their depictions of a Christian 'Olympus' were one of the most impressive innovations of Christian art.
Propaganda fide post mortem, or: The consolation of art after death
Most of the catacombs in Rome were outgrowths of family crypts. In other words, the members of affluent families gradually converted to Christianity and then (mainly after 313) donated their crypts to the church. Thus, for example, elements of the original pagan hypogea from the second and third centuries can still be identified today in several catacombs, a particularly impressive example being the second-century hypogeum of the emperor Vespasian's niece Flavia in the Flavian family crypt in the Domitilla catacombs. Most such family crypts were decorated with conventional pagan funerary motifs that were unlikely to offend family members who were Christian converts. Pre-Constantinian Christian paintings are found there only rarely. The catacomb of Callistus originated in the early third century by connecting two formerly separated private hypogea with transversal corridors. The idea underlying this new burial area was revolutionary in that it was church-owned, and as such it is thought to have been used by all believers, the rich and the poor. While in antiquity only affluent people could afford a sarcophagus or a hypogeum, the catacomb administered by Callixtus was the first cemetery where rich and poor people were buried in the same way, that is to say, in loculi in the walls of the catacomb corridors. As a Church-owned burial place for the rich and the poor the catacombs were a truly Christian invention which had its effect up to the present time.
But the idea of humility and modesty underlying this creation was soon subverted when some affluent private and ecclesiastical people decided to have not only loculi, but also private cubicula, richly painted with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Marble sarcophagi with Christian scenes were similarly located within the private cubicula. Even so, whereas pagan funeral inscriptions often inform us about the worldly success of the deceased in prolix detail, Christian funeral inscriptions are mostly laconic and tend to suppress individual accomplishments.
Catacombs proved to be a relatively short-lived phenomenon. Although pilgrims visited catacombs containing martyrs' tombs until early medieval times, from the fifth century onward, Christian congregants were increasingly buried in cemeteries above ground.
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