Early Portraits of the Saints and the Question of Likeness

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Ai THE (HUP.CH grew and became securely established, the threat of idolatry from the outside (polytheism) diminished along with Christian reticence about making portraits of holy persons. By the beginning of the fifth century, portraiture was becoming a dominant type of iconography and, while narrative art continued to be produced tor illuminated books or for decorative programs on church walls, saints' likenesses were everywhere, often as relatively inexpensive items that might be produced. The portrait frescoes in the catacombs were joined by etchings in glass, carvings in stone or metal, and the insides of bowls or plates with images of martyrs and saints. As portraits, these images usually lacked a larger narrative frame that would "tell a story" Instead, the physical representation of the saint, sometimes with simple props or specific attributes that assisted in identification, provided an aid to devotion and inspired veneration. Saints, of course, were not divine beings, so their images could not be attacked for trying to circumscribe an infinite nature or divine glory. At the same time, the saints were exceptional persons, thought to be filled with the Holy Spirit in a special way and sanctified in both body and spirit, so that their images were still different from portraits of ordinary individuals.1

Almost as soon as saints' portraits appeared, they7 began to play a significant role in the devotional practices of the faithful. Portraits were not seen as edifying alternatives to written texts or lessons from Scripture, but rather a means of focusing the viewer's attention 011 an individual whose life was particularly holy and who, though no longer alive on earth, was still spiritually present. These images achieved this by representing physical appearance of a saint's or martyr's face and body, often with few definitive background or associated narrative elements apart from the helpful inclusion of the saints name over his or her head>

However, these images were regarded ¡i-, more than mere records of physical appearance, and such they began to receive veneration tir ht tmagc, vu y ri ilk h Ii ke paga n port raits of the gods or ti le ein pe tori ta d . Peuple understood i J i concept of offering ^ílltí ^ of respect, Ililc. and reverence to jk liri^l^l- as a means of showing tlio^c same tokens U> iis model. So-.>n such images became a central aspect ci I the developing Cult of the ( ;hri$tian saints and martyrs.

The account of Lycomedes1 devotion to lu^. portrait of the apostle John is an early example (it how such behavior would have seemed idolatrous in an c.ulieir generation. Lycomedes luid obtained a portrait of lohn ,uid set H Lip in lii> bedroom, h ring il with garlands, and placed Lamps on ¿il altar before it—lis he ^id "crowning loving, and offering reverence to it" John's read ion was h> repudiate ilihi the practice of vener at ion and then i pojt:,ut itself I lie objected that portraits could not be "true" and suggested that good works made o better paint ho* [ban .si", .irrisr's acîual colors).1 This stor y offers some indication that earliei (Christians both practiced and criticized such veneration, which may mean that its reemergence in rho late fourth and early fifth centuries ■■v.is not wholly unprecedented- Showing reverence to portraits almost certainly started with liiu late fourth century funerary portraits, which soon led to thedc* oration oí shrines thai Iu'Ilî rhu- rL-l¡l>. oí saints Co which pilgrims came to pray.

For example» rln. early fifth century fresco from ll-.c Catacomb of San < îennaro in Naples ' h .li portrays a bust of (ho deceased Proculus i* surrounded, I i I- Lycomedes1 ¡mag« of John, :>y garlands and candles. Whether the presence of such honors ijiJjclirt-> that Proculus was deemed saint or whether his was ¿ simple memorial pLirir.ii; i.^ ^liMi-lliLi to determine. The difference between an ordinary funeral portrait and -m official saint's image was not dear Lit this early stage„ although rhe inclusion ai saints' images in rim eatacombias a [\it[ of the general decoration of an ordinary person's tomb was becoming more common. In Procutuss case, the image itself (ells us I hat h in remains were near hih portrait, i.^Lcr on. lIil- portraits of sainLs might appear anywhere, nil or without being proximate in relics. Jn thai same Naples catacomb, in ,i different arcosolium, we can see the image oí Spirit Januarius himself standing between two In l.iciJIl^ ici lLc orans position. halo shows llu- chr¡-.iM^r^un (with alpha and omega), and, over his head, additional tau-rho crosses appear, along with iJk1 dedicatory inscription "Stinrtp Martyri ffliruflrid'^fig 33, seep 50). Although Januarius^ fr-l¡L--. were brought To Naples and deposited in rhis catacomb in rht-earl) fifth century, llu- bodies actually buried in this tomb au- or' the lwci t'cmale.h shown M either s i l Je o i Mil' sjíiH. j child flamed Nieatiolä il i id identified li s an "'infam" and the woman Cominia, both of them in pace?

