Terra Catacombe Meaning

Visual Art, Portraits, and Idolatry

FOR THE MOST PART, existing examples of Christian visual art come from Rome and date to the beginning of the third century c.e>, a time when Roman Christians weTe enjoying a brief respite from the widespread but sporadic persecutions they had suffered during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (160-180). During the relatively tolerant reign of Emperor Commodus (ISO-192), the church acquired land outside the city walls-, on the Via Appia Antica, for use as a burial ground, allowing them to inter Christian dead in cemeteries separated from their noii-Christian neighbors. This cemetery, unlike most necropoli or mau-solea from earlier times that were either just at the surface or above-ground! was constructed as an underground network of branching and connecting tunnels on four different levels, containing tiers of narrow horizontal niches for individual bodies (hcuti) and openings into larger rooms (cubicula), which may have held several burials from a single family. The loculi were closed with slabs of stone or terra cotta on which were inscribed simple epitaphs and often a figure or a symbol (such as a dove, praying figure, anchor, or fish). The walls and ceilings of the cubic-uta{a word that means "sleeping chambers") were often adorned with traditional decorative motifs as well as some narrative images based on biblical themes.

According to his later rival J lippolyius, the oldest section of the first known Christian cemetery was placed under the supervision of Callistus, a former slave who had been condemned to hard labor in the Sardinian mines as a Christian, After he was released (through an intervention on his behalf by the emperor's mistress Marcia, who seems to have had Christian sympathies), Callistus returned to Rome, where he received a pension as reward for his suffering from Bishop Victor I (189-198 c.e Under Victor's successor Zephyrinus, Callistus was put in charge of the

Christian cemetery, and when Zephyrinus died, he beta me Bishop himself, dying as a martyr in 222,1 In time, the cemetery Callistus had supervised (although not where he himself was buried) tame to be tailed the

Catacombs San Sebastiano Anchor
Fig. I. Wall painting from a hypcgeum in tie Catacomb of San Sebastiano, Rome (©The Iinternational Catacomb Society. Photon Estel le Brettrrian).

Fig. 2. Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Calhsrtui, Rome (©The nternational Catacomb Society; Photo; Estelle Bnettrnan),

Fig. 2. Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Calhsrtui, Rome (©The nternational Catacomb Society; Photo; Estelle Bnettrnan),

Good Shepherd Catacombs San Callisto

Catacomb of Saint Calli&tus,J Inscription a I evidente in its oldest area, containing the so-called Crypt of the Popes> was found to indicate the burials of a number of third-century bishops of Rome,

Historians regard this site as especially important because of its many wall paintings, most of which tire assumed to be contemporaneous with the first years of its use, making them among the earliest examples of Christian figurative art. No similar body of art works is known from the preceding two centuries of the Christian era. Moreover, given these paintings' location in a site owned and supervised by church officials, we can assume that Callistus and other subsequent ecclesial authorities allowed the production, style, and content of the frescoes. In other words, the images that decorate these burial spaces were officially permitted, even though they appeared in quasi-private space (family tombs) and were presumably commissioned by ordinary individuals to enliven the crypts of their deceased relatives. In time, the decoration became even more ^official" as frescoes came to adorn the more public burial chambers of clergy and martyred saints/

These early images are fairly simple, and many were clearly modified from conventional Roman funerary art and traditional wall painting. They include the purely decorative, customary, and religiously generic iconography of garlands, fruit, flowers, and birds that appears in neighboring pagan burial chambers as well as domestic settings (fig. I). Some common figures borrowed classical motifs and adapted them to convey specific Christian meanings such as the fish, dove, anchor, shepherd, praying figure (omnt), boat, and funeral banquet (figs. 2—4), However, we also find a number of distinct, recognizable Christian motifs in the oldest chambers of Callistus s catacomb including the so-called cubicula of the sacraments, where, alongside the figures of the shepherd and the oran t, we also see the figures of Jonah, Moses striking

Fig, 4, Funeral banquet, Catacomb ef Callistui. Rome (©The nrterrational Catacomb Society Photoi Estel e Brettman).

Roman Funerary BanquetEarly Christian Funerary Art

Fig. 3- Praying figure, Catacomb of Cal istus, Rome (©The International Catacomb Society Photo: Estelle Brettiman).

the ruck, Abraham and Isaac, and some early' scenes from the New Testament, including the baptism of Christ and the healing of the paralytic (figs. 5-7). In lime, as this and other Christian catacombs continued t« be enhanced with frescoes, the iconographic catalog grew even more complex, adding such figures as Noah, Daniel, and Jesus performing various healings and working wonders* By the late third and into the fourth century, these same images began to appear carved in relief on the front and ends of the large stone coffins (sarcophagi), discovered within tlie larger chambers of the catacombs or sometimes in above-ground mau-solea ur nearby basilicas (figs. 8-9).

These various Christian motifs and symbols referred to ideas, stories, or events that encapsulated an aspect of the beliefs or hopes of the faithful, in this context particularly referring to the expectations for a blessed afterlife promised by the sacraments of the church, or to the character of the deceased as a person who lived a life of steadfast piety, fidelity to the community, familial affection, and high moral character. Most of the early paintings were of relatively low quality and style when compared to much more beautiful examples of Roman wall painting, although they strike the viewer as expressive and vigorous in their own right. The relief carvings, on the other hand, often were beautifully crafted and well composed .Whether highly crafted or not, these paintings and carvings ^re necessarily exceptional and groundbreaking as some of the very first examples of Christian art The visual image was allowed to carry the Weight of message and meaning, in the context of the most significan I of all life's moments—death and the burial of the body by the relatives and friends of the deceased. Perhaps more generally, these artworks demonstrate that Christians valued and used visual art, at least from the time that we may identify objects and spaces that were openly Christian-owned.

Fig. 3- Praying figure, Catacomb of Cal istus, Rome (©The International Catacomb Society Photo: Estelle Brettiman).

Fig, 4, Funeral banquet, Catacomb ef Callistui. Rome (©The nrterrational Catacomb Society Photoi Estel e Brettman).

Roman Ghostly BanquetEarly Christian Art Catacombs Noah

Fig. 5. Jonah at nest; Scene fnonr Jonah cycle, Catacomb of CallistushRome (©The IntematiortaJ Catacomb Soticty: Photffi Estdle Bnetttnani).

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