Saturday, July 19, 2008

Early Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Priscilla

Andrew Shubin
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

Burial sites are often the first buildings constructed by civilizations and religions. These places vary from simple graves, marked with wood and stone, to huge monuments lasting thousands of years. Despite these differences, all burial places reveal facts about the lives and beliefs of the people that rest there. One such type of burial place are the underground complexes of natural and man-made caves called catacombs; the preservation of these places due to their location makes them a valuable resource. Little historical information exists on early Christians, so looking to the images, inscriptions, and layout of the oldest and largest Christian catacomb in Rome, the Catacombs of Priscilla, reveals much that would otherwise be unknown about the early Christians. The knowledge learned from the Catacombs of Priscilla can be used to explain reasons behind the rise of Christianity.

Before the significance of the Catacombs and their relationship to the early Christian movement can be discussed the layout, style of artwork, and important images will be described. The Catacombs of Priscilla are located on Via Salaria by Piazza Crati, well outside the walls of Rome in antiquity. They are first mentioned in the document Depositio Episcoporum, describing the burial of St. Sylvester in the “Cemetery of Priscilla.” Burial inscriptions in the catacombs indicate the Priscilla for whom the catacombs are named after was a member of the senatorial family achilis. She likely donated a portion of her family land, once a stone quarry, as a burial place for the early Christian community. The presence of area similar to the basement of a Roman Villa, the cryptoportico displayed in Figure 1, indicates the catacombs were part of a residence.

Figure 1: Cryptoportico.
(Nicolai, 22)

Early Christians used the Catacombs of Priscilla as a burial ground starting in the 2nd century until the late 5th century AD. The notation of being buried next to well known martyrs such as St. Sylvester, Felix and Philip made the catacombs a very popular burial place. According to the guides giving tours into the catacombs over 40,000 tombs, including tombs for seven popes, have been found. It is common myth that early Christians used the Catacombs as a place of hiding; these are based upon stories of Christians hiding in the graveyards. In antiquity most of the city of Rome was surrounded by graves and tombs meaning that early Christians “in the graveyards” could just simply be hiding outside the city. Furthermore the architecture of the catacombs, poor lighting, and lack of storage space does not support their use as a hideout. After the 5th century, the catacombs ceased to be places of burial but remained a popular destination for pilgrimage during the next few centuries. The decision to stop using the Catacombs as burial grounds may have been a result of the successive waves of Germanic invaders. The loss of the security in the countryside, along with the depopulation of Italian cities, made urban burials much more practical. Many catacombs, including Priscilla, had basilicas built ad corpus (on top of) the underground cites to facilitate worship. Eventually the instability in Italy caused by invasions and the Greco-Gothic war made these catacombs very difficult to maintain. Most of the remains of the martyrs and saints were taken to urban churches when the catacombs were abandoned. The catacombs remained forgotten until Antonio Bosio rediscovered the Catacombs of Priscilla during the Renaissance. The Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi conducted most of the initial scholastic survey in the 19th century.

The development of underground complexes for burial was not a new phenomenon in Italy; underground burial places called hypogea had been used in since the time of Etruscans. The volcanic rock called tufa, which occupies much of central Italy, was very easy to dig and strong enough to support underground structures. Wealthy pagan families often commissioned hypogea as family tombs.

The Catacombs of Priscilla contain 3 levels of tombs with a total of thirteen kilometers of tunnels. These galleries contain multiple loculi, individual niches just large enough to fit one body, stacked vertically to a structure called a pilae. The top level of the Catacombs has a very irregular structure since it was once part of a marble quarry; the bottom two levels were built later and contain a more symmetric, fishbone-like layout. Within each loculus a body was placed and closed with a piece of terracotta; sometimes juxtaposed with marble often containing a simple epigraph or fresco. These epigraphs briefly describe the deceased, serve as a warning to potential grave robbers, and contain references to Christianity. Among the most popular references include the engraving of a fish—the Greek word for fish IXΘYS is an acronym for Jesus Christ son of God and Savior. Two other commonly found symbols are the superimposed letters Chi Rho, symbolizing the name Jesus Christ; and the Greek letters Alpha Omega, symbolizing god. Linked with these long galleries are small rooms containing open wall space and fewer loculi called cubicles. These cubicles often contain marble sarcophagi as well as relatively elaborate frescos depicting scenes from someone’s life or biblical stories.

Figure 2: Typical Gallery
(Le Catacombs Di Priscilla)

Almost all paintings in the Catacombs of Priscilla were done on wet lime surfaces known as frescos. One of the most famous examples of a fresco inside the Catacombs is in the cubicle known as the The Velatio; this fresco depicts a woman in three stages of her life: marriage (left), childbirth (right), and the ascension of the soul to heaven (center). The upper walls of the room adjacent to The Velatio contain the stories of the three Hebrew youths in a Babylonian furnace and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. On the ceiling there are images of the doves, peacocks, and pheasants circling the depiction of Christ as the Good Sheppard at the center. Figure 3 is a view of the ceiling and upper walls of the cubicle containing The Velatio.

