Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Jewish artifacts in the Vatican Museums

THE VATICAN MUSEUMS and their approach to displaying Jewish artifacts come in for some criticism from Michael Satlow in The Forward: The Pope, the Jews and the Vatican Museums.

And this, then, brings us back to the Vatican Museums. At least since 2001, Judaism has, in the eyes of the church, ceased to be “profane.” It, like Christianity, is “holy.” Housing the items from the Jewish catacombs in the Gregorian Profane Museum with artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome would thus seem to be in tension with the teachings of the Vatican itself. Jews, in this new teaching, really are not like Greeks and Romans.

Therefore, the museums miss an opportunity to convey their current understanding of the theological place of Jews and Judaism, and perhaps even undermine it. The museums can do a better job reflecting the church’s position.

How? I suggest that the Vatican Museums open a section devoted to Jews and Judaism. This museum should exhibit not only Jewish antiquities, but also other Jewish treasures owned by the Vatican (for example, manuscripts), as well as Christian art that depicts Jews. The very addition of such a museum in the complex would display the same admirable courage as the church itself in dealing with Jews and Judaism, an implicit acknowledgment that Jews are part of the Christian story.

The contents of such a section would be of great interest to a great many visitors. The Vatican’s Judaica collection is interesting in its own right, and now there is no logical place in the museum complex to display it. Just as important, though, these objects often raise troubling questions of acquisition, which touch on the larger issue of historical Jewish-Christian relations. The way to deal with these questions, though, is not to hide the objects.