A stightly earlier example, a fresco beneath a tomb in Lhe confessio adjacent to the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, shows two individuals bowing low before a standing figure who appears behind two drawn curtains, his hands outstretched in prayer (fig. 88). Since the posture of the two kneclers is one of veneration, the orant cannot be an ordinary person or deceased family member, as in earlier catacomb paintings. Above this image is a small opening, which may have given access to the tomb or served as a means of communication with the remains of martyrs buried inside.. On either side of this opening are the partially preserved paintings of two additional standing figures (with missing heads). On the two side walls are rare and unusual scenes that have been identified as the arrest of three holy persons (two men and a woman) and their beheading. This latter image shows the three figures writh their hands tied behind their backs and their eyes blindfolded. Below these scenes are standing portraits of four additional figures (two on each side).' One other rare, early representation of martyrdom by beheading was carved in relief on a ciborium column found in the subterranean basilica of Saints Nereus and Ac hi Ileus, built over the Catacomb of Domitllla in the late fourth century, which shows the beheading of At hi Ileus.

According to one legend, prior to becoming a church the site of the confessio described above was the dwelling of saints John and Pauk who were martyred under the Emperor Julian in the year 362 c.e. and buried

Fig £8. Fresco of Saint from the Confess of Ss. Giovanni and Paolo, Rome (Photo; Graydon Snyder), inside 1 heir own home (ot, according to a different version, in the house of a Christian named Byzans). In addition to the remains of John and Paul, however, tradition claims that the bodies of three other martyrs were deposited at this place, at a later time and by a lady named Ruflina, a sister-in-law of Pammacinus, who built the first basilica on the site. The identity of all the figures in the iconography is therefore somewhat problematic. The two "headless" saints might be John and Paul, while the two kneeling figures have been identified as Pammachius and his wife Paulina. The standing orant has been identified as Christ (without a halo), as one of the saints associated with the place, or some other saint altogether The three martyrs are variously identified as Crispin, Crispi-anus, and Benedicta; or as Cyprian, Just in a, and Theoctistus, depending somewhat on the dating of the different martyr accounts as well as the dating of the painting itself"

As wre noted earlier, in the third century, a section of the Catacomb of Callistus was set aside for burial of the bishops of Rome. The remains of as many as nine Roman bishops were either buried at this place or translated at a later time (identified by their epitaphs as Pontian, Anterus, Pabian, Lucius 1,Stephen l,Sixtus II,Dionysus,Felix,and Eutychian). In addition to these popes, three African bishops (Urban, Numidian, and Oct a til s) are interred here. Adjacent to this "crypt of the popes" is the tomb of Saint Cecelia, which may have originally contained the martyr's relics (prior to their ninth-century translation to the basilica named for her in Trastevere), as well as the remains of those wrho wanted to be buried near her. This chamber was adorned with mosaics and paintings in the fifth and sixth centuries, including fresco portraits of the martyrs Polycamus, Sebastianus, and Quirinus (their names appear above their portraits)- Just to the left of a modern copy of Maderno s statue of Saint Cecilia (ca. 1600), a small niche contains a painted portrait of Christ with a short dark beard and long dark hair, probably dating to the late eighth century. He has a jeweled, cruciform halo and holds a Gospel book in his left hand. With his right hand, he makes the traditional gesture of speech or blessing, fust next to the portrait of Christ is an even later portrait of Saint Urban (identified by name), and above is a restored figure that shows Saint Cecilia herself, in the orans position.

Parther on in the Callistus catacomb is a chamber built by the Deacon Severus for himself and his family, apparently with the permission of Pope Ma reel 1 in us at the beginning of the fourth century. Adjacent to Severus's chamber is a small cubicujum with a fresco of five figures, traditionally thought to have been martyrs, each standing in the orans position and surrounded with birds and garlands, and each identified by name (Dionysia, Nemesius, Procopius, Eliodora, and Zoe), with the addition of the epithet tn pace." A sixth epitaph, "Arcadia in pace" appears below the figure of Dionysia and just above the image of a peacock, The five figures are all clearly intended to be recognizable portraits, and their hairstyles, clothing, and body size vary according to their gender and age. Almost nothing is known about these individuals» and their Customary identification as saints is difficult to substantiate from any documentary evidence. Perhaps the only reason to assume that these were five martyrs rather than members of a single family is that their portraits were ulI apparently painted at the same time, suggesting that they also died together, perhaps in the Great Persecution at the beginning of the fourth century.

