Makyia Thayne Hoyt
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
St. Jerome’s forth century description of the catacombs speaks to the true nature of their function. He writes, “while it is pitch dark, the words of the prophet seem to come true: ‘may they go down alive in Sheol’” (Rutgers 5). “Sheol” is the Hebrew word for “underworld” or “the common grave of mankind.” The Roman catacombs or, Sheol served as just that for the early Christians, in the sense that the catacombs themselves existed as a reference point for the growing community. The important status of the catacombs during times of Christian persecution came into being for several reasons. The ubiquitous presence of the catacombs, their role in instilling a sense of community for the Christians, and the all encompassing effect of the promise of an afterlife in heaven established the catacombs important role in history.
The Christian catacomb first began its four hundred year existence in about AD 150 (Stevenson 7). Christians revived the practice of burying the dead in underground chambers from the Etruscans, because they did not believe in the practice of cremation, as the pagans practiced, due to their belief in bodily resurrection. They preferred burial, just as Christ was buried, because they felt they had to respect the bodies that one day would rise from the dead (Snyder 503). Hence they began to bury their dead, first in simple graves and sometimes in burial vaults of pro-Christian patricians. The first large-scale catacombs were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. All Roman catacombs have been carved into tuff. Tuff is a volcanic rock that can be found everywhere in and around Rome. It derives from two volcanic areas to the north and south of Rome around inactive volcanic areas that have since become lakes. Romans used tuff to build walls and used it for other means of construction (Portella 43). Originally, Christians dug into this soft rock outside the boundaries of the city, as Roman law forbade burial places within city limits.
At first, catacombs were used for both burial and memorial services as well as celebrations of the Christian martyrs on the dates of their martyrdom, following similar Roman customs. Many modern portrayals of the catacombs depict them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution, however, this was not so. They were generally not used for regular worship or hiding. The large number of decaying corpses would have made the air nearly, if not completely, toxic. Additionally, the approximate locations of the catacombs were known to the Roman officials, making them a poor choice for a secret hiding place (Allen 15). There are forty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome. They were built along Roman roads, like the Via Appia, the Via Ostiense, the Via Labicana, the Via Tiburtina, and the Via Nomentana. Names of the catacombs like St. Calixtus and St. Sebastian alongside Via Appia refer to martyrs that might be buried there. This is significant, because Christians wished to be buried by martyrs in order to have a quick journey to heaven after death that only a martyr could provide. For this reason, the catacombs which featured a tomb for a martyr were some of the most popular. Christian excavators built vast systems of galleries and passages on top of each other. They lie 7-19 meters (22-65 ft) below the surface in area of more than 2.4 km² (600 acres). Narrow steps that descend as many as four stories join the levels. Passages are about 2.5x1 meters (8x3 feet) wide and tall. Burial niches were carved into walls. They are 40-60 cm (16-24 in) high and 120-150 cm (47-59 in) long. Bodies were placed in chambers in stone sarcophagi in their clothes and bound in linen without coffins, just as Christ was buried. Then the sarcophagus was sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death.
In 391 A.D., Christianity became a state religion. At first many still desired to be buried in chambers alongside martyrs. However, the practice of catacomb burial declined slowly, and the dead were increasingly buried in church cemeteries. By the 6th century catacombs were used only for martyrs’ memorial services (Stevenson 20). During this century Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards who sacked Rome also violated the catacombs looking for valuables and by the 10th century catacombs were practically abandoned and holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas (21). In the intervening centuries they remained forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1578, after which Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his volume, Roma Sotterranea, published in 1632.
Archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. In 1956 and 1959 Italian authorities found more catacombs near Rome. The catacombs have become an important monument of the early Christian church. This is true for numerous reasons. One being that early Christian artwork has been well preserved in the catacombs. This is due to atmospheric conditions present underground. The artwork has not been affected by environmental factors; thus the rediscovery of the catacombs have enhanced the archeological study of early Christian art and how it first came into existence. “Throughout the ages there was little climatic change in the catacombs. Moreover, hardly any building activity took place there after the catacombs went out of use, thus minimizing the chance that wall paintings and other works were ruined as a result of such activities” (Rutgers 82).
The early Christian art that was preserved in the catacombs of Rome have been divided into three phases of development: the earliest phase (during the second and third centuries A.D.), the Old Testament phase (during the third century A.D.), and the New Testament phase (during the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.). In the earliest phase early Christians used non-Christian and pagan imagery in their artwork. Scholarship suggests that the earliest Christian communities did not find this practice unacceptable. It was only as time went by and Christianity began to develop into a major religious movement that Christians began to feel the need for an iconography that would express their system of belief in ways that were not possible using current iconographic schemata (87). According to the Church Father Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 160-215) Christians used the subjects in art produced by pagans, but were encouraged to use the objects that were decorated with motifs that could be interpreted as Christian references with Christian notions. Such motifs would include the dove, fish, a ship, an anchor, a fisherman, and a lyre (88). In the third century “Christians began to adopt the figure of the ram bearer. Christians were interested in this figure for different reasons, namely because it could easily be interpreted as a reference to ‘the Good Shepherd,’ that is a reference to Jesus . . .” (90). The image of the ram bearer is popular; it is featured in the catacombs of Callisto, Domitilla, and Priscilla, along with many other early Christian catacombs of Rome. Always “bucolic and idyllic motifs” such as birds and flowers are featured alongside the figure of the ram bearer in these ancient catacombs. “The presence of such motifs indicates whence the iconography of these figures derives, namely from the world of classical Roman artistic production” (91). The split between Christian and non-Christian art occurs when Christians still used figures and motifs popular in non-Christian and Pagan art, but transformed the symbols’ meanings so as to conform to Christian beliefs.
