The Vatican and the Jewish Museum in Rome present The Menorah: Worship, History and Myth
The Menorah: Worship, History and Myth, a major exhibition jointly produced by, and on display at, both the Vatican Museum and the Museo Ebraico (the Jewish Museum in Rome), provides dramatic images of the Temple Menorah, looted in 70 C.E. by Roman general, and eventual emperor, Titus, from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. The images collected from 2,000 years of art and archaeology, and from numerous museums and collections worldwide, are carved in stone, impressed on coins, assembled piece by piece in mosaics, painted on canvas, and inscribed in books. The exhibit runs from May 15 to July 23, 2017.
Each of the over 130 images and objects in the exhibit is a vivid memory of the seven-branched Temple Menorah. The exhibit includes paintings by Poussin, Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, among others. On display are numerous Jewish and Christian ceremonial objects, including two monumental baroque silver menorot from the Cathedral of Majorca. There are funerary inscriptions, illuminated manuscripts and Kabbalistic drawings of menorot created from the words of Psalm 67. There is even a bronze gladiatorial helmet (see below) emblazoned with a seven-branched palmetto and sporting a cheek piece engraved with a five-petaled rosette known from late Second Temple ossuaries discovered in Jerusalem. The helmet was displayed in the Museo Ebraico with the intriguing, if not wholly persuasive, suggestion that its owner was a Jewish captive taken to Rome along with the Temple Menorah by Titus in 70 C.E.
However, if each of these objects recalls a memory of the Temple Menorah, they are nonetheless only memories. The subject of the exhibit, the actual Menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem, is long gone and surely not to be seen. And that, to some extent, is the point of the exhibit. The Menorah itself, once an object of solid gold, produced according to instructions delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai, has become an idea shared by two faiths. In this historic exhibit, those two faiths have chosen to cooperate and, together, focus on how each has remembered that shared symbol.
As the curators of the exhibit, Arnold Nesselrath, Alessandra Di Castro and Franceso Leone, have stated, a single ticket provides entry to both museums and serves as a single metaphorical key to “two diverse yet complementary worlds.” Consequently, the enthusiastic cooperation between the Jewish community and the Vatican is pointedly on display, as well as the objects.
However, the diverse worlds of Judaism and Christianity were, in the past, often at odds with one another. For Jews, the Temple Menorah, depicted as booty captured from a desolated Jerusalem in a frieze on the interior of the Arch of Titus, was a bittersweet symbol of despair, mitigated by a hope for future redemption. For Catholics, the same frieze depicts the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13:1–21, and, therefore, proof of the Church’s triumphant message. The contrast between these two visions is also, and rightly, the subject of this remarkable exhibit.
A visitor may enter the exhibit in each of the two museums, the Braccio Di Carlo Magno in the Vatican and the Museo Ebraico di Roma in the Great Synagogue on the edge of what was, from 1555 to 1870, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. Given the amount of available exhibition space at each museum, the majority of the exhibited objects and images are at the Vatican Museum. A small number of objects are shown at the Museo Ebraico. That said, significant objects were found in both museums.
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As one enters the Vatican portion of the exhibit, the first object displayed is the Magdala Stone, on the front of which is carved a menorah standing on a pedestal. The stone was excavated in the town of Magdala in Israel and was found in situ in a synagogue. Dated from the mid-first century B.C.E. through the mid-first century C.E., the Magdala Stone bears perhaps the oldest depiction of the Menorah from the Land of Israel and is also a depiction of the Menorah while it was still standing in the Second Temple.
As one enters the exhibit in the Museo Ebraico, the first object on display is a cast of the Tabula Magna Lateranensis, an inscription in mosaic tiles housed in the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano and visible today on the left of the entrance of the sacristy. The basilica is the cathedral of Rome where, until 1870, popes were crowned. The Tabula Magna is a 37-line Latin inscription from the time of Pope Nicholas IV (1288–1292) listing the treasure kept in the cathedral of Rome and in the nearby chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum. Among the treasures listed is the Temple Menorah, which, the inscription says, is the one pictured on the Arch of Titus. Despite this attestation that the Menorah had been kept in Rome as a treasure as late as the mid-13th century C.E., it is thoroughly unlikely that such was the case. The Tabula Magna also lists as the basilica’s treasures Christ’s cloak, John the Baptist’s raiment of camel’s hair, the Ark of the Covenant and the two Tables of the Law. The Tabula Magna is an artifact of a time obsessed with holy relics, and it testifies only to a legend concerning the Menorah propagated for the glory of its surrounding basilica.
Not stated in the exhibit, but surely there as a subtext, is the argument that not only is the Tabula Magna a legend, but so is the persistent, yet false, modern notion that the Temple Menorah is being held secretly somewhere in the basement of the Vatican.
To further punctuate that argument, a visitor to the exhibit may look no further than a triangular stone grave marker with a carving of the Menorah in the center. The grave marker was found in 2002 beneath a pile of stone inscriptions, in the garden of the Great Synagogue. Yet it is on display in the Vatican portion of the exhibit. On the reverse of the grave marker is an inscription in both Latin and Hebrew, stating that beneath the marker lie three “brothers of the Jewish faith” who had discovered the Temple Menorah along with the Ark of the Covenant at the bottom of the Tiber River in Rome. The inscription goes on to say that the brothers were beheaded by Emperor Honorius and that the holy objects remain in the river.
The dates of Emperor Honorius’s reign, 395–423 C.E., would appear to date the grave marker. However, it is an obvious fraud. Like the Tabula Magna, it mentions the ark, which was never taken to Rome. More importantly, a chemical analysis of its patina indicates it was created at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century. It is testimony not to any events in the fifth century C.E. but to the enduring legend of the Menorah.
Ironically, it is this fraud that gave rise to the present exhibit. In a meeting at the Museo Ebraico with the Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican in 2013, the fake gravestone reminded the participants that the Menorah, as a symbol, had a life of its own that spanned Judaism and Christianity. Although there had been two earlier exhibits, one in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1998, The Light of the Menorah: Story of a Symbol, and the other at the Museo Ebraico in 2008, From Jerusalem to Rome and Back: The Journey of the Menorah from Fact to Myth, it was agreed that the participation of the Vatican Museum would finally put to rest any lingering misconceptions that the Menorah was still in Rome. And, of course, the Vatican, with its own vast collection and resources, would make this exhibit a special event. Given the stunning beauty of the objects in the exhibit and their careful and authoritative presentation, that expectation has been achieved.
In addition, the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish catalog that includes exhaustive documentation as well as 14 scholarly articles by the curators of the exhibit and several other experts.
Last year, Steven Fine published a superb book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016). The exhibit and its catalog are equally intelligent and enlightening. Together, the book, the exhibit and the catalog cap a year of exceptional scholarly effort to make the meaning and history of the Menorah accessible to all who have an interest in the Bible or the Jewish and Christian traditions.
1. “And when he came out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.’”
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