MIAMI -- They found buried treasure in an unusual place -- the Vatican archives.

The treasure gleams, with gold, red and green tracing out dancing animals, praying rabbis and flowery lettering, all framing priceless Jewish manuscripts of a 1,000-year span.

The public will be able to see it during its two-year tour of major U.S. cities. The traveling exhibit debuted yesterday at the Center for Fine Arts in Miami and eventually will be seen in Washington. Called "A Visual Testimony: Judaica from the Vatican Library," the exhibit shows 56 manuscripts, most of them works of art as well as literature. Written from the 8th to the 18th centuries, they include commentaries on religion, ethics, medicine and philosophy.

The Vatican has been gathering Jewish manuscripts for centuries, yet this will be the first time many of them have ever been shown. Even Pope John Paul II will be seeing many of them for the first time this fall. He is expected to dedicate the exhibit on Sept. 11, when he meets American Jewish leaders in Miami during his U.S. tour.

Rabbi Philip Hiat, of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, confirms that interfaith relations was a prime goal of the project. He and other Judaic scholars sorted out the texts for two years, much of it spent deep in underground Vatican vaults.

"We're continuing in the steps of 'Nostra Aetate,' " Hiat says, naming the historic Vatican II document that renounced anti-Semitism and urged dialogue with Jews. "Can anything be more dramatic than something Jewish that is part of the Vatican?"

Their findings include:

A prayer book from 1345 for the High Holy Days, printed in Germany. It practically leaps with dragons, gargoyles and other gothic illuminations. When library prefect Leonard Boyle saw it, he exclaimed: "Oh, my heavens. I had no idea we had something like this."

Pages from Mantua, Italy, published in 1435, depicting Sabbath worship, wedding scenes and ritual slaughter of animals.

A Mishna Torah, a 15th-century copy of the codified law by Maimonides, with letters illuminated in gold leaf so thick they appear three-dimensional.

"The Light of Intellect," a colorful cabalistic diagram that aims to show the special powers of "Yahweh," the Hebrew name for God.

A 13th-century Spanish Bible with commentary, with columns of type sheltered by Moorish arches.

The peculiarly Jewish illuminations called micrography -- tiny lettering that forms geometric and floral borders around pages.

"This is interfaith work, but with no agenda," says exhibit curator Philip E. Miller, librarian at Hebrew Union College in New York City. "There is a lot that takes place in this world, just simple gestures, that can make real contributions in ways previously not expected."

The source for the manuscripts is the Apostolic Library, the Vatican archive that holds more than 70,000 books and manuscripts. The popes often received collections from wealthy families and even acquired whole libraries from some cities.

Scholars have long known of the Vatican's Judaic artifacts; its museum often shows gold glass bearing pictures of the ancient Jerusalem temple, dating from the 3rd or 4th centuries. But most people didn't know about the 801 Jewish manuscripts -- from Italy, Spain, Germany and France.

"During the Renaissance, knowing Hebrew was as much a mark of a gentleman and a scholar as was Greek, Latin and Arabic," Hiat explains. "They were the so-called sacred languages, the languages of the Bible."

Hiat thought of a Vatican Judaica exhibit two years ago, before the announcement of the pope's U.S. tour. When he broached the idea to Boyle, the Apostolic Library's prefect, the priest was immediately enthusiastic.

Miller recalls when he and other workers discussed the matter in Boyle's office at the Vatican. As they talked, one of them gingerly touched an ancient-looking book on Boyle's desk. Suddenly Boyle burst out: "For crying out loud, pick it up! It's lasted 700 years! You're not going to hurt it!"

Even with the prefect's personal help, the researchers had to read and sign reams of rules before descending into the underground archives. Surrounded by concrete and steel, behind a massive door that could be used in a bank vault, they often had to wear sweaters during the summer because of strict temperature and humidity controls.

"I had two criteria: 'ooh' and 'ahh,' " Miller says. "I wanted gorgeous art that would capture attention."

But the hundreds of parchments and the tedious work often taxed the scholars. It was at the end of a long day that Miller found a psalter, or hymn book, dated 1469 from Naples. It was so tiny, it fit in his palm, but it showed exquisitely delicate workmanship.

Perhaps because of its beauty, perhaps because of his fatigue, "I just started crying," Miller recalls.

The wealth of artwork in the manuscripts may surprise people who know the biblical commandment against making a "graven image." It shows the Jews' theological as well as cultural adaptability, indicates art historian Joseph Gutman, who helped in the exhibit.

"Jews in different periods had different attitudes," explains Gutman, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Islam discouraged images, and Jews who lived under it followed suit. When Christianity encouraged them, Jews found other ways to interpret the Bible. They decided that two-dimensional pictures were not graven images."

In the exhibit, Miller also delighted in showing "the level of knowledge available to Jews," such as Hebrew translations of Aristotle and of Arabic medical books. The exhibit even has Hebrew versions of writings by the medieval Catholic theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas -- as well as by Averroe s, an Islamic philosopher who may have helped to inspire Aquinas.

"I wanted to show the level of knowledge available to Jews, and to show how Jews also learned from others," the curator adds. "They had their part in bringing about the Renaissance."

From Miami, "A Visual Testimony" will go on a two-year tour of the United States. The final itinerary has not been worked out yet, but it likely will include New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington.