ROME — During a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II in 2004, then-Sephardic and Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Israel Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger reportedly threw caution and diplomacy to the wind and asked after the whereabouts of Judaism’s lost Menorah.
It was the first official visit of Israel’s highest religious authority to the Vatican, and on the docket were a wide range of sensitive religious and political subjects. Still, the rabbis insisted on raising this rather touchy issue.
Less than 10 years before Amar and Metzger’s pontifical visit, in 1996 Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Shimon Shetreet issued a similar request during a meeting with John Paul II. And in 2004, then-president Moshe Katsav would do the same.
So it came as no surprise that the Menorah rumor was the first thing Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni mentioned when he spoke with The Times of Israel about “Menorah: Cult, History and Myth,” the upcoming exhibition co-hosted by the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome, which will run from May 15 through July 23.
“When people hear about a joint exhibition on the Menorah by the Vatican and the Jewish Museum, I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘It’s about time, they are finally going to take it out of their vaults,’” he jokes, pointing out that the legend is actually much more popular outside Rome than in the local Jewish community.
“Roman Jews are skeptical by nature and take the story with a grain of salt. However, my personal experience has been that the idea is so deeply rooted in world Jewry that the whereabouts of the Menorah is always the first question we are asked when we encounter Jews from abroad,” explains Di Segni.
‘Roman Jews are skeptical by nature and take the story with a grain of salt’
The golden candelabrum was looted during the Roman sacking of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the ancient historian Josephus writes that it was brought to Rome, where it was kept in Vespasian’s Temple of Peace.
According to scholars, the Menorah was lost forever when either the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 CE, or the Vandals in 455 CE.
Many conflicting legends arose as to its fate during the chaotic centuries that followed.
Some say the candelabra made its winding way through Carthage and Constantinople back to Jerusalem, where it was hidden away. Others claim that it was buried with the Visigoth king, Alar, when he died suddenly near the Southern Italian town of Cosenza after the sack.
In the 19th century, an attempt was made to dredge the Tiber River in Rome — another possible hiding place — but to no avail.
“The Menorah vanished into thin air, despite thousands of myths that have tried to preserve its tangibility through the centuries,” reads the exhibition’s press release.
And although it does not specifically mention the Vatican legend, the press release does promise that “the exhibition will explore all the tales in their entirety.”
It may sound unlikely in retrospect, but rumors that the Menorah was kept in the Vatican were once fueled by the Church itself.
“For example, we find bits of [rumors] in the writings of a cleric from the Middle Ages. There was an ideological basis for it — the Church wanted to present itself as the true heir of the Roman Empire,” says Di Segni.
Although visitors who hope to get a glimpse of the actual ancient Menorah will be disappointed, there is still plenty of reason to be interested in the exhibit — which has been called historic — because it marks the first cooperation of its kind between the Vatican and the Jewish community of Rome.
“The idea for a joint initiative was first formulated in 2013, in a meeting organized by the Israeli Embassy to the Vatican. At that time, I met Prof. Arnold Nesselrath and we began discussing the thought,” says Alessandra Di Castro, director of the Jewish Museum of Rome.
Di Castro is co-curator with Nesselrath — who is the delegate for the scientific department and laboratories of the Vatican Museums — as well as art historian Francesco Leone.
“A few years before, my late sister Daniela, who back then was the director of the Jewish Museum, had already envisioned an exhibit on the Menorah in Rome, and the idea was received enthusiastically by the Vatican Museums,” Di Castro says.
The exhibit will display over 130 pieces divided into three sections.
One will be devoted to the history of the Menorah from the First Temple to the time it was lost; a second to its myth and the cultural and religious significance of its symbol through the beginning of the 20th century; and a third will explore the topic in the last century, both in its artistic reproduction and as the chosen symbol of the State of Israel.
“We are very happy with the response we received from national and international museums,” says Di Castro, highlighting the important loans that the exhibit received from institutions such as the Louvre, the London National Gallery, the Israel Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin.
Of course, the most renowned artwork depicting the Menorah remains permanently on display in Rome on the Arch of Titus. Built in 81 CE to celebrate the victory of Emperor Titus in the Jewish War of 66-74, the monument features a bas-relief portraying a procession with the spoils from the Temple, including the candelabra.
For almost two millennia, the Jews of Rome have looked at the arch as a symbol of catastrophe, a stone-carved memory embodying loss of independence and exile. Among local Jews, it is customary to avoid walking through the arch as it is believed that some of their ancestors were forced to do so after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The location is ripe with symbolism for the Jews of Rome: When the State of Israel declared independence, it was at the foot of the arch that the Jewish community chose to gather to mark the end of the exile and welcome a new era of freedom. To celebrate, they walked through the monument in the opposite direction of their vanquished ancestors.
Ironically, the jury is still out on whether the original Menorah actually looked like the one depicted on the arch. The octagonal base is usually considered a free interpretation by the ancient Roman artist since it features mythological animals that are foreign to the Jewish tradition. What’s more, there has been longstanding disagreement between Jewish scholars about whether the Menorah’s branches were indeed curved, as they appear on the arch, or straight.
Either way, the Menorah is a symbol of Jewish identity, replicated on coins, tombstones, books and works of art from ancient times to modernity. Likewise, from the Middle Ages onward, many Christian artists also featured it in their artwork — something which is also explored in the exhibition.
“We often wonder how to move interfaith dialogue forward. This exhibition could very well represent a fresh perspective on the idea,” concludes Di Segni.