Vaults of Memory

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Vaults of Memory Online Exhibition

A Project in Ecumenism, Education, and Preservation

"There were several aims envisioned for the exhibit, "Vaults of Memory". Foremost was the raising of awareness by juxtaposing color photographs of the motifs shared by different religions of the Roman Empire in an aesthetically appealing way using a variety of artistic media... with a view toward preserving and documenting the remaining Jewish catacombs in Rome."                                - Estelle S. Brettman, Founder, International Catacomb Society


Estelle Shohet Brettman

The photographic exhibit “Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome”, created by Estelle Brettman and owned by ICS, provides a unique virtual tour of the catacombs of Rome. Glimpses of the Jewish catacombs of Villa Torlonia and Vigna Randanini, as well as of Christian and pagan cemeteries, document the condition of paintings still visible on the walls and ceilings of these underground burial places and the shared symbols of Jewish, Christian and Pagan funerary art. The exhibition has been met with enthusiastic response at the Boston Public Library, the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, and the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, among other venues.

The complete Vaults of Memory exhibition in its original website form can be viewed on line  (table of contents). The exhibit catalog is in pdf at: VaultsofMemoryBook.

"Vaults of Memory" provides a rare transport back to late imperial Rome with impressive contemporary connotations. The faithful replicas of epitaphs, fragments of sarcophagi, Roman lamps, and the photographs of frescoes and ritual objects reveal precursors of present-day beliefs and symbols shared by Jews, Christians and pagans of the late antique period.  Symbols like the seven-branched menorah or the cross, the peacock, the pomegranate, and the dolphin shared meanings of salvation and immortality which transcended a given faith or cult.

Several elements of the exhibition seem to preface modern education, medicine, and science.  A somewhat startling lesson in anatomy shoes the physician-teacher surrounded by his students while the subject of the lesson appears to be very much aware of the proceedings.  Another terra-cotta relief shows a woman as midwife presiding at a birth.

The exhibition is the culmination of many years of research and exploration in such burial sites as Rome, Northern Africa, Greece, and the Near East by Estelle Brettman, Executive Director of the International Catacomb Society.  Working often with the cooperation of the Vatican and members of the regional superintendencies of Italy, Mrs. Brettman was able to gain access to museum storage and closed catacombs where she photographed with a gas lamp.  The photographs and casts in the exhibition come from this research.

Particularly evident in the exhibition are inclusions from the Jewish catacombs of Rome, which remain largely inaccessible to tourists and students of religion.  The earliest known discovery of a Jewish catacomb in Rome took place in the early 1600s, but the site is now lost.  The most recently discovered Jewish catacomb was disclosed accidentally in 1919 by laborers reinforcing the foundations of a stable in the Villa Torlonia.  In 400 years of exploration, no fewer than seven Jewish catacombs have been discovered in Rome.  Much of the material in the "Vaults of Memory" exhibition is derived from these burial sites.

Click here for a photographic gallery of the Vaults of Memory exhibit on display in Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, Ann Arbor Michigan, Jerusalem, and Rome.  

Vaults of Memory was made possible by the generosity of many organizations and individuals, including the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation; the Samuel H. Kress Foundation; The Eleanor Nayor Dana Charitable Trust; Massport; the Massachusetts Arts Lottery Council; the Boston Globe Foundation; the Polaroid Foundation; the Bank of New England; the Stone/Teplow Families Charitable Fund of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston; the Italian Government Tourist Office; and International Catacomb Society members and supporters.

"I have devoted many years to the exploration and interpretation of the Jewish catacombs in Italy. What began as an intensely personal interest in the historical and cultural bonds uniting Christians and Jews has grown beyond personal bounds. My research into the origins and sharing of common funerary symbols has culminated in a unique exhibit on Jewish and Christian imagery in the catacombs of Rome that will begin touring in the fall of 1981. This project has captured the attention and interest of scholars and laymen in this country as well as abroad. It has been described as "socially significant and archivally important" by such people as the late Dr. Stanley Bloom, former first vice-president in charge of research at Polaroid. Approximately ten museums and institutions have requested the exhibit to tour here and abroad. The Vatican is also ready to support the exhibit in Rome in the near future. This is an unprecedented offer by the Vatican, as they will supply material never before seen outside of Vatican Museum storage, and now accessible only by special permission. We have also received support and encouragement of museums and archaeologists in Israel, Turkey, Greece, West Germany, North Africa, France, England, and, of course, the U.S.A. Further information and insights into the oldest continuing community of the Jewish Diaspora will enrich us all and will pave the way for future investigations in many other areas in Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. The horizons are unlimited." (Estelle S. Brettman to David Saltonstall, Mellon Foundation, 9 June 1981).

