Stephen Fine and YU Students Tracking the Temple Menorah

When last we heard about Stephen Fine and his crack teams of Yeshiva University students, they were detecting the colour of the Temple Menorah on the Arch of Titus (The Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus). Now the WSJ reports on their activities checking into the semi-frequent claims that the Temple Menorah, after the sack, eventually ended up in some secret place in the Vatican. Definitely research we need on record here (and a tip ‘o the pileus to Joseph Lauer for alerting us to the article):

It is a tale that seems at home in an espionage thriller about ancient religious secrets, such as the “The Da Vinci Code.”

For nearly 2,000 years, stories have circulated about the ultimate fate of sacred Jewish objects plundered from the Jerusalem Temple by Romans in A.D. 70—including a human-size, solid-gold Menorah. One widely shared theory among some Jews holds that the artifacts are hidden inside the Vatican, which many believe inherited the wealth of the Roman Empire.

There is only one problem, say many scholars: It isn’t true.

Steven Fine, a Jewish history professor at Yeshiva University, has dedicated the past two decades to debunking these stories. This summer, he turned the question into the subject of his class on the Arch of Titus, an ancient monument still standing outside the Roman Forum that commemorates the capture of Jerusalem and depicts the Menorah being paraded through the streets of Rome in A.D. 71.

The assignment was prompted by a recent public flare-up: In late May, Mr. Fine spotted an open letter to then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. In it, Israeli Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel urged Mr. Peres to approach the Vatican and ask for the return of the Menorah, a cultural symbol so important it is pictured on Israel’s state seal.

“I have a myth to kill,” said Mr. Fine, speaking of the secret-Vatican-hoard theory. Mr. Fine is writing a book about the Menorah and its many legends, to be published next year by Harvard University Press. “If we don’t nip it, it’s going to get worse,” he said.

In their own letter to Mr. Peres sent last month, Mr. Fine’s students disputed each assertion in the rabbi’s letter, after contacting his sources and consulting rare books. They haven’t received a response from Mr. Peres, who left office this month, they said.

Rabbi Shtencel said he hadn’t read the Yeshiva University response because it is in English, but said, “These aren’t my claims. I am relying on several extremely serious sources.”

Among them: Shimon Shetreet, a former Israeli minister of religious affairs, who said he raised the question of the artifacts during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1996 and separately with the Vatican’s secretary of state, but got no answer. He wasn’t surprised by that, he said, because “they are a very silent organization.”

He said the issue wasn’t raised when Mr. Peres traveled to the Vatican in early June.

“No one can dispute that they were taken to Rome,” said Mr. Shetreet of the artifacts. “The question is what happened. It lies between legends, rumors and facts.”

The Vatican dismissed accusations that it had the objects in a statement provided to The Wall Street Journal.

“I had heard once in the past rumors about such [a] story. But I never thought it was worthy of attention,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “It belongs to the genre ‘mysteries of the Vatican,’ in which some people exercise their fantasy.”

Paolo Liverani, a professor at the University of Florence, said he received a handful of letters every year asking about the Menorah when he worked at the Vatican as a museum curator, but never came across the artifacts in the Vatican storerooms.

Still, he said, “it is very difficult to demonstrate things that don’t exist.”

Scholars say the myth surfaced in the U.S. during the 1950s and ’60s, as the Vatican was working to improve relations with Jews in the wake of World War II. Additionally, they say troves of lost, buried Jewish treasures do exist—many hidden by Nazis.

“There’s a whole world of subterranean manuscripts and antiquities,” said Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. “A lot of that world is real.”

But, he said, the Vatican theory isn’t. “The story was created in the 20th century,” Mr. Schiffman said. “There’s no historical continuity.”

Myths are also hard to uproot once they take hold, said Mr. Fine.

“People still feel pain,” Mr. Fine said. “It’s hard to get rid of that.”

Some of Mr. Fine’s students were initially wary of the class assignment. “At first I was almost afraid that this was anti-Jewish,” said David Silber, a 21-year-old rising junior at Yeshiva. “But as we went further, the truth is the truth.”

While the Arch of Titus and rabbinical sources depict the treasures in Rome in ancient times, that doesn’t mean they ended up in storerooms of the Vatican, which was founded centuries later.

Some books Rabbi Shtencel cited in his letter weren’t available in the U.S., so students had friends in Israel track down copies in university libraries there. Scouring the texts, they said they didn’t find any eyewitness accounts of the temple artifacts inside the Vatican, as Rabbi Shtencel had claimed.

Their research didn’t prove that the Vatican doesn’t have the treasures. But “I’m convinced that his proofs are not valid proofs,” Mr. Silber said.

There are many myths surrounding the fate of the Menorah, which is linked with the coming of the Messiah in Jewish lore, experts say. Some hold that it was stashed in a cave in Galilee, others that it lies submerged in silt under the Tiber River in Rome and still others that it is buried under a monastery in the West Bank.

Mr. Fine has his own theory: that it was taken by invaders who ravaged Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries and probably melted down.

