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Blinged-Out Menorah Debuts at Pioneering Exhibit in Rome

The piece, which is encrusted with precious jewels, was gifted to the Jewish Museum in Rome by the artist Joel Arthur Rosenthal

Joel Arthur Rosenthal's dazzling menorah (Courtesy of "The Menorah: Worship, History and Legend")
smithsonian.com

The menorah is one of the most prominent Jewish symbols, and it has also played an important role Christian liturgy. This enduring religious object tends to take the form of a curved candelabra with a total of seven branches, six of them sweeping out from a central pillar. But at a new exhibition in Rome, visitors can bask in the glow of a menorah quite like any other.

As Vanessa Friedman reports for the New York Times, the reclusive jeweler Joel Arthur Rosenthal has gifted the Jewish Museum in Rome with a menorah shaped like a blossoming almond tree, its branches encrusted with precious stones. The sparkly piece is currently being displayed with 130 other objects at an exhibit titled Menorah: Worship, History, Legend, a joint project between the Jewish Museum and the Vatican Museums.

The exhibition traces “the unbelievable and troubled story of the Menorah going back over several thousand years,” according to a Vatican press release. The joint project is being hailed as a significant step forward for two religious groups that have shared a tumultuous history.

One point of contention between Jews and Catholics has, in fact, been the fate of a solid gold menorah that was looted from the temple of Jerusalem. As Elisabetta Povoledo explains in another piece for the New York Times, Roman soldiers made off with the relic when they destroyed the temple in 70 AD. Some scholars contend that the menorah stayed in Rome until the Vandals sacked the city in 455, but its whereabouts after that point are not known.

While Rosenthal usually shuns grand public gestures—his website describes him as “elusive”— when he heard that the Vatican and the Jewish Museum had decided to collaborate on a new exhibit as a show of unity, he wanted to help out. “I have done all I could to shield myself from what’s going on in the world,” he tells Friedman. “But I was confident because of what [the exhibit] is and where it was going.”

Though the artist has been known to spend up to six years working on a single piece, he crafted his menorah in just five weeks. The final product is made of bronze and aluminum, and dotted with “multitudinous pink enamel flowers and a central bud glowing with a pavé mix of white and gold diamonds, blue and violet sapphires, and pink rubies, one petal lit with stones like a flame,” Friedman writes.  

Rosenthal, who is Jewish, tells Friedman that he decided to model the piece after the branches of an almond tree because when he was conceptualizing the project, all he could think of were his grandmother’s almond cookies. The menorah reflects other memories from his childhood—with, of course, a little extra bling.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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