"For many years I have been interested in the interacting influences among ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, and the origins of the symbols and myths used by man in his efforts to understand the vicissitudes of nature and to meet the challenge of his own mortality. What better place to study this than in the extant sites where ideas are expressed by concrete representations, and archaeology plays its important role of unveiling history. Hence my 27 years of exploration of archaeological sites in and around the Mare Nostrum....In the spring of 1976, Fr. Umberto M. Fasola, now Director of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, granted me special permission to visit the little-known Jewish catacomb under the stables of the Villa Torlonia on the via Nomentana. During World War II, Mussolini lived in this villa over a 5-acre labyrinth of burials of the Roman Jews whose descendants he called "strangers in Italy." Paradoxically, these descendants are considered the oldest Romans, as their history in Rome originated at least 2,000 years ago, which in fact makes them the oldest continuing Jewish community of the Diaspora in Europe...The excitement engendered by this long-awaited entrance into the catacombs under Villa Torlonia was soon quenched by the discovery that the flash attachment of my camera had failed here 30 feet underground in these dim recesses carved from the soft, moist volcanic Roman tufa, and only the careful manipulation of the very patient custodian's gas lantern would permit a rudimentary documentation. Strangely enough, while the results lacked the clear definition I sought, the consensus was that these slides created a romantic, evocative contrast in the unanticipated exhibit which followed 3 and a half years later.Upon my departure from this frustrating sojourn, an even more disheartening disaster befell me when the famed (or infamous) scippatori of Rome (thieves on motorcycles) ripped my camera from my shoulder as I set out to photograph at the Christian catacomb of Domitilla to examine parallel symbols used by pagan Jews and early Christians of Rome.In spite of the rare privilege of being permitted to visit normally closed galleries, because of the theft of my camera, I could only make cursory notes and crude drawings again by gas lanern held by the fossor (excavator) who had difficulty finding his way out during the latter part of the four hours spent in this dim, mysterious maze in the bowels of the earth. But why should fate have been any kinder to us than it was to the famed Antonio Bosio, "Columbus of the catacombs" of Roma Sotterranea, who in 1593 had also lost his way in this multi-level complex perforated by thousands of graves...To continue with my underground odyssey, in early 1978 during the course of an investigation of an off-the-beaten track Byzantine necropolis (which dated back to Hellenistic first-second century BCE usage), I literally stumbled upon a rough stone incised with a graffiti of a menorah...Then, in fact, I was truly hooked on the bearing of adjoining burials - pagan, Jewish, and Christian, on the sharing of motifs, and of the borrowing from Old Testament themes and pagan myths - all, of course, adapted to the eschatological beliefs and religious tenets of the individual religions involved... Finally, when the catacomb under Villa Torlonia was blocked to prevent vandalization because the grounds above had been opened to serve as a public park, the need to form a committee to preserve and document existing material and excavate further at other sites became apparent. It seemed that the most effective way to initiate this effort would be to organize a visual essay juxtaposing the shared images and tracing their roots back to the second millennium BCE and even earlier."

Narrative Description of Vaults of Memory:
"Two major elements comprise this project, which explores visually and textually the intersections of man's culture, beliefs, art, and history in the catacombs of Rome: an exhibition and an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition will consist of a sequence of aesthetically mounted, large photographs, text panels, drawings, and plans of Jewish and Early Christian art from the catacombs in Rome. The exhibition will be an expanded version of a showing first held in the Boston Public Library in December 1979-January 1980. Like the Boston exhibition, the visual component of the show will be augmented by artifacts and other materials from the collections of the host and/or collaborating institutions (for the Boston exhibit, artifacts were drawn from the Museum of Fine Arts and Semitic Museum of Harvard).

The exhibition catalogue will serve as both a tour guide and background explanation of the rare photographs and artifacts of the symbols shared by the various religions of the late Roman empire. Planned as a publication of approximately 150 pages in an 8 1/2 by 11 inch format, the volume will include about 107 colored prints (some full-page, others half-page and quarter-page) plus fourteen sepia and 82 black and white photographs with descriptive/interpretive text accompanying each photo. An introduction, with prints, plans, and drawings will put forth the background of the exhibition in its historical/religious/socio-economic context. Personal experiences related to the exhibit will add color and a sense of immediacy to the more formal data. The forward will be written by a known scholar in the field. A short bibliography, glossary, and index will be supplied.

Project background: The project represents the culmination of one researcher's (Estelle Brettman) twenty-seven years of exploration and concern for the conservation of archaeological sites in and around the Mare Nostrum. This long period of study was intensified by her observations and findings during a visit in the spring of 1976 to the little-known Jewish catacombs under the stables of the Villa Torlonia in Rome. Then in November 1978 the impetus for the present project was accelerated with Brettman's research trip to Roma Sotterranea and other sites. There, in the vaulted ceilings, frescoed walls and inscriptions, were revealed the symbols and history of Jewish, Christian, and even pagan religions. Again and again, the parallelism, the links, the interacting influences among early religions were dramatically unveiled in the dim light of a gas lantern or the flash of a camera. Obscure, visually unknown messages from the past were coming to light - and mandating research and interpretation - in image and epigraphy. This exploration proved the background and impetus for the present project.

"The exhibit must be put into the care and guardianship of a compatible educational institution which will display and/or circulate the exhibition as widely and as appropriately as possible. At present, the exhibit is located in Jerusalem, where it was recently on view in the Bible Lands Museum. It has been shown in a number of university and private museums in the United States and, under Vatican auspices, at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, We are now considering possible future venues in Europe.
Second, Mrs, Brettman's book, presently being edited and prepared for the press, must be published. The vast quality of visual and bibliographical material which Mrs. Brettman gathered is being catalogued and, as is the text, put into an electronic database for preservation, easy retrieval, and to facilitate publication
Third, it was Mrs. Brettman's hope that the society would become affiliated with and support an academic institution of statue with views consonant with the Society's: one that would further the educational and ecumenical ideas which informed her life and the work to which she was so committed - literally, to her last breath." (Howard Weintraub)

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