Unlocking the Pope’s Treasuries: Our Sacred Right

Unlocking the Pope’s Treasuries: Our Sacred Right

Ever wondered what was in the Vatican Secret Archives or the Pope’s Treasury Collection?

“Baldwin’s Treasure” is the premier collection of sacred antiquities made of silver and precious gems from all over Byzantium. These include the finest works in ivory and enamel, jade, gold leaf, and glass.  Has anyone ever heard of this?  Probably not, but those who have been in the company of an elite few. This article is about a mysterious and enigmatic collection of ancient, rare objects belonging to Christian and Jewish heritage. 

A little backgrounder, though, is necessary.  First, when was the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in power?  We are talking about an era after the fall of Jerusalem and Israel to the legions of Rome. And then 400 years after that, a period that spanned from around the 4th century AD to the mid-15th century, more than 1000 years. A time when the Byzantine Empire, with its capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), was a major world power that extended to almost half the world. An empire with a total population of over 26 million people. It is during this period that Baldwin’s Treasure was accumulated.

Secondly, we must ask:  Where do most Byzantine-era remnants reside today?  Several specific locations keep these ancient relics. Museums like those at St. Mark in Venice, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”) in New York, the Greek Museum of Athens, the British Museum, and, of course, the Vatican Museum in Rome are at the forefront.  Indeed, the Vatican Museums have an extensive collection of Byzantine art, including mosaics, icons, and liturgical objects. While their Byzantine collection primarily focuses on Christian art, there are items of Jewish origin or relevance within that collection, especially considering the historical presence of Jewish communities in the Byzantine Empire. Jews became numerous and had significant roles throughout the Byzantine Empire (‘Kushta’ in Hebrew). 

As Director of the Museum Heritage Projects, I am currently working with this collection at the Vatican, intending to bring it all out of captivity (as it were) and film for the first time the various silver statues, chalices, and other precious objects of Christian cultic use.  This also includes many examples of Jewish religious antiquities, such as goblets and candlestick lamps made of gold glass with designs worked in gold foil. Some of these antiquities show authentic Jewish imagery, including an open Torah ark with rolled scrolls on shelves flanked by the ritual implements of the temple in the upper zone and other scenes. There are other glass vessels with Jewish images—including a menorah (candelabra), shofar (ram’s horn), lulav (palm branch), birds, lions, and incense shovels – that were also made in the mid-5th to mid-7th century in the area of Syria and Jerusalem itself.  Hundreds – if not more, of these sacred ritual objects were to be found in Constantinople from the 6th – 13th centuries, including some of the oldest items that provide testimony to the Jewish origin of Christianity.  As such, they are of tremendous value. 

A collection of these ritual objects became known as “Baldwin’s Treasure” – named after the Knight – Count Baldwin IX, who later became the first Emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. After ruthlessly leading the 4th Crusade, despoiling the Churches of their relics and their treasuries, and then massacring the Christian Orthodox population there at the beginning of the 13th century, Baldwin proceeded to send by ship many of his precious holdings to political allies, mainly to the various Popes and rulers of Italy at the time.  His main target, though, was the infamous Pope Innocent III, and since Baldwin knew what he liked, namely exquisite metal works of ivory and enamel, the Pope received many “marvelous gifts” during the early 13th century.  This is according to the Pope’s letters and epistles written in medieval Latin (which I have copies of), specifying precious religious objects of cultic use, both Christian and Jewish.

This priceless collection was stored for centuries on the grounds at St. John the Lateran Cathedral in Rome and then discreetly dispersed in small shipments to the various Vatican Museums by Pope John XXIII in the late 1950s and 1963. The process was carried out in this fashion to avoid unwanted attention. Then, in 1970, this shipment took place one last time, in the order of Pope Paul VI, concerning the remnants of “Rome’s most precious sacred relics” (his words), most of which are now located in one place again. I have met with many of the Jewish community leaders in Rome to raise awareness, and I believe that they would theoretically claim (symbolic) ownership of the Jewish part of that collection if/when the time comes. Don’t forget that throughout their history, the original Byzantine Greeks self-identified as Romans and that the Roman Jews of today trace their lineage back seven generations to those expelled from the Spanish Inquisition. 

People approach me and ask: What will be these sacred relics’ fate? Are they to be preserved in darkness forever? I have found that most experts agree with me as to where they might be found at the Vatican today. Byzantinists and other experts in medieval collections have noted that because these are rare Imperial gifts, the bulk of Baldwin’s Treasure today is most likely to be found as part of the Vatican’s Treasury of St. Peter’s Collection, Pope Francis’ personal Papal Heritage Collection, or both.

The ultimate objective is to open the doors and pave the way, i.e., continue my use of (what’s called) ‘soft diplomacy’ to get other Late Roman objects out of preservation—namely, to be restored and put on display as well. A noble cause indeed! 

Since May is the official Heritage Month, I am convinced that in a bizarre and absurd world bereft of a moral compass, now is surely the time for us to behold our Divine heritage again.  

Looking forward to it! 


Harry Hirschel Moskoff is Director of the Museum Heritage Project (Rome), and the author of The Vatican and ME – Unlocking the Divine Treasures Inside.  An investigative archeologist, and President of Moskoff-Media (Israel), MMLC, Moskoff is also a member of the White House press pool and ICCROM. Contact:  office@harryhmoskoff.net

The post Unlocking the Pope’s Treasuries: Our Sacred Right appeared first on Israel365 News.

Israel in the News