ITALICS Vatican and Rome’s Jewish Museum Team Up for Menorah Exhibit

italicsBy Elisabetta Povoledo*

This much is known: In 70 AD the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, looted the temple of its treasure — including a seven-branched solid gold menorah — and brought at least some of the artifacts back to Rome in a triumphant procession. Depictions of the victorious Roman army and its booty are carved on the Arch of Titus, near the Colosseum, built about a decade later to commemorate that military triumph.

What later happened to the menorah has been the object of intense speculation for centuries, giving rise to various, sometimes colorful, legends and scholarly hypotheses over its whereabouts.

Now, Rome’s Jewish community and the Vatican have teamed up to produce an exhaustive exhibition on the menorah, which in time became an enduring symbol of Jewish culture and religion, in a collaboration that leaders of the two communities described as a further step in solidifying their ties.

“This is a historic event,” Ruth Dureghello, the president of Rome’s Jewish community, said at a news conference on Monday. The menorah has connections to Rome, she added, “so such an important exhibit could only start here.”

Jews and Catholics have a long history of mutual suspicion and conflict, but relations between the two religions have been increasingly positive. In 1965, the Vatican issued “Nostra Aetate,” a landmark document that condemned anti-Semitism. Pope John Paul II, the first modern pope to pray in a synagogue, made an effort to improve the relationship, as have his successors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

The exhibit, “Menorah: Worship, History, Legend,” which includes about 130 artifacts, will open in May and will be presented at the Vatican Museums and at Rome’s Jewish Museum. The collaboration between the two institutions will finally transform longstanding dialogue into something “concrete,” Ms. Dureghello said.

More than three years in the making, the project is a “sign of fruitful collaboration between our two communities,” said Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the president of the governorate of the Vatican City State. He added that it “makes visible the dialogue between the two religions and the close ties between the Jewish and Christian faiths.”

These are ties that Francis has championed, said Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, who noted that on the day after Francis became pope in March 2013, he wrote to the city’s Jewish community, eager to improve relations between the two religions.

Menorahs have been used in churches as liturgical objects, said Arnold Nesselrath, deputy director of the Vatican Museums and one of the curators of the exhibit.

While the historical and cultural importance of the menorah from the temple in Jerusalem is central to the exhibition, its physical absence is equally significant.

According to some scholars, the menorah remained in Rome until the Vandals looted the city in 455. After that, its whereabouts become even murkier.

Some accounts assert that the menorah was destroyed in a fire; others say that it was taken to Carthage and then on to Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Some claim that it sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean in a shipwreck; others state that such a shipwreck took place on the Tiber River. In 1818, a navigation company was founded to drag the Tiber in search of precious objects including the menorah, said Francesco Leone, an art historian at the G. d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara and another curator of the exhibit. “The venture failed,” he said.

Novels have also taken up the theme, positing that the menorah was returned to Israel, or that perhaps it never left at all and was buried secretly on the road to Jerusalem.

But the most colorful and perhaps most repeated, if unsubstantiated, account is that the Vatican has hidden the menorah for centuries in an underground deposit, either in Vatican City or under the Basilica of St. John the Lateran, as a church official theorized in 1291.

“As soon as news of the exhibit will be printed in newspapers, everyone will say, ‘Finally, the Vatican has dug out the original menorah,’” Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, joked on Monday.

“There is no more diffuse urban legend than this one,” he said. Believers in this and other myths surrounding the menorah, he said, “will be greatly disappointed, I hope.”

*The article was published in The New York Times on February 20, 2017.