Slated to open on May 15 and running until July 23, 2017, “Menorah: Worship, History, Legend” is the result of the groundbreaking curatorial partnership forged by the Vatican Museums in St. Peter’s Square and the Jewish Museum, situated in the city’s main synagogue. More than three years in preparation, the show will be equally shared between the two venues, where visitors can come to see more than 130 artworks and artifacts.
Examining the history of the menorah—the Hebrew term for a seven branch candelabra—and its symbolism and iconography (important to both the Christian and Jewish faiths), the display will focus on its legendary prototype, the solid gold menorah, famously depicted on the Arch of Titus, which was removed from the Temple of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 70 CE. This monumental treasure of a conquered people was shown in Rome at a time when it impacted Christianity’s developing visual vocabulary. In 455 CE, pagan troops invaded and looted the city of its trophies, including the menorah, which then disappeared. The mystery surrounding its subsequent fate has fascinated scholars, who formulated both credible and fantastic theories concerning its whereabouts during the ensuing centuries. In Judaism, the specificity of what had adorned the temple gradually became simplified, and this image was used to represent that which was ineffable, like the emanation of divine light. The seemingly omnipresent motif appears in the murals which decorated sanctuaries, marked the tombstones of the deceased, embellished coins and other utilitarian objects, as well as in painting, sculpture, sacred manuscripts and books, Judaica and graphic works. Within the sphere of Christian worship, the menorah was employed as a liturgical object used during the rituals held in many churches and cathedrals, including those in Milan, Prato, Pistoia and other places.
The collaboration between the two institutions represents a milestone in relations between Catholic and Jewish peoples, first bridged in 1965 with Pope John XXIII’s issuing of the encyclical “Nostra Aetate (In Our Time),” a letter which both condemned all forms of religious prejudice, including anti-Semitism and exhorted the faithful to recognize that “The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant.” While the next popes, Paul, John Paul, Benedict and Francis, continued to advance inroads in ecumenical interaction during their reigns. The “Menorah project will finally transform longstanding dialogue into something concrete,” noted Ruth Dureghello, president of Rome’s Jewish community, during a public announcement about the initiative, where the dais was shared by notables of both religions, including among others, the city’s chief rabbi, Dr. Riccardo Di Segni, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations.
Coinciding with the public announcement about Rome’s Menorah exhibit was the revelation about a dig that was occurring in the city as part of a 6-year project involving the restoration of the Palazzo Leonori, in a section of the Trastevere neighborhood. The examination of historic maps of a section of the excavated ground near the Tiber River identified the site as that of the Campus Iudeorum or Field of Jews, a graveyard in use from 1363 until 1645, when the cemetery, but not the interred, was moved and new city walls were on top of the bodies. These nearly 300 years encompasses the period after 1555, when the anti-Semitic Pope Paul IV confined the community to a disease-ridden ghetto. Iin 1625, Pope Urban vented his wrath on the Jewish dead, destroying existing headstones, while new graves were ordered to be left unmarked. The archeologists working on the site unearthed wood fragments—coffin remnants—and, in the perimeters of the dug graves, 38 well-preserved adult skeletons, including two women with gold rings on their fingers and one man buried with a set of iron scales, perhaps to indicate his profession or to underscore his reputation as a just person. Confirming the information gleaned from the maps, these findings provided proof that this was a burial ground, further evidenced by stone shards bearing the Hebrew inscription “Here Lies.”
Daniela Rossi, the supervising archaeologist of the dig, said that tests on the bones showed signs of malnutrition indicating the consumption of the low protein diet common to the Roman poor. It was announced by Claudio Procaccia, the director of the Culture Department for the Jewish Community of Rome, that all the skeletons were removed for burial in accordance with Jewish law.