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St. Peter’s Menorah

How the Vatican warmed to Jews over the last century

Fredric Brandfon
July 25, 2017
Photo: Sarah Tarno via Flickr
Detail from the Arch of Titus.Photo: Sarah Tarno via Flickr
Photo: Sarah Tarno via Flickr
Detail from the Arch of Titus.Photo: Sarah Tarno via Flickr

This spring, a bold banner fluttered in the Vatican in front of the Braccio Carlo Magno, a museum space that embraces the south side of St. Peter’s Square. The banner was so large it could be seen from three blocks away as one approached along the Via Della Conciliazione, the Vatican’s main thoroughfare. It was a black banner, in the center of which was a huge representation of a gold menorah. Amid the 96 statues of saints and martyrs, and the numerous crosses that adorn St. Peter’s Square, the menorah stood alone as a symbol of Judaism, a symbol older than the cross, and probably well known to both St. Peter and St. Paul, whose monumental statues flank the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica.

The form of the menorah on the banner was taken from a representation of the Temple menorah carved into the interior of the nearby Arch of Titus that stands adjacent to the Roman Forum. That frieze depicts the spoils of the Judaean War taken as booty by Titus from the destroyed Second Temple in 70 C.E. Among those spoils, and most prominently displayed in the Arch, is the Temple menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum whose shape is prescribed by God to Moses as revealed in Exodus 25:31-39.

The banner announced a major exhibition, titled The Menorah: Cult, History, and Myth, recently on display at the Vatican Museums and the Museo Ebraico (the Jewish Museum of Rome) this spring. Moreover, its placement in Vatican Square bespoke unprecedented cooperation and reconciliation between the Vatican and the Roman Jewish Community. Working together for the first time, they produced a magnificent exhibit that could be visited concurrently at both museums.


In centuries past, the prominent picturing of the Temple menorah in St. Peter’s Square might have been a triumphant affirmation of the destruction of the Jewish Temple, serving as a sign that whatever favor the Jews once had in their God’s eyes had passed inexorably to the Christian community, and the Catholic Church, in particular. In fact, about 200 years ago, the antithesis of today’s banner, also focused on a menorah, could be seen hanging on the other side of the Tiber River in Rome’s Jewish ghetto. The ghetto had been established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and it restricted Jews to a few square blocks surrounded by a wall with gates that were locked every night for hundreds of years. After 1789, with the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, French troops came to Rome, first in 1798, and again in 1804, bringing with them dreams of liberal democracy and the Enlightenment. The French defeated the Papal States, kidnapped Pope Pius VII, and abolished the ghetto.

However, with the defeat of Napoleon, Pius VII triumphantly returned to Rome in 1814 and demanded a lavish welcome in the tradition of prior popes and Roman emperors. Pope Pius’ return meant the reestablishment of the hated ghetto. Nevertheless, Jews were forced to hang a congratulatory banner in its midst, in front of the building that housed their five synagogues. The banner was part of a false façade that covered the front of the synagogue building and replaced the modest entrance with a depiction of a classical temple. Above four trompe-l’oeil columns was an architrave bearing a laudatory Latin inscription celebrating the pope’s freedom, and the people’s happiness at his restoration. Further above the depicted temple was the pope’s coat of arms bearing two crosses and the dual keys symbolizing the papacy. In the center of the façade, sitting on a pedestal inside the false entrance way to the false temple, was a seven-branched menorah.

This astonishing and oppressive façade, which was meant to literally cover the Jewish house of worship with the pope’s insignia and a cross, was ephemeral. It was an assertion of power that was soon taken down. However, an architect’s rendering, capturing that moment in Jewish-Vatican relations was preserved in the Archive of the Jewish Community of Rome and was displayed as one part of the exhibit, in the Vatican portion of the show. The drawing of the second banner may not be prominent in the exhibit, but the temporal and spiritual gulf between today’s banner hanging in the Vatican and the one from 1814 hanging in the ghetto frames the story of the Jews of Rome.

