By Elise Harris
The Vatican and the Jewish community in Rome are marking a new step in relations between the two religions by rolling out the first-ever joint exhibition focused entirely on the Menorah – an ancient symbol representing their shared roots.
“The relation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community is not extrinsic, but is intrinsic,” Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told EWTN News at the Feb. 20 presentation of the exhibit, quoting St. John Paul II.
“That means we must know the Jewish roots of Christianity and we cannot be Christian without knowledge of the religion of the Jews because the Jews are the mother of Christianity,” he said, adding that in this sense, “it’s very important to know the roots, the family roots, of Christianity.”
Since the Menorah such an important symbol for the Jewish people, to have a joint-exhibit on it “is a very important thing and I think it will be a beautiful opportunity to deepen knowledge about the other religion; about the Jewish tradition, but also the Jewish roots in the Christian world.”
A Menorah is a seven-lamp candelabra made from pure gold and was used by Moses in the desert. According to the Book of Exodus, God asked Moses to create the candelabra and put into the temple in Jerusalem to mark it as a sacred space. The Menorah is still depicted in modern Jewish temples, and a nine-lamp version is lit during the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The Menorah is often used in Christian artwork, particularly paintings depicting scenes from the life of Jesus, such as his preaching in the temple Jerusalem.
Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, told EWTN News Feb. 20 that the exhibit is “a small but important example” of how Catholics and Jews can “work together for a better world.”
Calling the exhibit “a cultural enterprise, a link between two worlds,” Di Segni said the fact that it’s a joint-exhibition between Catholics and Jews is “a way of teaching the world about common roots and different interpretations” between the two religions.
“The Menorah is a Jewish symbol. It’s not a Christian symbol, but the Christians use this symbol and work with it in many ways,” he said, calling it “a symbol of the connection between the new religion of Christianity and (it’s) Jewish roots.”
Part of what is represented in the exhibit “is the connection between what they call ‘old’ and what they call ‘new.’ So the problem is how to relate to this old symbol,” he said, adding that “to discover this story and to put it in an exhibition is very interesting because by itself it is a history of the relation between Christianity and the Jews.”
Alongside Di Segni and Koch at the presentation of joint-exhibition were Barbara Jatta, the new Director of the Vatican Museums, and Alessandra Di Castro, head of Rome’s Jewish Museum.
The exhibit, titled “Menorah: Worship, History, Legend,” will be shown simultaneously at both the Jewish Museum as well as the Braccio di Carlo Magno Museum in the Vatican, located under the left colonnade in St. Peter’s Square.
It will run May 15-July 23 and will include roughly 130 pieces, including Menorah from different periods and depictions of them in paintings, sarcophagi, sculptures and medieval and Renaissance drawings and manuscripts.
The works displayed will include pieces from the first century up to the modern times century, including the use of the Menorah as part of the crest of the State of Israel.
Divided into three key stages, the exhibit walks visitors through different ages and genres, with the first stage divided into three different sections: Visualizing the Menorah; The Menorah in the temple and in Jewish art: iconography and symbology; and The Menorah in ancient art from Jerusalem to Rome.
The second stage is divided into four sections, and focuses on the Menorah From late antiquity to the 14th century; The Renaissance; The pictorial fortune from the 600s to the 19th century; and Jewish Menorah in applied arts from the late Middle Ages to the beginnings of the 20th century.
While the first stage focuses on the story of the Menorah, its presence in the temple of Jerusalem and its dispersal throughout Rome in both ancient and modern times, the second stage provides an analysis on the Menorah in Christianity, particularly liturgical candelabras, as well as the Menorah’s consistent presence as a strong unifying symbol for Jewish identity throughout history.
In the third stage, the exhibit focuses on the theme “From the First World War to the 21st century,” and offers a panorama of the various representations of the Menorah throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
More than 20 museums throughout the world have lent pieces to the exhibit, including the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery of London and the Albertina Museum of Vienna.
During the presentation attention also turned to speculation as to the current whereabouts of the solid gold Menorah taken from the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans during their siege in 70AD, but which has gone missing for the past 1,500 years.
The Menorah was originally taken from Jerusalem when its temple was destroyed by the Roman general Titus, who became emperor nine years after that victory. Rumors throughout history have said the Menorah was lost during the Vandal’s Sack of Rome in 455, while others say it was buried in a cave, hidden in the Vatican or thrown into the Tiber, where it still rests.
However, despite the various theories, Di Segni said “nobody knows what had happened” since it disappeared from Jerusalem.
Present at the exhibit instead will be the ancient the Magdala Stone, which was found in 2009 during an archaeological excavation that uncovered an ancient synagogue on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
But regardless of the legends, Di Segni said “it will be very interesting to see how people will visit, what they would say and how they will be impressed.”
“The reaction of the public” is also important, he said, “so we are waiting for this moment.”