Figure 3: Ceiling of The Velatio
(Nicolai, 97).

Located close to The Velatio is the earliest known depiction of the Virgin Mary and the newborn Jesus (The Madonna shown in Figure 4). In this image Mary suckles the infant Jesus next to the Prophet Balaam.

Figure 4: First Known Image of the Madonna
(Le Catacombs Di Priscilla)

In addition to these, a large cubicle known as the Greek Chapel next to the cryptoportico contains more examples of early Christian frescos in a similar style to The Velatio. These frescoes tell the story of the salvation of Susanna by Daniel, the resurrection of Lazarus, and the story of Moses striking water from a rock among others. Next to the entrance of the Greek Chapel there is an image of a phoenix on pyre as well. A view into the entrance of the Greek Chapel is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Greek Chapel
(Le Catacombs Di Priscilla).

This style of fresco is known as the Pompeian style: the frescos utilize green and red lines to separate its respective stories and creates the impression of architecture by imitating marble. The final major addition to the catacombs was a large basilica constructed outside of the catacombs by St. Sylvester in the 4th century AD to serve as a place to recognize the martyrdom of Felix and Phillip.

The catacombs illustrate the importance of community for early Christians as well as the value placed on the concept of the eternal life and happiness promised to pious Christians. In his book The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire Edward Gibbon described early Christian communities as “societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman Empire were united only by the ties of faith and charity. Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitutions (Gibbon, 250).” The layout of the design of the individual graves is egalitarian in nature and reflects the equality felt in early Christian communities. Most loculi contain barely enough room for an individual body and are undistinguishable from each other. Pagan tombs, on the other hand, were only for members of one family and often consisted of fewer, more distinguishable graves. The exposed tufa at the end of the many chambers in almost all catacombs (including Priscilla) indicates the pragmatic nature of their construction. As more loculi were needed more galleries were dug and extended. This is different from previous types of hypogea where all walls of the tomb where covered in frescos or marble and the tombs appear finished. While the majority of graves consisted of simple loculi, some wealthier families and groups constructed their cubicles and used marble sarcophaguses. These burial sites, such as the cubicle containing The Velatio, are separated from the rows of loculi in the galleries. However, they are still relatively simplistic in nature, using red and green lines to represent a more complex architecture. Most of the surviving art in these rooms paid homage to Christianity instead of the individual family buried there, making it very difficult to distinguish the family buried in the cubicle.

Furthermore, no visible hierarchy of wealth exists in the catacombs; cubicles and wealthy sarcophagi are inter-dispersed throughout the long winding galleries and are also in close proximity to the egalitarian loculi. This could perhaps be indicative of the structure of the early Christians, where the rich and poor were drawn together by faith in Jesus and God. The very compact style of burial, evidence of continual expansion, and the locality of the wealthy with the poor demonstrate that the catacombs catered to the need of close autonomous early Christian communities to find a place to exclusively bury their dead in a way that reflected their life.

Eternal life after death for those who accept Jesus as lord and savior is a central theme in Christianity. Gibbon took note of this in the following quote:

“The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for the present existence
and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect
faith of the modern ages cannot give us any notion (Gibbon, 251)”

Death was seen not as an ending but rather as a transition into eternal happiness. According to Gibbon, this concept of eternal life and happiness was one of most important beliefs of earlier Christians. It should come as no surprise the catacombs, serving as a place of burial where “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7)”, are decorated with early Christian imagery. The most famous of these are the first know image of The Madonna. The Madonna was a powerful symbol as the fresco included two of the most venerated and populist characters in Christianity: Jesus and Mary. The idea of purity is manifested in this fresco as Mary is considered by many to be born without sin and Jesus is the son of God. The image of The Velatio conveys many prominent Christian stories as well as pagan symbols adopted for Christian use. In the fresco depicting the three stages of a woman’s, the most prominent stage is of the woman with her arms raised in the position of the Orant. The Orant is a pagan symbol for the soul; in the Christian context it symbolizes the soul achieving oneness through God and internal glory after death. The prominence of this symbol and its central location indicates the importance of the afterlife and faith in god. All three of the figures in the picture of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace are in the Orant position; this adoption of the Orant illustrates the concept of salvation as the protection of God saved the three youths. Also included in the cubicle ceiling are the traditionally pagan images of peacocks and doves. The Peacock is a bird sacred to the Roman goddess Hera, but in Christian imagery it serves as a sign of immortality. The dove with an olive branch is a bird with many purposes in both Roman and Greek mythology; it is associated with Athena in paganism and the Holy Spirit in Christianity. The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd can be found in Isaiah 40:11 and John 10:11-18; this image depicts Christ as a very caring and amiable leader of his flock of believers. The position of Christ at the apex of the ceiling emphasizes his importance as the centerpiece of the Christian faith as well as the provider of salvation, eternal life, and happiness after death for Christians.

