The menorah: History and mysteries on display in the Vatican

The Braccio di Carlo Magno museum, next to the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, is a rather unusual place for an exhibit on the Jewish menorah. “La Menorà: culto, storia e mito” (“The Menorah: Worship, History and Myth”) marks the first major collaboration between the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome on an exhibit and runs from May 16 to July 23.

The collection

The collection contains a vast array of pieces, all connected by their use of the menorah as a symbol. According to Alessandra Di Castro, director of the Jewish Museum of Rome, “Menorah is the most ancient identity-symbol of the Jewish people, and as such has been recognized by the Christian world since about the fourth century A.D.”

In fact, the menorah has been depicted in myriad places and for every occasion, from the East to the West: Jewish catacombs in Rome, sarcophagi, tomb inscriptions, graffiti, coins, glass decorated with gold, necklaces, pendants and other jewelry. And the story of this symbol only grew richer and more fascinating beginning in the Carolingian period, when Christian art began to appropriate the menorah as a religious symbol.

All these facts are illustrated through 130 works displayed in chronological sequence: sculptures, paintings, manuscripts and liturgical furnishings provided by many prestigious Italian and foreign museums. These include the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Israel Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Sephardic Museum of Toledo, the Jewish Museums of Padua, Florence, Naples and others.

There are extremely rare Roman glass artifacts decorated in gold, the Carolingian Bible of St. Paul, the magnificent Christian seven-branch candelabra from the Sanctuary of the Mentorella and Roman Baroque silverware and paintings by such masters as Giulio Romano, Andrea Sacchi, Nicolas Poussin and Marc Chagall.

In short, the only menorah missing is the original one, but its recovery is unlikely. From the barbarian invasions forward, no reliable accounts of the Temple Menorah exist, only legends, which are more or less fanciful.

The Temple Menorah

The Book of Exodus claims the design for the original seven-branched candelabrum was given to Moses by God. Moses was said to have forged the Temple Menorah that was held in the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. The future emperor Titus brought the Temple Menorah to Rome in A.D. 71 after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish War, the last confirmed movement of the Temple Menorah.

“Where is the Menorah? We do not know!” Francesco Leone, the art historian who prepared the exhibit catalog, admitted. “We know it was in Rome at least until the second century after Christ, then there the story melts away. Was it raided by Alaric’s Visigoths, during the Sack of Rome of 410? Or perhaps by the Genserico’s Vandals in 455? And every legend generated other chains of legends.”

For example, one legend maintains that Alaric left Rome heading south, but suddenly died near Cosenza, Calabria, and was buried in the Busento River valley with all the treasures raided in Rome, including the Temple Menorah.

According to a second legend, Gaiseric brought the Menorah to Carthage, capital of the Vandals’ kingdom. When Byzantine Belisario in 533 conquered Carthage, the Menorah was taken to Constantinople. “But a Jew of the court advised the Emperor Justinian to not keep it with him, since the Menorah brought bad luck,” Leone said. “Therefore, the Menorah was sent back to Jerusalem, no longer in the temple but in a Christian building.”

According to a third legend, the Menorah is supposedly still in Rome. In St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome, an inscription dating back to the late 13th century attests that the Temple Menorah is buried beneath the altar, but excavations have proven this myth false. Another widespread rumor is that the Menorah is at the bottom of the Tiber River.

One of the most popular legends, however, is that the Vatican secretly holds the Temple Menorah. “We have exposed so many menorahs on purpose, in order to make sure that we don’t have other ones in the Vatican,” joked Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums.

“We want to dispel this legend and to kid a little on it, too!”

Leone noted that the Temple Menorah was made of 77 pounds of pure gold, so “the destruction of the menorah is certainly not documented. But it is unthinkable that such a product has crossed the long and controversial Middle Ages without being destroyed. We know that the barbarians destroyed the bronze statues of the Colosseum, we know that treasures and precious materials were torn down and taken away, or melted, and unfortunately this had to happen to this mythical artifact as well.”

Collaboration through art

What is certain is that art can be a powerful vehicle for dialogue between religions, as evidenced by “La Menorà: culto, storia e mito.” “It was a great collaboration, this one established between the Vatican Museums and the Jewish community, not only Roman, but international,” said Jatta. “And then this is an extraordinary journey throughout the the menorah’s iconography through history, with a mix of Jewish and Christian symbologies that is just the main motif of the show.”

Can this interreligious collaboration be repeated with other cultural institutions or other religions?

“We have been doing it for several years now, working on exhibitions in countries of different cultures and religions,” Jatta noted. “With Judaism in particular, a very leapable bridge was built, so why not?”

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After two millennia of tormented relations, a very solid bridge has formed between Jews and Christians in the decades since the Second Vatican Council.

“Yes, but the most solid friendships often arise after long collaborations, from deep gestations,” says Di Castro. The Jewish Museum of Rome, located in the underground premises of the great synagogue of Rome, hosts 10 works among the 130 of “La Menorà: culto, storia e mito.” It is, according to Di Castro, a demonstration “of the strong bond established.”

Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.