The Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project

Dr. Steven Fine of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies  in New York is heading The Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project in Rome, which has as its aim the scanning of the menorah panel for evidence of ancient color.

Today the results were announced:

From June 5 to 7, 2012 an international team of scholars led by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies in partnership with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma undertook a pilot study of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, the ancient civic center of Rome, Italy. The focus of attention was the Menorah panel and the relief showing the deification of Titus at the apex of the arch.

The arch was originally dedicated after the Emperor Titus’ death in 81 CE and celebrates his victory in the Jewish War of 66-74 CE, which climaxed with the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple in the summer of 70 CE.

The arch has three bas reliefs. One shows the deification of Titus.  Two other reliefs depict the triumphal procession held in Rome in 71 CE: in one we see Roman soldiers carrying the spoils of war through the city, including the famous Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum) and other treasures of the destroyed Temple. These were put on display in Rome in the Temple of Peace not far from the arch. The second panel shows Titus riding in triumph through the city.

High resolution three-dimensional scans of the Menorah and the deification reliefs were made, and part of the Menorah relief was examined to determine whether any traces of paint decoration were preserved.  A Breuckmann GmbH 3D scanner was used for the data capture. UV-VIS spectrometry was employed to detect color on the marble reliefs.

The pilot project was a complete success. The scan data were processed to create a 3D representation of the form of the reliefs with sub-millimeter accuracy. Traces of yellow ochre were found on the arms and base of the Menorah.  This discovery is consistent with biblical, early Christian, and Talmudic writings and particularly eye-witness descriptions of the golden menorah by the first century historian Josephus.

In the next phase, the team plans to expand the search for ancient paint over the entire surface of the arch, which will also be scanned in 3D. The data collected will enable the Yeshiva University team to create a three-dimensional digital model of how the arch originally appeared, including the colors decorating its surface. The model will be added to Rome Reborn, a 3D digital model of the entire city of Rome at the peak of its development.

Dr. Fine on Site in Rome

It is interesting to note that polychromy is becoming a new focus in Jewish Studies. Usually synagogues and ancient buildings are shown in white, but originally much more color was used in the decoration of buildings than we would expect.

In the case of the Jerusalem Temple, it is often portrayed as a building with a white facade, but Josephus called Herod’s Temple “a structure more note-worthy than any under the sun” (Ant. 15.412) and in War 5.207–226 he gives a glowing description of the Temple (The Quest, p. 373):

The sacred edifice itself, the holy Temple, in the central position, was approached by a flight of twelve steps. The façade was of equal height and breadth, each being a hundred cubits; but the building behind was narrower…. The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could as- tound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of the purest white. From its sum- mit protruded sharp golden spikes to prevent birds from settling upon them and polluting the roof.

The traces of yellow ochre that were found on the arms and base of the Menorah may support Josephus’ description of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem.

According to Josephus, Herod's Temple looked like a snow-clad mountain, for all that was not overlaid with gold was of the purest white and it lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye. When the sun rose in the east, its fiery reflection blinded the people who watched the Temple from the Mount of Olives. Even at night, the Temple was very impressive to look at. No wonder that some of Jesus' disciples remarked "how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God" (Matthew 24.1; Luke 21.5). © Leen Ritmeyer

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2 Responses to The Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project

  1. Robert Kerson says:

    Dr. Ritmeyer:
    You write the color of the base of the Manorah is consistent with ancient depictions. But the shape of the base seems to have been triangular or resting on a tripod which is not shown on the arch. Also the base has graven images of the Zodiac. Would you care to comment?

  2. Nachum says:

    The question of the base has been much discussed. It’s possible that the original broke off on the way to Rome and was replaced with this one; it’s also possible that Herod changed to a base (or incorporated it into a brand-new menorah) with a more “Roman” design. (The base does not contradict the basic requirements of Jewish law- indeed, the Temple Institute’s menorah has a similar base, with three small feet underneath.) There are also those who have argued (based at least partially on ambiguous language in Josephus) that this was not the main menorah but a similar-shaped regular lamp from the Temple, but this seems unlikely.

    As to the animals on the base, the Talmud deals with this (without mentioning the menorah): It states that an image of a sea monster with a nymph riding on its back is idolatrous, but without the nymph, there’s no issue. (Perhaps not ideal, but legally OK.) And, indeed, the sea monster on the base has no nymph on its back, although you’d expect to see one in Roman art. Perhaps the Talmud is reflecting the original justification, allowance, or compromise that allowed the design on the base in the first place.

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