Like The Velatio, the Greek Chapel is composed of a variety of Christian themes. These stories belong to three different themes: resurrection, salvation, and baptism. The theme of resurrection is manifested by the story of Lazarus who was resurrected by Jesus after his death. After Jesus resurrected Lazarus he said to his followers “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).” Making the story of Lazarus a very direct reference to eternal life promised to all Christians. The presence of the Phoenix, originally a Pagan symbol, is another reference to resurrection. The theme of Salvation is expressed in the stories of Susanna’s rescue from accusations of adultery by Daniel. In Susanna’s story Virtue triumphs over extortion and wickedness. In a time of Christian persecution and rivalries with Paganism, the triumph of Christian virtue over evil would be an important theme in the faith of the early Christians. The fresco of Moses striking water from a rock depicts Moses procuring water from a rock for his parched people. The water symbolizes that God is with his believers and later would be incorporated into the Christian symbol of baptism. These three themes — resurrection, salvation, and baptism—are three core tenets of Christianity. These tenets are especially relevant with regards to death; the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives Christians a thorough belief in Christ and the experience of salvation of their sins and suffering after death. To experience this one must enter the religion through the ritual of Baptism. The almost exclusive presence of Christian art, as seen in The Madonna, The Velatio, and the Greek Chapel, indicate the importance of Christianity in death. Furthermore, the adoption of pagan symbols such as the peacock, phoenix, and Orant could potentially explain the Christian concept of eternal life after death to those who are not as well versed in Christianity.

The function of the catacombs gives historians some clues to what factors attributed to the growth of Christianity. The egalitarian nature of the catacombs—a mixture of rich and poor—and a focus on the beliefs of the members rather than individual merit support the notion of a community built with the virtues of independence and equity Gibbon described. The Roman Empire, during the era of early Christianity, was a vast empire containing many different types of people and Pagan Pantheons. In an essay describing the rise of Christianity for the Public Broadcasting Service Frontline sociologist Rodney Stark describes the religious and cultural identity of the Roman Empire as “utter chaos”. No one god could be identified for all people even within a single city. According to Stark’s essay, early Christianity provided a religion that could be universal to those across all ethnic and economic groups. People would be attracted to these early Christian groups due to the benevolence offered to those from all walks of life. The catacombs are an embodiment of this contribution to the rise of Christianity.

A second major theme seen in the catacombs is the promise of eternal life and happiness after death. As mentioned earlier, Gibbon describes the zeal in which early Christians awaited a better life after death. He also states a well defined and universally accessible afterlife was a great improvement than the pagan concept of the afterlife “scarily considered among the devout Polytheists of Greece and Rome as a fundamental article of faith (Gibbon, 250).” In a time when life was nasty, hard, and short the prospect of a glorious afterlife through simply believing and living the tenets of Christianity was very attractive indeed.

Perhaps the most the most interesting thing about the Catacombs of Priscilla is how they contain many of the first images of some of the most popular themes of Christian arts. These images were to be replicated in all art forms for the next two millennia. The Madonna has been the subject of almost a countless number of paintings by such painters like Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Titian. The symbol of the peacock is a very prevalent Christian symbol in many Christian cities like Venice. It is utterly amazing to think that many of the most endearing symbols of Christianity began as hastily painted frescos in an underground cemetery. The Catacombs of Priscilla, one of the earliest purely Christian facilities, reveal so much about the quasi-mythic period of early Christianity. From the barely legible inscriptions on the slabs inclosing the loculi, to the fresco imagery, to the layout of the catacombs one can speculate what was important to early Christians: the concepts of community and eternal life after death. Perhaps now one can begin to see how this movement, intensely persecuted from its inception, could spread to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the predominant religion in the Western World.

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Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. New York, Modern Library: 1932.

Emick, Jennifer. “Ancient Pagan Symbols.” Available Online Jul 10 2008.

Lamberton, Clark. “The Development of Christian Symbolism as Illustrated in Roman Catacomb Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology. 15.4 (1911): 507-522.

New International Version Bible. 1996. IBS-STL Global. Available Online Jul 10 2008.

Nicolai, Vincenzo Fiocchi; Bisconi, Fabrizio, and Danilo Mazzoleni. The Christian Catacombs of Rome. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 1999.

Stark, Rodney. “The Rise of Christianity a Sociologist Reconsiders History.” 1998. Frontline. Available Online Jul 10 2008.

Withrow, W.H. The Catacombs of Rome and Their Testimony Relative to Primitive Christianity. New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1884.