The cult of saints was stimulated in Rome at the end of the fourth century, largely through the efforts of Pope Da mas us (366-384) to identify and restore the burial places of the saints and to provide itineraries for pilgrims' visits (along with verses written by the Pope himself, engraved and inserted along the route). Portraits of the saints began to replace biblical figures and scenes, particularly as ordinary burials in the catacombs began to end and these places became destinations for pilgrims who came to visit the shrines of the special dead (fig. 89). As early as the late fourth or early fifth century, relics were even brought to the catacombs from elsewhere, despite the attempts by .secular powers to prohibit the transference of such remains/' Chapels soon were built into the catacombs with altars for the celebration of masses at martyrs' tombs, and decorated with portraits that displayed both the saints' images and names, Since ancient Christians desired to have their own remains buried near a martyr's tomb, those sites were in high demand and probably only granted to individuals of wealth, power, position, or influence. One example is the crypt of Veneranda in the Catacomb of Domitilla, which contains the only existing material evidence for the cult of the Saint Petronilla. Veneranda^ tombn probably built at the end of the fourth century, lies in the area behind the altar of the basilica of Saints Nereus and Achilleus that was tilled with tombs of those who wished to be buried near the saint's relics. Tn a

Fi^ 89,5s, Cyprian and Stephen from the Caticcmrib of CaJlhrtus, Rome (©Tie International C^Lacomb Society Photo; Estelle Srettrran).

Fg. 9G-^sncr;irtda with S^mt

Rttiwilla, Catacomb of Domi-i lla, Rome (©The International Catacomb Society: Photo: E:telle Brettman).

lunette fresco in a small oubiculuni is the figure of Veneranda, identified by name and date of burial The deceased is shown as an orans figure, being led into the garden of paradise by Saint PetroniUa herself (also identified by name:"PetroniUa martyr"; fig. 90).

Another painting of a distinguished person with patron saints is in a crypt at the bottom of the main stair of the Catacomb of Com modi I la, in which lie the relics of Saints Felix, Merita, Nemesius, and Adauctus. Jn the early fifth century, a fresco was added portraying Christ, enthroned on a globe and holding ihe book in his left hand, handing the keys to Peter with his right. To Christ's left is Pault holding scrolls of the law+ Both Peter and Paul are identified by name, and on either side are the martyrs Felix, Stephen, and Merita. A larger sixth-century fresco decorates the rear of the crypt and shows the Virgin seated on a throne with the child Jesus on her lap. To her right and left are Saints Felix and Adauctus, the latter with his right hand on the shoulder of a rather simply dressed woman wTlio is merely identified as "Turtura" ("turtle dove1'} in the accompanying inscription and who probably was a patron of the shrine and perhaps also buried nearby in order to be close to the saints' holv relics. She holds an open scroll in her hands, perhaps an offering either to Mary or Jesus.

As this example demonstrates, in addition to portraits of saints whose relics were nearby, fifth -century catacomb frescoes also showed Mary or even Christ with his apostles. An example of the latter was found on the ceiling of a chamber in the Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, where Christ is presented enthroned between Peter and Paul. Directly below Christ is a small lamb, standing on a rock from which spring the four rivers of Paradise. To each side of the lamb are two saints, altogether the four martyrs who are especially connected writh this catacomb and identified by name —Gorgonius, Peter, Marcellinus, and Tiburtius. A similar composition, in the Catacomb of Callistus, shows five saints (tig. 91). like

the saints' portraits in Co m mod il la, the style and composition of these images easily distinguish them from earlier paintings in the catacomb and mark them off as later additions for the purpose of enlivening a place of pilgrimage, rather than recording an ordinary place of burial.

Fig. 9\. Five saint: from "the Cartaconib of CalliEtJs, Rome (©The International Catacomb Society Photo; Estelle Brittman).

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