The Menorah: Worship, History, and Legend

15 May-23 July 2017


You shall make a menorah* of pure beaten gold—its shaft and branches—with its cups and knobs and petals springing directly from it. Six branches are to extend from its sides, three branches on one side, and three on the other…. You shall then make seven lamps for it and so set up the lamps that they give their light on the space in front of the menorah. These, as well as the trimming shears and trays, must be of pure gold.”

(Exodus 25:31-32, 37-38)


With his instructions received directly from God in the Torah, Moses entrusts the Menorah’s fashioning to artisan Bezalel, and the seven-branched candelabrum enters into the era of history and man. The Menorah is a beacon of light and hope for the Children of Israel in their exile. It was to be displayed in the first temple of Jerusalem affront the Holy of Holies, evoking in its imagery both a foretaste of the heavenly temple for which the chosen people longed, as well as the imagery of the Burning Bush and the Tree of Life. Abruptly displaced from its role of providing a sound meaning and iconography to the Jewish people, the candelabrum is most likely vandalized by the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar in his destruction of the first temple in 586 BC. Then, the Roman general Titus eradicates the second reconstructed Temple completely in 70 AD. The Menorah is sacked from the Temple and put on a ship bound for Rome, where the candelabrum begins its perpetual nomadic fate. The exhibition hosts a variety of large-scale paintings that visually lead the visitor through the eventful history of the iconic Menorah. For example, the Destruction of the Temple masterpieces, two by Niccolas Poussin (loaned from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and another by Francesco Hayez (his work from the Venice Gallery of Modern Art) are monumental paintings with confusing crowds of Roman invaders and Jewish defenders. Yet the robbery of the Menorah seems to be always a central scene of the picture. Hayez’ painting allows us to see how three men were needed to carry the heavy candelabrum; they are lifting the symbol of the spoils high above their heads, as its branches clearly stand out in front of the white Temple walls.


Francesco Hayez-Destruction of Temple (depicting destruction in 70 AD) Francesco Hayez, Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, 1863-67
Venezia, Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro
olio su tela, 183 x 282 cm

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre’s Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 shows the further fate of the Menorah during the event in which Rome had fallen to a foreign enemy for the first time in 800 years. In three days the city was looted completely and the Goths took enormous treasures with them—most likely including objects once belonging to the Jewish Temple.

Sylvestre-Sack of Rome Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410, 1890

As Rome was the location where the Menorah began its endless pilgrimage, there is no better place than the Eternal City itself to host the first-ever collaborative exhibition between the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome. The two locations encourage visitors to traverse the streets of Rome to explore the exhibition in two separate locations. With over 140 exhibits from 40 museums worldwide, it is possible to follow the cult, history, and legend of the Menorah from ancient times to its modern-day image, through a rich journey of art. The figurative paintings, illustrated codices, and candelabrums allow every pilgrim in Rome to embark upon the journey through history and mystery as told through the symbol that most dynamically epitomizes the Jewish culture and religion. The show offers a depth of insight into the temple culture surrounding the Menorah as well as its modern uses and interpretations. Loaned from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Raphael’s first sketch of the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple illustrates how in the Christian pictorial tradition, famous scenes located in the temple often show the Menorah in a very prominent position.

Rafael, Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, 1511 252 x 416 mm Albertina, Vienna

In this scene, which the Syrian general Heliodorus tries to sack the temple in Jerusalem, his plan is thwarted thanks to prayers of the high priest. Interestingly, in this preliminary drawing, Raphael places the Menorah in a more striking position than in his final fresco in the Stanza di Heliodorus in the Vatican Museums. An astute eye may have seen that in the sketch the high priest seems to be almost touched by the high priest praying for salvation, whereas its position is very different on the walls of the Vatican. In Andrea Sacchi’s Annunciation to Zachariah, an angel announces to the Jewish priest that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son, to whom he was to name John, and that this son would be the forerunner of the Lord.

Andrea Sacchi, L’Annunciazione a Zaccaria (per il Battistero di San Giovanni in Laterano)
Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca
310 x 250 cm

Since the encounter with the heavenly messenger took place in the Temple, we can see that the painting in the Menorah right behind the two protagonists. Its branches fill the space between the faces of Zachariah and the angel. The candelabrum, then, serves as a visual element that spiritually “links” the faith of the Jewish religion (represented by Zachariah) to the Christian religion (the angel bearing news of the Lord). Today the Menorah still evokes much imagery and meaning for both the Jewish and Christian Religions. Lampstands from both the Hebrew tradition as well as seven-branched candelabra from Christian Churches are on display. Aside from the physical lampstands themselves providing theological interpretations, modern designs, via mass production, take the longstanding symbol in wide circulation. As the Menorah has become par-excellence the symbol of Judaism, it is fitting that it was chosen for the emblem for Israel.

Emblem for Israel: The 1948 competition winner for the Emblem of Israel

The exhibition even hosts the 1948 competition winner, signed by Israel’s first Prime Minister.  Here the Menorah is displayed on a shield, in a way reminiscent from the imagery in the book of Zachariah: the candelabrum is flanked by olive trees, from where the oil to light it originates. The Menorah is depicted as it is seen in the Arch of Titus, commemorating the destruction of the Temple under his tyranny. Modern pieces included in the special collection range from Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall to William Kentridge. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, Chagall was heavily influenced by his family upbringing and the Jewish fatalities 1938 as a result of the “Reichskristallnacht” (when Nazi Germans ransacked Jewish-owned establishments). His colorful pastels exhibiting the deep roots of his Hebrew heritage are part of the exhibit.

Marc Chagall, Tribe of Levi, 1960; litografia, 42 x 30 cm; From the Marc Chagall Museum, Vitebsk

Kentridge’s 2016 preparatory drawings for highlight the important scenes from sack of the Temple by Titus’ troops. One can see his preliminary sketches in the Vatican, and then walking down by the Tevere River towards the Jewish quarter, view the drawings immortalized in his Triumph and Lamentations graffiti on the embankment walls between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. The latter artist, Kentridge, brings the sojourn of the Menorah to life through his drawings for the graffiti along the Lungotevere in Roma (2016) illustrate the movement of the Menorah after the destruction of the Temple, and how its history is to the history of Rome.He highlights the scene from the Arch of Titus where the spoils including the Menorah are taken from the Temple.

William Kentridge, Preparatory Drawings for Lungotevere graffiti “Triumph and Lamentations”

The heroes of this exhibit are those who made it possible. It is curated and directed by Arnold Nesselrath (deputy of the Vatican Museums), Alessandra Di Castro (Director of the Jewish Museum of Rome), and Francesco Leone (Associate professor of Art History at Univ. G. Di’Annunzio). Half of the funds needed for the exhibit were made on behalf of the Jewish community thanks to a great endowment by R. Lauder. For a significant part of the rest of the funds, our Patrons family came together in a path of solidarity to make the event possible. The California, New York, Northwest, Michigan, Illinois, Canada Chapters and other private donors all contributed to the exhibition. Thanks to their generosity, visitors to the exhibition may witness the mysteries of faith in a multicultural experience and participate in a journey of interfaith dialogue.