After a visit to Rome by Doreen in January 2016

When we visited Rome for a bridge meeting I had many hours to again explore the city. Viewing the archaeological remains and churches is a contra punt to Israel's history. Walking through the Vatican Museum on the way to the Sistine Chapel is mindboggling. The sheer number of works of art collected throughout the centuries by the popes is staggering. A thought occurred to me, that popes showed their power through art, rabbis through learning. But both hold an absolute power over their followers.

Nowhere is Creation more dramatically conceived than in the recently cleaned frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. How breathtaking is the moment before the creation of Adam. Adam, eyes open, languidly stretching toward life while God surrounded by cherubs leans towards him, enclosed within a form suggesting the brain (for a detailed discussion: Creation of Adam ). Others point to Adam’s bellybutton and red and blue cords around the figure of God, suggesting the womb.  

On the ceiling are the prophets from the bible.  Of course, The Last Judgement is riveting. It is interesting that the bits of cloth hiding sexual organs were later added as the many nudes were seen to be unfitting in a holy chapel. Below on the walls are frescoes by Botticelli, Perugino and others, of events in the life of Moses with parallels (typology) to Jesus’ life.  I was sorry that I did not bring binoculars as many paintings are high above on ceilings of churches.

Continuing to St. Peter's Basilica is Michelangelo's La Pieta. Done when he was 24, it has no parallel.  It was carved from a single slab of Carrara marble. The Holy Land has paintings but few statues and has no corresponding representation.  In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is Our Lady of Sorrows with a sword to her heart, commemorating Mary taking Jesus down from the Cross. It is between the XIth and XII Stations of the Cross. Together with La Pieta and Stabat Mater, these three subjects are the most common commemorations of the event; La Pieta dates from the 15th Century, long after important churches were established in the Holy Land. Also in St Peter’s is the famous statue of St Peter who at Caesarea Phillipi or Banias, as we know it today, professed Jesus as Christ and was given the keys to heaven. This is the basis for popes being seen as the continuing representatives of Peter. The only statue I know of Peter in Israel is at Capernaum by the Kinneret. 


San Pietro in Vincoli is above the Coliseum, a little off the beaten track, but definitely worth the climb to see the statue of Moses by Michelangelo. Originally commissioned to be part of the tomb of Pope Julius II standing above the tomb, today it is on the floor. The horns of Moses are usually described as a mistranslation of ‘karnayim,’ beams of light, touched by God (paralleled later by Jesus with light around head). There is a suggestion that the horns were not meant to be seen but to reflect light when Moses was supposed to be high above the tomb.

It is an arresting portrayal in stone that seems alive and pliable. Moses’ right hand and arm are both resting on and guarding the tablets of law; the hand is relaxed suggesting a complete intimacy and familiarity with the tablets.  His body is relaxed with one hand playing with his beard even though the position of his feet suggests he is prepared to stand up in a second. But Moses' gaze is hypnotic, in total contrast to the rest of his body. His face is so intense and fierce - watching to see if children of Israel will return to worshipping golden calves? 

Researchers question whether this is Moses after receiving the tablets for the first or second time, as they seem to be blank. I would like to think that the Ten Commandments are etched inside. Freud, amongst others, spent days trying to analyze this statue and came to some surprising conclusions!


We have theaters and stadia in Caesarea and  Bet Shean, but nothing equals the Coliseum. It was built by Vespasian who led the Roman campaign to suppress the 4-year Jewish Revolt in Judea. When he was declared Emperor his son Titus continued his work.. The Coliseum is 4 stories high, and could seat 55,000 people within minutes through 80 arched entrances. Our daughter Vered pointed out they didn't need to find parking! Gladiatorial fights and wild animals - bread and circuses - kept the public happy. Two floors below the arena animals were kept in cages. They were winched up when due to fight and appeared dramatically through trap doors. The arena floor was covered in sand to absorb blood from animals and gladiators. We too have a gladiator, Resh Lakish. He was known for his extraordinary strength and was both a bandit and a gladiator who worked the circuses fighting wild beasts. When he mistakenly took Rabbi Yohanan for a woman, he jumped into the water next to him. Rabbi Yohanan, who was very beautiful, encouraged him to study the Torah and he became a great sage while living in Zippori. Thumbs up for the gladiator-sage!

