A Review of the YU Museum’s “Arch of Titus” Exhibit

By: Shira Fournier  |  October 19, 2017

Over the Sukkot break, I decided to take a trip to the YU Museum and take a look at its new exhibit, “The Arch of Titus: From Jerusalem to Rome, and Back.” Not having learned about it in my previous schooling, getting to learn about the Arch, and view the replica that was made for the exhibit was a real treat. The exhibit explores, through writing and artifacts, the conquer of Rome over Jerusalem, and the implications of this event on Jewish history. The exhibition gives over a thorough telling of this history, beginning with the conquering of Jerusalem by Titus through the creation of the state of Israel.

From 66-74 CE, the Romans went to war with the Jews in hopes of conquering the holy city of Jerusalem, and their holy Temple. Celebrating their victory, the Romans destroyed the Temple, and took whatever was left inside, including the big golden Menorah. In honor of this success, the Arch of Titus was built to commemorate Titus’s victory over Jerusalem, and his other victories as well. Within the Arch is a depiction of the Roman soldiers carrying their spoils of war, which includes the vessels used in the Temple.

The Jews regarded the Arch of Titus with contempt and sadness. The Church humiliated the Jews by making them walk through the Arch and adorn the sculpture inside. Christians viewed the Arch as a proof of God’s punishment to the Jews for not converting to Christianity. Thanks to the Christians’ interest in the architecture and meaning behind the Arch, the Arch has been preserved over the years. Through years of wear and tear, many leaders have kept up the restorations of the Arch. Napoleon began restoring the Arch, and then made his own version of the Arch, Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. When Pope Pius VII came to power, he restored the Arch to its original glory, making it the center of Catholic Rome. Since then, Jews have begun a tradition of refusing to walk under the Arch.

Years later, early Zionists viewed the Arch of Titus as a symbol of Exile, and the return of the Menorah to Israel symbolized their goals in the new State. In fact, throughout the history of the Arch’s existence, Jews did not let the depressing history of the Arch ruin their hope. Rather, they utilized that hope in their art, poetry, literature, and public performances. The famous Menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus has been the inspiration for emblems in both synagogues and the military. The Menorah was even used as the insignia of the Jewish Legion of the British Army during World War I. An interesting fact that I learned while examining the exhibit was that the Menorah portrayed in the Arch of Titus is the same Menorah picked as the symbol for the new State of Israel. Cool, huh? By choosing the Menorah as its emblem, a better understanding of the disaster that led to the building of the Arch was integrated into the new State’s foundations.  

In 1947, after the United Nations declared Israel as Jewish State, the Jews of Rome, together with Holocaust survivors, finally walked under the Arch of Titus in reverse, symbolizing and ending the exile that was brought about by Titus. Today, the Arch of Titus still stands in Via Sacra, Rome in Italy, depicting what once was, and what will never be again.

Through reading the panels of history on the wall, and viewing the artifacts displayed in the viewing cases centered in the room, you can get a pretty good sense of the history behind the Arch of Titus and the symbolic Menorah. Each panel covering the walls of the room distinguishes and explains the history behind the momentous Arch. Following the history of the Arch on the walls is the explanation of the historic Menorah. Pictures and descriptions show how the Menorah inspired other artists, like Nahum Gutman, to create artwork featuring the Menorah.

But the main attraction of the exhibit is the recreating of the “Spoils of Jerusalem” on the wall. Not only does the presentation illustrate how the Arch looks today, but it also depicts what the carving had looked like back in 82 BCE, and what it would look like in color. This can be seen nowhere but at this exhibit. Through this presentation, you can truly get a picture of what the carving must have looked like when it was made all the way back in 82 CE. A slide show tells of how the scene was restored and copied over to make the imitation that is in the exhibition today.

So, if you don’t want to miss out on this incredible viewing and learning opportunity, be sure to check out the Arch of Titus exhibit from September 14, 2017 through January 14, 2018 at the YU Museum on 15 West 16th Street.

The exhibition was made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Leon Levy Foundation, The Slomo and Cindy Silvian Foundation, the Leon Charney Legacy Fund of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, George Blumenthal and by Friends and Donors of Yeshiva University Museum.