ROME — The museums of the Vatican and Rome’s ancient Jewish community are hosting their first joint exhibit, building on decades of improved Catholic-Jewish relations following centuries of mistrust.
The focus of the exhibit opening in May will be the menorah, the seven-armed candelabrum described in the Jewish Torah and depicted in Jewish, Catholic and secular art over the centuries.
Through figurative art, the exhibit “recounts the multi-millennia, incredible and suffered history of the menorah,” organizers said in a statement Monday announcing the initiative.
Part of the show will explore the legend of a solid-gold menorah that was kept in the first Temple of Jerusalem. The menorah was taken to Rome after the 70 A.D. destruction of the temple by troops of the Roman emperor Titus.
The historic trail of the menorah seems to have been lost during the 5th century, when it was possibly hauled off by the Vandals who sacked Rome in 455.
Arnold Nesselrath, a Vatican Museums official who is one of the show curators, called the exhibit about the menorah’s history and symbolism a fruit of “intense dialogue” developing between the Holy See and the Jewish community in the last three decades.
Representations of the menorah throughout the centuries helped “Christians recall their Jewish roots” in faith, he said.
Nesselrath noted that an image of a menorah is frescoed on a wall of the Vatican’s Borgia Apartment built for Pope Alessandro VI. His papacy began in 1492, the same year Jews in Spain were ordered expelled.
Since Rome’s Jewish Museum is tiny, most of the 130 works on display will be hosted at the Vatican Museums’ Carlo Magno exhibit space in St. Peter’s Square.
One of the highlights is expected to be a recently discovered bas relief from a 1st century Galilee synagogue. Ancient Roman glass, sarcophagi and memorial stone tablets from Rome’s Jewish catacombs also will be featured.
Marc Chagall and Nicolas Poussin are among artists to be represented in the exhibit.
The Jewish Museum flanks Rome’s main synagogue. The late Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit a synagogue when he went there in 1986. On that occasion, he referred to Jews as “our older brothers in faith.”
Lending museums for the exhibit, which runs from May 15 to July 23, include the Louvre and London’s National Gallery.