The Temple's Sacred Vessels Brought to Life

IN PICTURES: An effort to digitally restore portions of ancient Rome's triumphal Arch of Titus is expected to produce one of the oldest known depictions of the Jerusalem Temple's sacred vessels, in original colors.

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Earlier this month, a Yeshiva University-led team of international historians and scientists descended upon the first-century Arch of Titus in Rome's city center. Equipped with cameras and high-tech 3-D scanners, they looked for traces of color on one of the marble arch's three iconic, 1,900-year-old bas reliefs – the famous depiction of Roman soldiers carrying the seven-branched, solid-gold Temple Menorah, the Table of the Showbread, and Temple Trumpets, following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. in a triumphal procession through Rome.

"The idea that the Arch of Titus could have looked different, that we could understand it better, that we could viscerally see what they saw, is so bubbling and exciting for me," says Dr. Steven Fine, a professor of Jewish history who leads the New York City-based University's Center for Israel Studies and its Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project. "It cuts through 2,000 years, back to the moment when it was taken away."

The remarkably well-preserved, 15-meter-high arch – constructed soon after the death of Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus in 81 C.E. – commemorates the Roman triumph awarded to Emperor Vespasian and to Titus, his son and heir, for their victory in the Jewish War (66-74 C.E.), during which Jerusalem's Second Temple was destroyed.

Over the millennia the arch emerged as a symbol of the Jewish Diaspora, and for centuries Jewish law prohibited Jews from walking through it so as not to give honor to the conquering Romans. The whereabouts of the menorah remains the object of scholarly debate and the stuff of legends, though Fine, a scholar of the history of Judaism in the Roman world, believes it, and the other Temple spoils, did not survive antiquity. He reckons they were probably melted down when the Roman Empire was destroyed in the 5th century.

The State of Israel adopted the Arch's depiction of the Temple Menorah as its official state emblem in 1949.

"Technological breakthroughs in the last 10 years have allowed us to do two things," says Dr. Bernard D. Frischer, the project's co-director for technology and a professor of art history and classics at the University of Virginia. "To find more color that is not visible to the naked eye, and do it in a way that is non-invasive, that does not require that we take physical samples from the monument."

While in Rome, a team from the Italian firm Unocad SRL-Technology & Innovation used special scanners to create high-quality, 3-D images of the reliefs.

Dr. Heinrich Piening of Bavaria, Germany, a specialist in the usage of light to detect evidence of polychromy, or the use of many colors, on artifacts from classical antiquity, used an innovative UV-VIS (Ultra-Violet Visual) spectronomy technique to shine different frequencies of light onto the Arch's surface.

"Miraculously, from the return 'bounce' of that light we can analyze the material on the surface that must be there, given the fact that the 'bounce' we got back has a different frequency from the light we shined onto the surface," explains Frischer, who in 2007 directed the "Rome Reborn" project, a 3-D digital reconstruction of the city of ancient Rome in 320 C.E. He is now planning a similar reconstruction of Jerusalem of antiquity.

With the on-site survey of the Menorah relief completed, experts are now using the scans to create a 3-D "state" model of the relief as it appears today, while a professional restorer digitally "reconstructs" the relief's broken or missing pieces. Once the tests for color traces are analyzed, the relief will be digitally "painted" in what experts believe was its original color. Both Fine and Frischer expressed the hope that the $8,000 pilot project's test results will warrant a full-scale study of the entire arch in the near future.

Fine, who noted the cooperation of the Italian government in the project, is confident the world will soon see the original colors of the Temple Menorah, as described by the Roman-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who witnessed the Roman victory procession in 70 C.E.

"Through the use of technology, it is possible to understand better what went on there and to understand Josephus better," says Fine. "Now it is possible to re-imagine the Temple Menorah."

The Arch of TitusCredit: Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies

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