“I say to people when I give lectures, ‘Gold doesn’t disappear. Maybe you’re wearing the Menorah in your ring,'” he said. “That’s a really unsatisfying answer for a lot of people.”

 

If the claim is new to you, you might want to check out The Vatican and the Temple Vessels (reprinted from the December issue of  Ami Magazine) which includes many comments from Rabbi Shtencel and Dr Schiffmann. Almost a decade ago, Dr Fine penned this (available online in pdf):

… which is good for showing why there might be a belief that the Vatican has it somewhere.

The Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus

You’ve probably seen this already (it’s been a hectic last week of school), but we need to get it on the record. The latest investigations into seeing the colours which originally adorned ancient monuments have detected that the menorah on the Arch of Titus was originally painted yellow (as probably could be anticipated). Just to be a bit different from others’ posts, here’s the coverage from the University of Virginia:

In this part of Titus' triumphal procession (f...

In this part of Titus’ triumphal procession (from the Arch of Titus in Rome), the treasures of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem are being displayed to the Roman people. Hence the Menorah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Historians and archaeologists have studied the ruins of the Roman Forum for centuries, employing the tools on hand to add to the knowledge of this center of Roman public life that hosted elections, triumphal processions, speeches, trials, shops and gladiatorial spectacles.

The latest research suggests these structures, which we know as white marble, may have been brightly painted.

Bernard Frischer, a classics and art history professor in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, led a team of experts who used cutting-edge technology to find traces of yellow pigment on a bas-relief of a menorah on the forum’s Arch of Titus. In its heyday, the yellow pigment would have appeared gold from a distance.

Frischer said the menorah has historical significance. “The menorah on the relief is extremely important to Jews, since it shows the menorah from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which Titus captured and sacked in A.D. 70.”

Exposed to the elements for centuries, today no traces of pigment are visible to the naked eye. The arch was cleaned and restored in the 1820s. “For all we knew, any surviving pigment had been scraped off the marble, as has happened all too often in the past with other monuments and statues,” Frischer said. A 1999 study “found plenty of discoloration owing to pollution, but no traces of ancient pigment.”

Frischer, co-director for technology of the “Arch of Titus Restoration Project,” headed by Steven Fine at Yeshiva University in New York, brought together experts for a pilot project – to use 21st-century technology to seek any remaining traces of pigment.

“This entailed the use of two different technologies with which I am very familiar from earlier projects,” Frischer said.

The consultants used non-invasive, 3-D optical data capture and ultra-violet visual spectrometry to determine the chemistry of the pigment deposits. Frischer called on the expertise of Unocad of Vincenza, Italy for the 3-D capture using the Breuckmann smartSCAN for its precise optical measurements, and Heinrich Piening, a conservator with the State of Bavaria Department for the Conservation of Castles, Gardens and Lakes in Germany and a pioneer in ultra-violet visual spectrometry, for analysis.

“UV-VIS spectrometry is still a relatively new technique in Roman archaeology,” Frischer said.

Frischer has applied cutting-edge technologies in creating 3-D digital models for polychromy restoration of Roman figures, such as the Virginia Museum of Art’s statue of Caligula, on behalf of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory, [link: http://vwhl.clas.virginia.edu/] which he founded in July 2009. The laboratory is administered by the classics department and hosted by the art department.

The Arch of Titus project findings will also add another dimension to his lab’s virtual “Rome Reborn” [link: http://www.romereborn.virginia.edu/] project, a digital recreation of Rome as it appeared in A.D. 320. Frischer directs that ongoing effort, which was created by an international team of experts and launched in 2007.

Following final studies of the arch, Frischer will use the data to oversee two 3-D digital recreations for the Arch of Titus Restoration Project.

“In the first, or ‘state model,’ we will add just the color that is attested by Dr. Piening’s studies,” he said. “In the second, or ‘restoration model,’ we will go beyond the spotty evidence that survives to restore color all over the arch, inspired both by the actual traces and by analogous examples of painted Roman imperial monuments.

“What has been learned thus far can encourage even ‘minimalists’ like myself to dare to restore color even to monuments that have not yet been studied. After all, the ancient color palette was limited, and we are starting to see conventions emerge in the use of color. And one thing we do know is that white marble – whether on a public building or on a statue – was rarely, if ever, left unpainted.”

From Ancient Greece until the 21st century, the arts and sciences have moved in tandem in an implicit and unconscious way, Frischer said.

“Today, the unity of art, science and technology is rapidly becoming a conscious theme as we embrace interdisciplinarity and unity of knowledge derived from concurring conclusions from a variety of disciplines in which the knowledge and expertise of different, seemingly unrelated fields such as archaeology, history, chemistry and physics can converge to give a better understanding of both the human and natural worlds. I see the Arch of Titus project as a good case in point.”

The project itself is directed by Stephen Fine and is run ‘out of’ the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University … and of course, the project does have a website (plenty of photos and other info there, of course)