During the third century is when the Old Testament Phase occurs, where the majority of scenes illustrated in the catacombs were taken from the Old Testament. The scenes that were particularly popular during this phase are those which represent the power of God and his willingness to “save” those who truly believe in him. Some specific examples are the story of Jonah coming out of the whale, raising Lazarus from the dead, the sacrifice of Isaac, the three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the lions’ den (105). The scenes which illustrate God’s saving power, such as these, were meant to appeal to the Christians as promises for salvation. Around the same period that the scenes which appeared on the walls of catacombs were taken from the Old Testament, Christian Theologians began to develop the concept of ‘versus Israel’, which is Latin for “the true Israel”. This concept was developed by early Christian theologians in an attempt to turn Christianity into a religion that was acceptable to non-Christians on a social and political level (106). During this time in Rome, respectability depended on the lifespan of the religion. Thus, religions with a long history were respectable and religions which could not lay claim to ancient traditions were not. Christianity was a relatively new religion (one that came into existence only in the first century A.D.); and therefore lacked the credentials necessary to be taken seriously by society. Christian writers were bothered by the lack of respect that Christianity suffered by non-Christians, especially because it deterred people from converting (107); thus the preference for illustrating scenes from the Old Testament was derived for a political reason.
Early Christian writers found traditions in the Hebrew bible that they could use to gain respectability. These traditions, in one way or another, could be interpreted to suggest the coming of Christian Messiah, specifically Christ had been predicted in these honorable books. Christian writers began calling the Hebrew bible “The Old Testament” in order to suggest that the Hebrew bible is only a piece – nothing but a companion volume to their own New Testament (107). The Christian writers claimed that the Old Testament did not really belong to the Jews, because they refused to convert to Christianity and that Christians were the true heirs to the books; thus they believed they represented the true Israel. This is how the Versus Israel concept originated (107).
In the fourth century, major changes affected the early Christian community. “Starting with the promulgation of the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christians were now accorded the same rights as adherents of other religions in the Empire” (108). As a result, Christianity could now develop more freely. Large groups of people converted to Christianity during the fourth century as product of the new found freedom to proliferate. This development reached its peak in A.D. 391 when Christianity was declared the state religion. (108). Early Christian art began to undergo a thorough transformation in response to the rise of Christianity as a prominent religious movement. “Early Christian wall paintings and sarcophagi dating to this period indicate that from the fourth century onwards early Christian art was no longer the result of forces on which Christians could exert their influence only to a limited degree, as had been the case previously when Christians had employed types and schemata that had been developed in Roman, non-Christian workshops. Instead, works of art were produced specifically Christian in their iconography” (108). The old symbols used in the earliest phase, such as the Good Shepard, have disappeared during the New Testament phase. It is the New Testament that now inspires the most important subjects for artist and patrons (108). Of all the new figures Jesus is given a place of central importance. The importance of Jesus is stressed in art pieces by being placed in the center and made larger than other figures. Images of Christ’s sufferings are by the most popular illustrated scenes in the New Testament Phase (109).
On the other hand, Old Testament scenes by no means disappear during the fourth century. Old Testament scenes remained popular due to a ‘typological relationship’ between both testaments. According to this idea many events in the Old Testament could be interpreted as prefigurations of symbolic announcements of events described in the New Testament. For example, the story of Job was viewed as prefiguring the sufferings of Christ and the sacrifice of Isaac was interpreted as a prototype of the crucifixion of Christ. This explains why some Old Testament themes were popular in the catacombs during this time and some were not (111).
The Christian symbolism first featured in the catacombs continued to be utilized in Christian art in future centuries and even presently. The peacock for the pagans was the symbol of eternal life. However, not all the pagans shared the idea of an afterlife, and for those who did, it was one clouded in mystery and wrapped in a shadowy world of obscurity. Pagan art strongly reflects this anguish, which was a vision of pain and sorrow. The Christians adopted the symbol of the peacock, but developed a deeper meaning. Because of Revelation, the obscurity of death was cancelled by the victory of Christ's resurrection. The peacock therefore became the symbol of the eternal life of the soul. This symbol in particular was a popular Christian image in medieval artwork. The dove represented the peace and happiness of the soul, while the anchor represented hope in Jesus. Symbols often were a synthesis of more than one idea. The anchor is an example. By its very functional nature, it represents the ideas of stability, security, and hope because it confirms the safe arrival of the ship at port after a perilous journey at sea. By turning the anchor upside down, the Greek letter TAU was formed, and the "T" resembled the shape of the cross. Thus the symbolism of the anchor was enriched by this additional element. Hope in Jesus represented the secure port of Salvation, which came about through His crucifixion and resurrection. Interestingly, the cross is arguably the most widely recognized symbol of the Christian church today. The most interesting aspect of observing the artwork in the Roman catacombs is that going down into the “Sheol” is like a time portal in which current scholars can see the beginning usage of modern and common Christian images.
Allen, John L. “Catholicism in North Korea survives in Catacombs”. National Catholic Reporter; Volume 43 Issue 4, November 2006
Cioffarelli, Ada. Guide to the Catacombs of Rome and its Surroundings. Bonsignori Editore Rome 2000
Portella, Ivana Della. Subterranean Rome. Konemann 2000
Rutgers, Leonard Victor. Subterranean Rome: in search of the roots of Christianity in the catacombs of the eternal city. Peeters 2000
Snyder, Graydon. “From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries”. F. Journal of Religion; Volume 85 Issue 3, July 2005
Stevenson, James. The Catacombs: Rediscovered Monuments of Early Christianity. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1978