In the Forum the first of the triumphal arches is the Arch of Constantine There is also the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. Constantine, in 312CE, about to fight the Battle of Milvan Bridge against Maxentius for supreme control of the Roman Empire, is said to have had a vision that if he had the Chi Rho (symbol of Christ) on his standard he would be victorious under divine protection. And he did. He subsequently legalized Christianity which later became the official religion of the Roman Empire, replacing paganism. A common symbol today, it is highly visible on the front of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Constantine himself converted to Christianity only on his deathbed. 

Titus Arch

Then there is Titus' Arch, named after the man who destroyed the Second Temple and Judea’s independence. It is the most meaningful for us. The Arch was built by Titus' brother in 81 CE to honour his father Emperor Vespasian and his brother Titus. Carved inside the arch, on one side is Titus with horses and carriage in his Triumph in Rome. On the other side are Roman soldiers carrying spoils of Temple: the menorah, silver trumpets, incense shovels and the shewbread table. It is the last depiction of the menorah by some-one who saw it. Graffiti in the Old City of Jerusalem and elsewhere depicts the menorah as having three legs. Puzzling is the menorah in the Arch of Titus in that it has a solid base with pagan symbols on it. Did the Romans change the base to make its transport to Rome easier?  Or was it Herod? In any case it is this menorah that has become part the symbol of the State of Israel as well as the Diaspora and has a prominent place in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

The Forum of Augustus celebrates the victory of Octavian over Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. I saw nothing commemorating Battle of Actium and Octavian's victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.

The Pantheon was built by Hadrian. Light and airy its only light source comes from the oculus (aperture) at top. Its intricate coffered design is suspended in huge dome, even today the largest unreinforced concrete structure in the world. Rafael’s tomb is in the Pantheon. Hadrian is known for Hadrian’s Wall which became the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire.

For Jewish people it was he, Hadrian, who so viciously suppressed the Bar Kochva Revolt when he decided to build a pagan temple in place of the destroyed Temple II. He is described in Hebrew as “shehik atzamot”  (the bone crusher) and is remembered as a cruel ruler who actually flattened Jerusalem, expelled the Jews from their capital and rebuilt a pagan city in its place called Aelia Capitolina. He also tried to rub out from memory the name of Judea, changing it to Syria Palestrina, after the Philistines, the hated enemy of biblical times.  Hadrian expelled the Jews from Jerusalem, forbad circumcision and the teaching and practice of Judaism, trying to eradicate it. Hadrian is buried in the massive Castel Saint Angelo by the River Tiber. Currently (2016) there are three statues of him on display at the Israel Museum.

Via Dei Fori Imperiali was built by Mussolini for parades. Along it today by Trajan's markets are statues of Roman Emperors, including Antoninus.

When Hadrian’s decree against circumcision of babies was still in force, baby Yehuda was circumcised, despite the harsh punishment awaiting him and his parents. Mother and baby were sent off to Rome to stand before the emperor. On the way the Jewish mother met a Roman mother who graciously suggested swapping her uncircumcised son with that of baby Yehuda, thus saving both mother and child from harsh punishment. Tradition continues that the babies remained good friends through their illustrious careers – the Jewish baby was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, and the other baby became the Roman Emperor Antoninus, whose statue you can find among the statues of emperors on the Imperial Way.

San Croce in Gerusalemme. Queen Helena, who unlike her son the Emperor Constantine, was Christian. She made the arduous journey to Jerusalem. There she asked the questions "Where..?" Where was Jesus born, died, crucified and from where did he ascend to heaven? I’m not sure if it was tourist guides or church fathers who gave her the information, but at the site of the crucifixion, where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands today tradition maintains they found three crosses, nails and part of the titulus, the tablet setting forth in three languages the reason for the condemnation.  The cross remained in Jerusalem but Helena returned with part of the Cross and part of Pontius Pilate’s inscription  INRI  (which I didn’t see) which are the relics of San Croce today.

If you go to very bottom of  the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, down the steps past the Armenian chapel you come to the Chapel of the Finding of the True Cross.  Tradition holds that three crosses were found (of Jesus and the two thieves) and tested. When a dead boy was brought back to life the True Cross was identified.  It was subsequently captured by the Persians in 614 CE but returned by Heraclius the Byzantine emperor. During the Crusader period a sliver of the wood embedded in a golden cross was  taken to bolster the Crusader forces at the Battle of Hattin and captured by Saladin. There are reports that the last mention of it is that it was displayed in the streets of Damascus and afterwards it disappeared.

And to end it off, who cannot eat pasta, pizza or drink wine without remembering Italy. Our best recommendation it to eat at Restaurant 34 near the Spanish Steps. A great, very reasonable dining experience.