The Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope, has important Jewish content in its library and museums, including documents, carved inscriptions, and tombstones from ancient Jewish catacombs.
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The Vatican Library, founded in 1451, has an extensive and important collection of Hebraica and Judaica that dates back centuries — the first important catalogue was compiled in 1675-93. It includes more than 800 manuscripts, almost all dating from the medieval period and Renaissance; as well as printed books. Among the manuscripts is what is thought to be the earliest known Hebrew codex, a midrash (commentary) on the book of Leviticus dating from the end of the 9th century or first half of the 10th century.
The library also possesses various Jewish objects, including a glass vessel with a representation of the Temple of Jerusalem, thought to have been taken from a Jewish catacomb under the Via Labicana. It has been widely reproduced since it was first published in 1882. The collection also includes ancient oil lamps decorated with menorot.
In 1987 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a well-illustrated catalogue of the collection with essays by Vatican librarian Leonard Boyle and historian of Jewish art Joseph Guttmann. An exhibition of that year further increased interest in the origins of this material, especially those of
Since the 1980s, there has been a movement to pressure the Vatican to cede many of its Hebrew manuscripts to ‘the Jewish people’, especially where those manuscripts came into Christian hands through the repression of Jewish communities.
The library is not open to the general public, but is available to qualified researchers and scholars by prior appointment. See list of contact numbers on the Library’s web site.
Until the renegotiation of the Vatican Concordat of 1984, control of all catacombs – Christian and Jewish – remained with the Vatican’s Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana. Six Jewish catacombs were known in Rome in the 19th century. The two extant (Vigna Randanini and Villa Torlonia) are now controlled jointly by the Jewish community of Rome and the Soprintendenza of monuments for Rome. However the Vatican remains in charge of the large collection of Jewish inscriptions and other objects found in these and other catacombs during excavations of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Vatican Museums have the largest collection of these. The Jewish Lapidary of its Pio Christian Museum was established in 1910 and contains ancient Jewish grave markers with inscriptions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, mostly from the Monteverde catacombs on via Portuense. The Galleria del Museo Gregoriano Profano (Gregorian Profane Museum) also has an exhibition of Jewish epitaphs and funerary artefacts, primarily from the Monteverde catacombs.These collections were transferred, under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), from the Lateran Palace to their present building within the Vatican and inaugurated in 1970.
These tombstones are an enormously important source of information about the Jewish community of Italy during the Roman period. Most are flat marble slabs, originally used to close the rock-carved burial slots which lined the catacomb tunnels. The slabs were inscribed with funerary epitaphs, including the names of the deceased. To these were sometimes added symbols – most often alluding to the Temple in Jerusalem, and perhaps to ideas of life after death. The most common representation is of the Temple menorah (plundered by the Romans and carved on the Arch of Titus in the Forum).
The museum also houses column capitals decorated with incised menorot found at the site traditionally identified as the xenodochium (pilgrims’ rest house) of Portus, a former port of ancient Rome, located east of modern Fiumicino.
As part of its Collection of Modern Religious Art the Vatican Museums have paintings by Jewish artists, such as Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, Leonard Baskin, Jack Levine and Abraham Ratner.