was sent to the care of a cousin in Cassino to become a merchant. But he had a preference for Montecassino and Monte Spaccato monks. In 1534, still doubtful of his true vocation, he went to Rome. At first Philip was looking only for solitude and penitence; he spent all his time praying in churches and catacombs (discovered at that time) or visiting the sick. Only in 1551 did he take holy orders. He was then, through the Oratory’s institution, the true apostle of Rome, the comforter of the sick and of the dying, mendicant for the poor, humble teacher of the child, simple and persuasive predicate, spiritual director of consciences, loved and appreciated by the aristocratic and the plebeian, by the rich and the poor, by the child and the old man. In 1575 the Pope Gregorio XIII gave him charge of the old and decrepit Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, which was fully renovated by him and his followers to be the seat of Congregation of Oratory’s Fathers. In 1595 he died in Rome. In 1662 he was proclaimed “Saint” by Pope Gregorio XV.

The Spectacles and the Case

In the Memory Rooms of Capitular Church Chiesa of Santa Maria in Vallicella, in Rome, Chiesa Nuova Square, many relics of the Saint are kept. There are also some spectacles and a case. It is possible to see them and to take photos but only from the outside windows. Therefore the following description is not the result of direct contact but instead is a somewhat distant impression.

On the sides of a Reliquary (photo 1) there are two niches. The one on the left holds a pair of arc spectacles (photo 2) made of leather and a label (photo 3) which says, “Hisce conspicillis diu usus e S.Philip Nerius dum praesertim Sacrum faceret .etc. St Philip Neri usually used for a long time those spectacles particularly when saying Mass.” We can suppose that for the specific use they allowed St Philip to read the missal at a certain distance, higher than the one of normal reading (nowadays in Italy one calls them “music spectacles” because they help the presbyopic pianist read the score on piano’s music stand). They are still in a good state, but one of the lenses is broken.

Probably in the middle of the arc, a pontifical badge (two crossed keys) could be impressed. In that period, normally, this badge was impressed on spectacles used by any Priest of Roman liturgy. The right niche holds a pair of arc spectacles made of metal (photo 4). Probably they were used by St Philip for the normal reading or for replacement of weaker ones. They are still in good state. The distance between the lenses is very small, so wearing them was really a “penitence”. In a glass reliquary (photo 5), with other relics, a pair of arc spectacles and a case are stored. The spectacles (photo 6), seen the colour, could be made of whalebone. They are not in a good state and some parts are missing. They are on a tablet with the label “St Philip Neri’s spectacles”. On the tablet there is also a lens without a frame. On the left side there is a leather case (photo 6) on which religious stages are embossed. The case is very thick, probably for two (or more) spectacles. On the leather of case and cap there are some round loops (photo 7) for a string (not present) in order to hang the case from the belt. Opening the cap was also impossible to loosen it. The case is still in a good state. On it there is a label “St Philip’s spectacles case”. 



Giuseppe Calasanzio was born in 1557 in Peralta, Spain. In 1583 he took holy orders. In 1592 he went to Rome to become a canonical. Visiting the Rome districts he was struck by the need of education for the poor children. With very poor financial resources he established in 1597 at St. Dorotea Church in Trastevere (a popular Rome district) the first school free of charge, called “Scuole Pie”. (He thus became the Creator and Inventor of the first popular elementary school for the poor children in the world in 1597). In 1517 he founded the Congregation of “Chierici Regolari Poveri della Madre di Dio delle Scuole Pie (The Scolopis Order)”. Shortly after, the Order spread rapidly all over in Europe. Now-a-days the Order is in 20 Countries and 4 Continents. In 1648 he died in Rome. He was proclaimed:

  • in 1748 “Blessed Soul” by Pope Benedetto XIV.
  • in 1767 canonized “Saint” by Pope Clemente XIII
  • in 1948 “Patron Saint of world popular catholic schools” by Pope Pio XII.

He was a priest, teacher, patron saint of Roman Catholic schools, and founder of the Ordo Clericorum Regularium Pauperum Matris Dei Scholarum Piarum (Order of Poor Clerks Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools), popularly called Piarists.

The Spectacles

(Originally discovered in this small Church in Rome by Prof. Vincent Ilardi)

In the “Relichie Rooms” of house of San Pantaleo, Rome – Piazza de’ Massimi 4, many objects of the Saint are preserved. There are also the remnants of two arc spectacles (photo 1). Those spectacles were listed in the inventory made after his death and confirmed in 1668 inventory “Occhiale da naso paia due con gli ossi rotti, uno dei quali ha perso un cristallo. Nose spectacles pair two with broken bones, one of which has lost a crystal.” The form arc spectacles are probably made of whalebone. As said, part of the frame and a lens are missing (photo 2). The latter spectacles have only original lenses. In an article of Padre Claudio Vilà Palà published on 1984 in “Ephemeredis Calasanctianae” it is explained that those lenses were put in a modern frame to preserve them. The remnants of the frame are on the same plate (photo 3).

