During four and a half whirlwind days in Rome we saw, among other things, the Pantheon, built 113-125 C.E.; St. Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1612; and the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), built 1899-1904. In some ways they all look alike: each is designed to enclose a large, impressive volume of space, horizontal as well as vertical; and the architecture is grand, with the circle, the square, and the Greek orders of columns and capitals repeated over and over again. All three buildings project authority.
So I polished up my 2011 post on this week and next week’s Torah portions: Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority. The symbols of Judah’s and Joseph’s positions of authority include a cylinder seal and a signet ring, both used the way we use a signature to authorize a written order. Judah also has his staff, as a clan leader. And Joseph has his chariot, as the pharaoh’s second-in-command.
The architecture of sacred buildings can also include symbols of authority. Roman Emperor Hadrian built the Pantheon as a temple for all the gods. He had M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT (“built by Marcus Agrippa in his third consulate”) carved on the front to glorify the ruler who erected the previous temple on that site. As well as being a religious building, the Pantheon reinforced the authority of Rome’s government.
St. Peter’s is the pope’s church, in Vatican City. Behind the central altar, where only the pope may serve mass, is the “cathedra”. A cathedra is the seat or throne of a bishop in a cathedral, and the throne of the pope in St. Peter’s. Originally when the pope announced a decision “ex cathedra” he sat in that throne to show that his word had ultimate authority.
The only true stained glass window I saw in St. Peter’s was the sunburst window in the wall above the cathedra, with a symbolic dove in the center representing the Holy Spirit. It is the focal point of the church’s interior, drawing the eye to the relatively dark chair below.
The synagogue that Roman Jews built to celebrate their liberation from the ghetto has several good wooden chairs on the bima, the raised platform at the east end. One is where the person holding the Torah scroll sits while the scrolls is dressed again in its cover, and its two crowns are put on. The other chairs are traditionally used to honor important members of the community.
But the focal point, as in all synagogues, is the ark where the crowned Torah scrolls are stored in between readings.
These symbols put the text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the position of the authority, rather than a person. And any adult Jew (male, in this orthodox synagogue) can step up on the bima and lead the service.