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Catholics and Jews mark history of the menorah with first joint show

The depiction of Emperor Titus’ Siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 includes a menorah being taken in the Arch of Titus in Rome. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Damian Entwistle

ROME (RNS) A 2,000-year-old stone block unearthed by archaeologists from an Israeli synagogue in the town of Magdala will be featured in the first-ever joint art exhibit mounted by the Vatican Museums and Rome’s Jewish community.

The block, featuring a relief of a menorah beside two jugs, will be part of an exhibit titled “Menorah: Worship, History and Myth,” tracing the history of the seven-branched symbol of Jewish faith (not to be confused with the nine-branched candleholder used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah) and its influence on Christian art and artifacts.

The exhibit was announced Monday (Feb. 20) by Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican body responsible for promoting Christian unity; Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; and officials from the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome.

Koch welcomed the initiative, saying it underscored the spiritual heritage of the Catholic Church and the positive interfaith dialogue between the Vatican and the Jewish community.

“This is an interesting initiative from a cultural point of view and its ideological symbolism,” said Di Segni. “Although the menorah is essentially considered a Jewish symbol, it also has a history in the Christian world.”

But the joint initiative of the two faiths will do little to solve the mystery of what happened to the original menorah stripped from the Second Temple in Jerusalem by marauding Roman soldiers and carried back to ancient Rome in 70 AD.

Depicted in the Arch of Titus relief inside the Roman Forum to mark the conquest, the menorah is thought to have been stolen by invading vandals in the sacking of Rome in the fifth century.

Nevertheless, it was during the Roman Empire that the menorah became a strong cultural and religious symbol for Jews, appearing on graves, sarcophagi and catacombs on the outskirts of the city.

Mappà Scola Catalana, 1835. The blue colored Jewish fabric with gold script comes from the Catalan Schule, a place of worship that preceded the Jewish synagogue in Rome.

Mappà Scola Catalana, 1835. The blue-colored Jewish fabric with gold script comes from the Catalan Schule, a place of worship that preceded the Jewish synagogue in Rome.

The exhibit, which runs May 15 to July 23 at both the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome, features 130 items, including paintings, documents and candlesticks.

“We have some great works of art, including six or seven bronze candlesticks which also show the Christian tradition of the menorah,” said Arnold Nesselrath, deputy director of the Vatican Museums. “Many Christian churches simply pointed to their Jewish roots this way.”

Nesselrath said the exhibit was important to show how religions can work together and challenge perceptions of religious conflict.

“Fundamentalism is not inherent in religion,” Nesselrath said. “We want to do this exhibition to show we can do something positive together and there is a long history of 2,000 years of mutual reference.”

(Josephine McKenna is RNS’ Vatican correspondent)

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

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  • Anything that forwards a congenial dialogue between Christians and Jews is a worthwhile endeavor, indeed anything that forwards a congenial dialogue between whatever faith or no faith at all is also worthwhile. One need not agree with those whose frame of spiritual reference is in opposition to one’s own, courtesy and congeniality bring their own rewards.

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