That story began before the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple. The first Roman Jews were probably merchants based in first century BCE Rome as well as other ports around the edge of the Mediterranean. Claudio Procaccia, curator of the Archive, told me that the Roman Jewish Community is probably the oldest continuous ethnic community in Europe and that contemporary Roman Jewish families trace their ancestry back over 2,000 years. Others assert that they are descendants of four Jewish families captured by Titus and brought to Rome in 70 CE. Murals from second and third century CE catacombs in Rome, depicting the menorah, partially bear out these claims. In addition, a bronze gladiator’s helmet, embossed with a seven-branched palm tree, that some believe was the helmet of a Jewish captive brought by Titus to Rome along with the Temple menorah, was on loan from the Museo Archeologica Nazionale in Naples and displayed in the Museo Ebraico portion of the Exhibit.

Some Roman Jews apparently prospered in late antiquity and Stefan Zweig draws a picture, albeit fictional, in his Zionist novella The Buried Candelabrum, of a modest community of Jews living in Trastevere (the west bank of the Tiber ) in the Fifth Century C.E. That book follows the legendary travels of the Temple menorah from Rome to Carthage to Constantinople to the land of Israel through the eyes of a Roman Jewish hero.

During the early Middle Ages, the Talmudic encyclopedia, ’Arukh, was written in 11th-century C.E. Rome by Nathan ben Yehiel, and it is most likely that the Roman Jewish community intervened with Pope Alexander III (1159-1151) to issue such bulls as Sicut Judaeis, affirming that the Jews “ought to suffer no prejudice.” Indeed, the Spanish Jew Benjamin of Tudela paints a glowing picture of the relationship between the Jews of Rome and the Vatican in 1165 CE:

The principals of the many distinguished Jews residing here [Rome] are Rabbi Daniel and Rabbi Yechiel. The latter is one of the pope’s officers, a handsome, intelligent and learned wise man, who frequents the pope’s palace, being the steward of his household. Rabbi Yechiel is a descendant of Rabbi Nathan, the author of the Sefer Aruk, and its Commentary.

Cecil Roth, a leading 20th-century scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Italian Jewish history noted that, “in no part of the world did such a feeling of friendliness prevail between the people and the Jews as in Italy.” Roth’s estimation may be overly generous, but with regard to the 15th century C.E. it is not without some basis.

Consequently, when Jews were expelled from Spain and Sicily in 1492, many sought refuge in Rome and bought with them the treasures of their synagogues. Several of those texts were preserved for about 450 years in Rome, only to be threatened in 1943 by the looting of the Great Synagogue by the Nazis. The Barcelona Codex of the Torah, dating to 1325, escaped the clutches of the SS because it was hidden in the Catholic Vallicellian Library, located between the ghetto and the Vatican, and a part of the New Church complex, built in 1565 by St. Filippo Neri. The Codex, beautifully illustrated with menorot drawn in micrographic Hebrew script, and a depiction of a golden seven-branched candelabrum, was on display in the exhibit.

Nonetheless, the relationship between Roman Jews and the Vatican was never easy, and that relationship became much more adversarial in 1555 with the creation of the ghetto. On display in the exhibit was a travertine block from the ghetto with a bas relief of a menorah. It is believed to be a stone from a fountain situated in front of the synagogue, donated around 1614 by Pope Paul V. The water was apparently a welcome gift from the Vatican, but it came with the papal coat of arms above the main basin, a reminder of who had ultimate power over the ghetto.

When it was established, the ghetto was an attempt by the Vatican at achieving what Pope Paul IV saw as an obvious and necessary goal: the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. Placing onerous restrictions on Jewish life was intended to produce converts. If the Jews of Rome had all become Christian, as Paul IV hoped, the ghetto would have become superfluous. That the physical, economic, and spiritual oppression of Rome’s Jews did not achieve that result only meant that the humiliation of the Jews had to continue.