The Eye Miracles

St. Calasanzio performed two miracles reinserting in the head of a child an eye enucleated because of a game accident (photo 4) and restoring sight to a blind young girl (photo 5). Pictures are from Josè Gabriel Segrelles (1885/1969).


Crispino da Viterbo (1668-1750) When the objects tell …….. Looking around in an antique shop in Rome, an unusual wooden and silver reliquary was located. On the frame there is an armorial bearing with two arms surmounted by a cross (photo 1). Inside there are a pair of arc spectacles and a label, similar to a shell, with the following inscription (photo 2): Vitra Ocularia B.Crispini Cap.Conf. On the reverse (photo 3), the reliquary is sealed with a red string and two sealing waxes with the same armorial bearings of the other side (photo 4). Thanks to these armorial bearings it was possible to know that the reliquary was made for the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor Capuchins. After getting in touch with the Prior of one of capuchin monastery in Rome – Via Veneto, at the Church of “Immacolata Concezione”, it was learned that the inscription can be explained as : Vitra Ocularia B(eati) Crispini Cap(puccinorum) Conf(essoris) Glass Spectacles of the Blessed Crispin Capuchin and Confessor of the Faith. At the monastery we found also his hagiography: The owner of spectacles, named Pietro FIORETTI, was born on November 13th 1668 in Viterbo (north of Rome). In his early youth, he worked as a shoemaker in his town. In 1693 he took the capuchin habit in the novitiate of Palanzana (near Viterbo) and chose the name of Crispin, the name of the patron saint of shoemakers (St. Crispin, persecuted and martyred during the reign of Diocleziano – the same of Shakespeare’ Enry V – act four, scene three).

He passed most part of his life in the capuchin monastery of Orvieto, where he begged from the people the necessary for him and his brothers, offering in change prayers and visits to sick persons. Despite being very humble, he was the spiritual advisor of important prelates of his times, including the Pope Clemente XI. In 1748 he was sent to the monastery of the church of “Immacolata Concezione” in Rome, where he died on May 19th 1750. On September 1806 he was proclaimed “Blessed Soul” by Pope Pio VII. On June 1982 he was proclaimed “Saint” by Pope Giovanni Paolo II.

The Arc Spectacles

Very probably they were used by St Crispin from Viterbo when he was very old (1720-1750). According to the model and considered the extreme poverty of the order of Capuchins, they could have been used before by elder friars. When he died, probably in the order of sanctity, the spectacles were closed in the reliquary, made according to the style of the time (Louis XIV). Only in 1806, when he was proclaimed “Blessed Soul”, the label with the inscription was put inside and the reliquary was sealed with a string and sealing waxes with the armorial bearings of Capuchins. At the monastery in Rome there are other reliquaries with the same sealing and with the same armorial bearings. The reverse of the reliquary, the string and the sealing waxes, probably ruined initially, were replaced last century, but armorial bearings are just the same as the ones in the monastery. Having not disturbed the sealing waxes, thus no operation has been made inside the reliquary. Photo 5 is a copy of an eighteenth-century engraving of, at that time, “Blessed Soul” Crispino from Viterbo.

It’s a pity, because he’s not wearing his spectacles!

Hopefully original examples of early spectacles like the ones shown above still exist in the storerooms of the Vatican Museum in Rome. The actual pictures and details of these hidden ‘treasures’ would be wonderful to share with all the interested people from around the world who visit our educational website. Everyone will benefit from any historic discovery made at this world-renowned religious institution.


Montelparo’s polyptych represents the Virgin’s coronation, Pietà, Angels and Saints (photo 1). It was made in 1466 by Giovanni di Stefano from Montelparo carver (XV century) and Niccolò di Liberatore called Alunno painter (Foligno 1430/Perugia 1502).

The polyptych adorned the high altar of St Angel in Montelparo but in 1844 was purchased by Pope Gregorio XVI and exhibited in Laterano’s picture-gallery. Nowadays it is in the picture-gallery of the Vatican Museum. The polyptych measures 280x266 cm. The style is flowery gothic with some elements of Italian Renaissance to put in evidence central paintings regarding the Virgin’s coronation and Pietà.

There are also 77 paintings of Angels and Saints:

  • 21 in the upper part
  • 11 in the central part
  • 18 in the sides
  • 27 in the altar step.

The altar step presents a double sequence of little gothic niches with trilobated small arches, divided by spiral columns. The niches of the upper part number 13:

  • 3 in the center – 17, 21x1, 5 cm.
  • 10 in the sides - 17, 17x1, 1 cm.

The very central niche is missing. All the others represent an individual apostle, whose name is written inside. The apostles of the central niches and the ones in the third niche from the left-center who wear arc spectacles:

  • Philip (photo 2)
  • James (photo 3)
  • Matthew (photo 4).

This polyptych is also featured on the Vatican Museum's website.

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