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The Menorah: Worship, History and Legend

For the First Time the Vatican Museum Collaborates with a Jewish Museum.  The Menorah: Worship, History and Legend to Open in Rome in May.

Braccio di Carlo Magno (Vatican Museums), Piazza San Pietro, Rome and the Jewish Museum of Rome (Great Synagogue), Lungotevere de’ Cenci, Rome

Rome, Italy – March 20, 2017 – The Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome present the exhibition The Menorah: Worship, History and Legend that will inaugurate on May 15th, 2017 at both venues and will remain open until July 23, 2017. The combined ticket for the two exhibitions is 5 euros and will be available online from the end of April.

This is the first time that the Vatican collaborates with a Jewish Museum. The project was initiated in a spirit of dialogue and mutual understanding by the Jewish Community of Rome and the Vatican administration.

The exhibition is co-curated by Arnold Nesselrath, Deputy director of the Vatican Museum’s Curatorial Department and the Conservation Laboratory,  Alessandra Di Castro, Director of The Jewish Museum of Rome, and Francesco Leone, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History at Chieti-Pescara’s “G. D’Annunzio” University, in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of prominent scholars.

One hundred and thirty treasures recount the story and vicissitudes of the Second Temple’s Menorah, the seven-branch candelabrum that in the year 70 C.E. was looted from Jerusalem by Titus’ troops and transported to Rome. In the empire’s capital, the Menorah was displayed as trophy in the Forum’s Temple of Peace. This event is recorded in the famous bas-relief that decorates the Arch of Titus as well as in Flavius Josephus’s historical chronicle, De Bello Judaico.

According to the Hebrew Bible, at the Lord’s request, Moses had the menorah forged in pure gold and displayed it in the First Temple. As explained in the as Book of Exodus this ritual object was intended as a symbol of the covenant between the Lord and the Children of Israel. That first Menorah is thought to have been destroyed with the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in 586 BCE.

Intertwining history and myth, the story of the Menorah is depicted in the exhibit through major works of art spanning between antiquity and the present and including archaeological objects, sculptures and paintings, architectural and decorative artifacts, manuscripts and illuminated books.

It was in Rome, at the height of the imperial era, that the Menorah became the symbol which most powerfully encapsulates the culture and religion of Judaism. This happened, at approximately the same time when the symbols of Christianity were acquiring their final shape and form.

Since then, the Menorah has become the emblem of Judaism par excellence, and it is seen in the Jewish world as tangible evocation of divine light, of the cosmic order of creation and of the ancient covenant; as symbol of the burning bush and the tree of life; as testimony to the biblical Shabbat.

Soon after its removal from the Temple, the Menorah began to be depicted in a myriad of different places and on every possible occasion, in the East as well as in the West. We find marvelous examples of it in the Roman Jewish catacombs, on sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions, graffiti, coins and gold-leafed glass, necklaces, pendants and jewelry of all kinds. This proliferation of depictions is documented in the exhibition through items spanning from the 1st century C.E. to the 20th century, when the Menorah made its appearance on the emblem of the newly founded State of Israel.

Having made its world appearance in Rome, from Rome the historical Menorah also disappeared. It was probably around the 5th century, when it is said to have been looted by the Vandals in the sack of 455 C.E. According to legends and chronicles, it was brought first to Carthage, and then to Constantinople. Thereafter, the Menorah’s fate became increasingly shrouded in mystery: it vanished for ever leaving space to countless sagas that for centuries sought in vain to perpetuate its material life.

From that date on, all accounts of the celebrated seven-branch candelabrum fell into the realm of legend, in a plethora of romantic tales set in the Middle Ages and after into the 19th century, most of which have been incorporated in the exhibition’s narrative.

Another crucial aspect of the Menorah’s history resides in its relation with early Christian iconography. In the Middle Ages, Christian art began to adopt the Menorah as its own. Seven-branch candelabra were placed in churches for liturgical purposes. This fascinating overlapping of symbols is narrated through several 14th and 15th centuries objects including the monumental candelabra from the Sanctuary of the Mentorella, in Prato and Pistoia, and a pair of 18th century candelabra from Palma de Mallorca (Capitular Museum, Cathedral de Mallorca).

Other treasures on display include a recently discovered 1st century stone bas-relief from the site of the ancient synagogue of Magdala, Galilee; a rare Roman gold-leafed glass; sarcophagi and tombstones from the Jewish catacombs in Rome; the Carolingian Bible of St. Paul, Roman Baroque silverware and paintings by masters including Giulio Romano, Andrea Sacchi, Nicolas Poussin and Marc Chagall.

Exhibition’s description

The exhibition will be held simultaneously at two venues: the Braccio di Carlo Magno at the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome. It is organized in three sections. The first is comprise of three chapters: Visualizing the Menorah; The Menorah in the Temple and Jewish Art: Iconography and Symbolism; and The Menorah in Ancient Art from Jerusalem to Rome and explores the history of the Menorah from its ancient presence in the Temple of Jerusalem until its disappearance from Rome.

The second section is subdivided in four parts: From Late Antiquity to the 14th Century; The Renaissance; The Menorah in Painting from the 16th to the 19th Century; and The Menorah in Jewish Decorative Arts from the Middle Ages to the Dawn of the 20th Century and takes visitors on a rich artistic journey. It traces the legend of the Menorah from late antiquity to the 20th century, focusing in particular on Christian appropriations and on its perpetuation as an emblem for Jewish culture and identity. A series of paintings explore the popularity of the Menorah in figurative and decorative arts from the Renaissance through the 19th century.

The third section entitled From the Aftermath of World War I to the 21st Century takes into consideration works by well-known 20th and 21st centuries artists who depicted the Menorah in modernist artistic styles, combining the deconstruction of traditional forms with a new appraisal of the symbolic relation between Rome and Jerusalem, an emblematic trope of such post-emancipation works as Moses Hess’ Rome and Jerusalem and Stefan Zweig’s The Buried Candelabrum. 

Lenders for the exhibition include some of the most prestigious international and Italian museums, including – in addition to the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome,  the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Israel Museum and the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Albertina in Vienna, the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Sephardic Museum of Toledo, the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the Jewish Museums of Padua, Florence, Naples and Casale Monferrato, the Museo Archeologico in Naples, the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

Press contact: Fabio Perugia, fabioperugia1@gmail.com. Tel. 0039.328.6428960

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