An effort to forcibly convert Jews was institutionalized in 1543 when Pope Paul III established the House of the Catechumens and Neophytes just a few blocks east of the Roman Forum. The House of the Catechumens was both a monastery, of sorts, for newly converted Jews (Neophytes) and a prison for Jews who resisted conversion. Once a Jew converted, he or she could “donate” members of his or her family to the church. Those family members were then arrested, against their will, and brought to the House of the Catechumens for intensive instruction in the benefits of Catholicism and equally intensive physical, psychological, and monetary inducements to produce a conversion. (It should be noted that during World War II the Vatican policy was somewhat the opposite. At that time, it issued baptismal certificates of convenience to help Jews assume false identities in order to escape Nazi persecution.) A conversion was an event often celebrated by a triumphal procession through the ghetto and the rest of Rome with the newly baptized person riding a white horse followed by carriages, trumpets, and drums. The entire event was patterned on papal processions that took place upon the election of a new pope.

Those papal processions were in turn modeled after the ancient Roman triumphs, such as the one memorialized in the Arch of Titus. In fact, upon the election of each new pope, the pontiff would march triumphantly through Rome, reiterating the Roman tradition of a triumphal procession that is depicted in the Arch. Homage was paid to the pope by a Jewish delegation carrying a Torah scroll. They would present the scroll to the pontiff, probably at the Arch. The new pope would ceremonially accept the Torah, but, at the same time, volubly reject the Jewish interpretation of it. He would then either throw the Torah to the ground or pass it unceremoniously to an underling.

The Arch would serve doubly to remind Roman Jews of their subservient status; first, as a people humbled by the Romans, and second, as a subordinated community under papal hegemony. When, in the 16th century, Jews were no longer required to present the new pope with the Torah, they instead had to lavishly decorate the pope’s processional route, including bedecking the Arch of Titus with tapestries and banners. Not surprisingly, these humiliations gave rise to a well-known Roman Jewish custom: Jews prohibited themselves from walking beneath the Arch of Titus.

That custom remained in place until Dec. 2, 1947, three days after the United Nations decision to partition Palestine and allow a Jewish state. On that day, Roman Jews and Jews from across Europe awaiting transport to Palestine gathered at the Arch. Led by Rome’s chief rabbi, David Prato, they again placed a banner on the Arch. But this time it was a blue-and-white Jewish banner with two dates: the date of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and the date of the UN decision to partition Palestine. After the singing of Hatikvah, the assembled crowd deliberately broke with tradition and marched through the Arch from west to east toward Jerusalem, in the opposite direction of the Jews who had come to Rome as slaves of Titus in 70 CE.

As might be expected, the Arch of Titus is represented throughout the exhibit. In addition to a circa-1930 cast of the relief depicting the menorah, there is an engraving of the relief by Pietro Santi Bartoli from the end of the 17th century. And apart from the exhibit, South African Jewish contemporary artist William Kentridge has produced for the city of Rome a work titled Triumphs and Laments, an enormous mural, some 10 meters tall, on the west embankment of the Tiber between the Ponte Sisto and the Ponte Mazzini. The mural consists of 80 images that signify Rome. The central image is a depiction of the relief in the Arch of Titus with the menorah at the center of the image.

After 1947, the Vatican had to evaluate its role in World War II. The events of the Holocaust and the Vatican’s response are both too vast and too complicated for a summary here. Suffice it to say that from Pope Pius XI, the wartime pope, through Pope Francis today, the papacy has recognized the enormity of the Holocaust, if sometimes with only varying success. From Pope John XXIII’s efforts to alter the traditional Catholic image of the Jewish people as Christ-killers to Pope John Paul II’s commissioning of a report concerning the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust, the Vatican’s ecumenical openness to Judaism and to the Roman Jewish community has evolved positively in a manner inconceivable 100 years before.


Read more on the Vatican menorah exhibit in today’s Tablet magazine.

Fredric Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist at Beersheba, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa, and Jaffa, Israel, currently practices law in Los Angeles.