The irony could not be more striking.
More than a billion Catholics around the world wait with bated breath as the College of Cardinals prepares to begin the procedure to select a new Pope. Since Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention last month to retire, the leadership of the church will meet behind closed doors in the Sistine Chapel to agree upon a replacement.
And the location for that momentous decision has a remarkable connection to the Jewish people and the site of its holiest place on earth.
Let me share with you some of the historic background.
According to Roman tradition, the Palatine Hill was where Romulus founded the city in 753 BCE. Every Roman ruler constructed one spectacular Palace after another on that hill. When the church came to power it was determined to prove that it replaced the emperors as the religious spokesmen for God. In the Middle Ages, on that very spot, they built the Palatial Chapel, designed to be a harbinger of the coming triumph of Christianity. Here was a place of prayer for the Pope himself, and its opulence was meant to overshadow that of any other Royal Chapel on earth.
When Pope Sixtus IV began his reign in 1471, the Palatine Chapel was falling apart. It was a heavy building resting perilously on the soft soil of the former Etruscan graveyard slope of the Vatican. Sixtus spent vast amounts of the Vatican’s gold on reviving the splendors of Rome, rebuilding churches, founding the Vatican library and – his most famous project of all – the reconstruction of the Palatine Chapel which, with no attempt at humility, he renamed the Sistine Chapel after himself.
Work began on renovating the Chapel in 1475. By one of those inexplicable serendipities of history, in that very same year in the Tuscan town of Caprese, Michelangelo Buonarroti was born and the unparalleled significance of the Sistine Chapel as the repository of the world’s greatest artistic genius was much later to be assured.
We do not know whether the all-important decision that followed came from the Pope himself or from the Florentine architect he commissioned. What we do know of a certainty is that the Sistine Chapel was designed to be a copy of the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon many centuries before.
The exact measurements are found in the Bible. As recorded by Samuel the prophet, the measurements of the heichal, the long, rectangular back section of the first holy Temple completed by King Solomon and his architect King Hiram of Tyre in 930 B.C.E., are 134.28 feet long by 43.99 feet wide by 67.91 feet high. Those were the exact dimensions used for the construction of the Sistine Chapel.
More remarkable still, and a fact that most visitors to the Chapel do not realize, is that in keeping with the intent to simulate the sacred site that existed in ancient Jerusalem, the sanctuary was built on two levels. The Western half, containing the altar and the private area for the Pope and his court, is about six inches higher than the Eastern half, originally meant for the common onlookers. This elevated section corresponds to the farthest recesses of the original holy Temple – the Kodesh Kodoshim , the Holy of Holies – where only the high priest could enter, only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
To show exactly where the Porochet, the curtain separating the two, would have been in the temple of Jerusalem, a huge white marble partition grill was commissioned, with seven marble flames on top, to correspond to the holy menorah that glorified the Jewish sanctuary in biblical times.
What was the purpose of this mimicry of the holiest place of worship for the Jewish people?
Its theological significance can best be realized by noting that this Catholic effort was something explicitly forbidden to Jews. In the Talmud it is clearly legislated that no one may construct a functioning full-size copy of the holy temple of Jerusalem in a location other than the temple mount itself. Neither the Pope nor his architect however felt themselves constrained by Talmudic law. They chose to build an incredible, full-size copy of the inner sanctum of King Solomon’s temple right in the middle of Renaissance Rome.
Clearly their intent was to give concrete expression to the theological concept of successionism, an idea that had already found an important place in Christian thought. Successionism means that one faith can replace a previous one that has ceased to function. Specifically, the Vatican preached that because the Jews rejected the teachings of Christianity they were punished with the loss of their holy Temple and the city of Jerusalem as well as being damned to wander the earth forever as a divine warning to anyone who might refuse to obey the church.
We leave it for readers to contemplate what the rebirth of Israel and the return of the Jews to their homeland means in this context.
Today the Sistine Chapel, in all probability because of its magnificent Michelangelo frescoes, is the most visited museum in the world. More than four million people a year come to view its treasures.
Most of them are unaware of the intent of its architects to have Rome replace Jerusalem and the Sistine Chapel to be a substitute for the Temple of Solomon.
It is important to note that since the second Vatican Council in 1962 the church itself has categorically rejected the theological underpinnings of its intolerance towards the Jews.
It is to be hoped that as the Cardinals gather to choose their new Pope in the very place originally meant to demonstrate Christian successionism, they will find the wisdom to follow in the ways of mutual respect, brotherhood and understanding. In that way perhaps the Sistine Chapel will be able to best fulfill the message of Solomon’s Temple.