A Tour of the Vatican Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica with a Jewish American Tour Guide, Andrea Stoler, PhD.

A Tour of the Vatican Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica with a Jewish American Tour Guide, Andrea Stoler, PhD. 

American Jews understand the idea of religious identity differently from American Christians visiting the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica. Since World War II, there have been three significant changes in American Judaism; the Holocaust, the birth of the State of Israel and Jewish-Christian  relations following the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), from 1962 to 1965. 

Andrea Stoler with the view of the Dome of Michelangelo and the Vatican’s botanical gardens that interestingly have seven species (Duet. 8:8).

Until now, Jewish tours of the Vatican traditionally have focused on how the Sistine Chapel was designed to be a copy of the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon, or how Michelangelo embedded the Torah and Kabbalah in his famous Sistine ceiling and Last Judgement (See Sistine Secrets, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, and Roy Doliner, 2008). Of course, a quick visit to the Jewish Lapidary (if it’s open) provides the viewing of some of the cast copies of stone funerary epigraphical inscriptions from the Jews of ancient Rome. This is your basic Jewish Vatican tour conducted by both Jewish guides from the community and non-Jewish guides in Rome. 

Jewish education is a vital component in ensuring “Jewish survival.” Studies consistently show that the more Jewish education a child receives, the more likely she or he is to practice Judaism, support its goals and institutions, and raise a Jewish family. (Kaplan, 2005). Importantly, Judaism requires all Jews to study throughout their entire lives. This is the fundamental difference between Jewish and secular education. All forms of Jewish education are vitally important, whether from an educational institution, a synagogue or a guided tour in the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica, explains American scientist Andrea Stoler. 

Originally from upstate New York, Stoler received her PhD in Molecular/Cell Biology from Northwestern University in Chicago. She is an accredited tour guide in the Vatican City making her the first and only Conservative Jewish American woman who gives full-day or half-day tours in the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Basilica, including its dome and papal crypts, and Saint Peter’s Square from a historically Jewish perspective. 

Stoler, a trained scientist with extensive knowledge in history, devotes her tours to important events in Jewish history relating to the Vatican and its popes. For example, once passing the security check in the Vatican Museums Stoler stops to show a modern statue by Giuliano Vangi (1999), Crossing the Threshold. She points out how this depicts Pope John Paul II pushing a young man into the world encouraging him to become involved. (In The Footsteps of Popes, Bruschini, 2000). She passionately mentions that, in 1986, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff in history to visit a synagogue. He met with the Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and famously referred to Jews as “elder brothers”. This meeting profoundly, and irrevocably, changed relations between the two faiths. 

Once officially inside the Vatican Museums, the next stop is the long and deep spiral ramp, built in 1932 by the architect Giuseppe Momo (1875-1940), a design which greatly influenced the Guggenheim Museum in 1937. Here is where Stoler quickly explains how the papal mobility up to the Vatican hill and throughout Rome was provided by horses, mules, and donkeys. She further mentions how two spiral staircases are said to have been part of Solomon’s Temple, leading to a sacrificial altar. Here in the Vatican Museums are two spiral staircases. Then she takes visitors to the Carriage Museum to see the collection of carriages and cars used by popes and cardinals. 

Stoler next stops to show a painting of a papal procession through the Roman forums explaining how the Jews of Rome were required to meet the newly elected pope and give him a Torah scroll as a gift. Through this presentation, Roman Jews acknowledged each new pope as their temporal ruler in Rome  

The tradition of Jews gifting a newly elected pope with a Torah provides us with an understanding of the historical relations between the Vatican and its popes with the Roman Jewish community which continue until today. “This is why I like to stop at each of the Pope’s busts alongside their carriage and highlight their relations with the Jews during their reign,” explains Stoler. 

Another significant stop that Stoler believes is vital in recognizing Jewish history on her tour is the first room in the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery).  The Art Gallery was inaugurated by Pope Pius XI on October 27, 1932. Stopping under his portrait bust, Stoler explains that relations between Pope Pius XI and the Jews during his reign from 1922 to 1939 are generally regarded as positive. She likes to share one of his quotes to Belgian pilgrims whom he received on September 8, 1938: “It is not possible for Christians to take part of antisemitism. Spiritually we are Semites.” (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008). 

Interestingly, Pope Francis spoke similarly when he received a delegation in 2018 from the ancient community of Mountain Jews to discuss Holocaust anniversaries and the problems of antisemitism. The Pope noted that there are still antisemitic attitudes in our society today: “As I have often repeated, a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite; we share the same roots.”

 Just across from the bust of Pope Pius XI is a large cast copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta. After a brief explanation of the story about Michelangelo’s Pieta, Stoler adds a comment from the Mishna and concludes by saying how the most famous Christian sculpture of all time is a Jewish mother with her Jewish son.  

The Vatican Museums consist of 54 galleries housing about 70,000 art works from Roman sculpture to Medieval and Renaissance paintings, but only about 20,000 are on actual display. It is not possible to see everything; the heat and the crowds of tourists canquickly become overwhelming.  Thus, it is important to hire a private tour guide or participate on a group guided tour, so you are introduced to the highlights of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in about three hours. For a tour focusing on the Jewish history of Rome and the Vatican, a Jewish tour guide is ideal and the most well-versed. 

Every room is inaugurated by a pope, and there is a Jewish story with each one. Stoler narrates the history of the papacy and its relations to the Jews brilliantly. Moreover, 2023 is of significance because October 16, 2023 will be the 80th anniversary of the darkest Shabbat in history of the Jews of Rome.  It was on that infamous day, eight decades ago, that Pope Pius XII remained SILENT as over 1000 Roman Jews were deported by the Nazis and taken to a military college (prison) just down the street from his papal palace. 

A visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica and the papal crypt where Pope Pius XII is buried is part of Stoler’s in depth Jewish historical tour of the Vatican. Stoler is often asked about the actions of Pope Pius XII towards the Jews of Rome during the German occupation of the city. Even though this action was taken in sight of the Vatican, no papal intervention was taken to stop this action. 

One must however bear in mind, that at the time of the deportation, several hundred Roman Jews were hidden in the Vatican, and in various religious institutions throughout Italy. The papacy could have sanctioned the opening of many places of refuge for the Roman Jews. There are historians who are quite critical of the actions of Pope Pius XII regarding the Roman Jewish deportation and the Holocaust in general. Yet, there are also those who defend the pontiff. 

As this ongoing debate continues, scholars are learning more about what the Catholic Church did and didn’t do to save the Jews. Stoler’s tour examines both sides of the argument regarding Pius XII from an objective point of view. By doing so, Stoler will eventually be able to create a short but lucid and cogent synopsis of the arguments of each side that she shares with those on her tour. She will also share with participants on her tours the views of the Chief Rabbi of Rome. If she is asked her opinion on the issue, Stoler will give an informed and thoughtful opinion based on the proposed current study. Her opinion will be shared in a tactful manner that eschews any sort of partisan point of view. 

Stoler’s passionate, creative, and innovative way of explaining Jewish history of the eternal city concludes in Saint Peter’s square by reciting the unforgettable farcical tale, which took place there, of the Pope’s lunch, a Rabbi‘s lunch and the ultimate fate of the Roman Jews. Andrea Stoler is available for either half-day or full-day excursions upon request. She is enthusiastic, fun, approachable, and an easy-going scientist who has created a uniquely Jewish journey inside Vatican City.