Vaults of Memory at the Spertus Museum of Judaica (1989-1990)

(Press Release 10 August 1989) - "Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome" will be on view from 11 September - 31 December at Spertus Museum, 618 S. Michigan Ave. Assembled by the International Catacomb Society, headquartered in Boston, the collection of nearly 200 colored photographs and casts of burial markers provides a rare transport back to Imperial Rome and illustrates the common influences on Jewish, Christian, and pagan funerary practices at the time of the Roman Empire.

Photographs of elaborate frescoes, epitaphs, sarcophagi, and graffiti dating from the second to the fourth centuries CE reveal a wealth of Judeo-Christian symbolism. Early Christian and Jewish artifacts borrowed from Chicago collections and objects from the Spertus Museum permanent collection will augment the powerful exhibit. Chief designer for the Chicago exhibit is Mark Akgulian; curator is Olga Weiss.

"Vaults of Memory" culminated many years of exploration by art historian Estelle Brettman who, with the cooperation of the Vatican and regional superintendencies of Italy, compiled a photographic record while using only a gas lamp for illumination. The exhibit was first mounted in 1979 at the Boston Public Library, then at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Ann Arbor, Michigan (1981), the National Museum of the Castel S. Angelo in Rome (1985), and once again at the Boston Public Library in 1987. 

Brettman also is executive director of the International Catacomb Society founded in 1980 "to create awareness of the significant ecumenical implications suggested by the imagery of the catacombs, in order to increase understanding among faiths". 

In 400 years of exploration, seven Jewish catacombs have been discovered. Of the seven, only three remain. The importance of their content is reflected in more than 550 inscriptions revealing information on the history and burial rites of the Jews of Ancient Rome.

Spertus Museum will present Estelle Brettman in a lecture/slide presentation on 14 September in Bederman Auditorium. Two in-gallery programs relating to "Vaults of Memory" also will be held during the exhibit. RoseAnn Chasman will illustrate the use of ancient Jewish symbols in a paper-cutting demonstration on 29 October. "Saying Goodbye," a demonstration and explanation of objects traditionally associated with Jewish funeral and burial practices, will be presented by David Jacobson, outreach worker from the Piser Weinstein Funeral Home on 13 November.