Obscure treasures

In Marsala, Sicily, eight extraordinary tapestries depicting the life and times of Josephus Flavius beckon visitors.

The Marsala tapestry museum is almost hidden around the corner at the main piazza, behind the Mother Church (photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
The Marsala tapestry museum is almost hidden around the corner at the main piazza, behind the Mother Church
(photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
If you mention The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries at the Musée National du Moyen Age (formerly the Cluny Museum) in Paris, most culturally curious travelers nod their heads and say they have seen them or want to see the six Renaissance marvels that depict the five senses plus a more obscure one entitled “a mon seul désir.”
But if you mention the eight dazzling Renaissance, Jewish-themed tapestries at the Tapestry Museum, in Marsala, Sicily, the same travelers furrow their brows, shrug, and confess they have never heard of them. They are worldclass, incalculably precious tapestries, and, incredibly, largely unknown.
The tapestries are housed in a small museum behind the cathedral in the historic center. The custodian said that very few people visit, and that until fairly recently, the masterpieces – which reportedly were a gift to the Marsala Cathedral in 1589 from Monsignor Antonio Lombardo, archbishop of Messina – were in storage. They were going to be sold to raise money in 1893, but there was such an outcry that the idea was abandoned, and over time the tapestries were largely forgotten. In 1934 they were exhibited, even though the colors had faded and they had sustained damage. In 1965 funds were raised for their restoration and two of them were put on display.
Then they were warehoused in oblivion until, finally, they found their present home.
THE PROBABLE origin of the masterpieces was Flemish, from Brussels. Legend has it that Tudor Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII, was given refuge by the archbishop in Messina during a storm, and she gave them to him as a gift. They are so large that most rooms of the museum feature only one or two of them.
When seen as a whole, the artworks tell the story of Josephus Flavius (or Flavius Josephus), the Jewish historian, scholar, and master storyteller who was born into a high-status family in Roman Judea in the first century CE. He led the revolt in Galilee against the Romans, and when captured, preferred suicide with his men rather than succumb to the Romans. Vespasian, however, kept him as a slave and interpreter and eventually freed him upon becoming emperor, which Josephus had foretold.
After the destruction of the Temple under the leadership of Vespasian’s son Titus, Josephus went to live in Rome, where he was given a modest income, and he wrote The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. Much of what we know today about the first century comes from Josephus’s remarkable histories. He was and remains a controversial figure; some Jewish historians and authorities debunk portions of what he wrote and consider him a traitor for going over to the Roman side and cozying up to the emperors Vespasian and Titus. Others take a more even-handed view, recognize that he flattered the Roman emperors because his well-being depended upon it, and appreciate him for defending the Jews and writing their history with clarity and brilliance.
About a decade ago, I read The Jewish War; the events Josephus described were so vivid, compelling and shocking that I stayed up all night, as with a cliff-hanger, waiting to see what would happen next. When I encountered the tapestries in Marsala, I spent hours staring at them, examining them, and smiling when I read in the accompanying exhibition notes that the Italians call him Giuseppe Flavio.
EACH OF the tapestries depicts multiple scenes, and is accompanied by an explanatory panel on the wall. Although the English is at times faulty, the information provided is essential for the appreciation of the art and the dramatic, emotional events portrayed.
The first tapestry concerns the military triumph of the Romans that forced Giuseppe (Josephus) and 40 of his fighters to hide in a well inside a cave. After Giuseppe is found, he refuses to exit the well, preferring to die there with his companions. When he is given assurance that his life will be spared, he comes out of the well, dressed as a warrior, and is escorted away between a tribune and a soldier. In the background, we see Vespasian’s tent; surrounded by warriors, he awaits the arrival of Giuseppe. History tells us that Vespasian spared Giuseppe, but his feet were chained. We also know that Giuseppe predicted that Vespasian and Titus would become emperors.
The second tapestry depicts the story of King Agrippa (whose lineage goes back to the Herod the Great), pleading the cause of the city of Tiberias to Vespasian. Vespasian had sent peaceful emissaries to Tiberias, but they were attacked. Now furious, Vespasian holds the fate of the Tiberians in his hands. Under Agrippa are the weeping Tiberians; the old men sport beards and the young men have their eyes wide open in fear. Women look morose and children cling to their mothers. On the right, we see fighting, and on the left, people run away with bundles of possessions on their shoulders.
In the third tapestry, it is the year 69 CE. Vespasian does not want to be emperor, preferring instead the safety of a private life. The army tries to persuade him to accept the crown, with entreaties and threats. Some of the soldiers seem ready to kill him if he refuses. In the tapestries, Vespasian and Josephus are always presented in a positive light.
The fourth tapestry shows the reaction of Roman subjects everywhere to the news that Vespasian is emperor: there is rejoicing from Judea to Syria to Egypt. Even regions that broke away from Rome now come back to the fold because of Vespasian’s leadership qualities. Emissaries from Syria and other provinces come as ambassadors, bringing jewels, armor, amphorae and other treasures. At the top of the scene, on the right, Roman soldiers attack and conquer a round fortress. A ladder has been placed next to the fortress, and soldiers are climbing up. But the defenders of the fortress will not surrender. In the highest tower, they fight furiously against the Romans.
The drama of the fifth tapestry centers around Vespasian, who recalls that Giuseppe foretold his becoming Emperor, and decides to free his enchained slave. Vespasian sits on a high chair, surrounded by warriors. Giuseppe is a majestic, masculine figure; he is visibly moved, and his eyes are moist. The chain that bound his feet for many months is broken, and he is free. A young soldier presents Giuseppe with a casket of coins on Vespasian’s orders. The bias of the tapestry makers is clear: Vespasian is merciful and Josephus is heroic.
Tapestry No. 6 presents young Titus, son of Vespasian, who is now leader of the Roman forces. He is portrayed as handsome and noble in demeanor. A Judean named Jonathan, who is short, ugly, and cowardly, comes to the Temple and challenges the Romans to a duel. One accepts, and is killed. The second Roman fights to avenge his dead friend. Jonathan climbs onto the body of the Roman he killed, strikes at the second Roman, and also bites his shoulder. The scene makes one wince at the depiction of the grotesque Judean. Surrounding this central image are scenes of soldiers pierced by swords, restive horses, masses of fighters emerging from deep ditches as the war wages on. There is even a sea battle.
The seventh tapestry shows Jerusalem in ruins. All that the swords could not subdue, fire ravages. Titus is afraid of the Hebrew God, and offers safe conduct to a Judean priest so he can bring what is necessary for a sacrifice. The latter returns with two golden candelabra and a large book. Near Titus, who is kneeling, are a Levite with a bundle of priestly garments on his shoulders, and a guardian of the Temple treasures with two vases and sweet-smelling spices. Elsewhere in the tapestry, the battle rages at the walls of the Temple. Judeans throw stones and arrows, trying to defend themselves. Romans are opening a breach in the walls.
IN THE last tapestry, Titus, trying to gain the favor of the Jews’ God, offers a sacrifice. He and his father, according to the explanations on the wall, always tried to avoid laying the Temple and Jerusalem waste. They tried to get the rebellious Jews to mend their ways. In the center of the tapestry, an altar burns, and, to the right of it, Titus kneels in his imperial clothes. His head is lifted up, he looks to the sky, and seems to be speaking to God or praying. On the other side of the altar is the Judean priest, dressed in holy vestments.
For those who have read The Jewish War, the tapestries are a brilliant evocation of the sad time, almost 2,000 years ago, when Jerusalem was ravaged and the Temple was destroyed. For those who have not read it, the tapestries will make you want to discover Josephus and the world he lived in and wrote about.