Recent episodes have followed Bernini as a preliminary guide to the spirit of Christian Rome in the time of the Counterreformation, when the new St. Peter’s and the Galleria Borghese were built. But what about the earliest Christian Romans? Today we survey their burial places, the catacombs, to begin to learn how they understood the world and their duties in it.

Show Notes

We began our look at Christian Rome with St. Peter’s Basilica and then turned to the Villa Borghese. I started with St. Peter’s because it is the most important Catholic Church in the world, and I followed with the Borghese so we could see that Bernini and the Baroque were not limited to the subjects of the great basilica. They drew on such challenging and at least seemingly opposed sources as Virgil, Ovid, the Bible, the lives of the saints, and of lives of the popes who commissioned him. In the confrontation between these complex sources of inspiration, it was the Christian sources that were established and the classical sources that were the intruders.

Up until the Renaissance, the vast majority of art in Rome had had Christian themes for a thousand years. Then Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, and other classics were rediscovered and drew thoughtful attention; meanwhile, sculptures from ancient Rome, which often were copies of work first done by the Greeks, were dug up out of the Roman subsoil and were immediately admired. Bernini’s art thus reflects a complex world, in which thinking Christians had to try to understand their faith its relation to great sources of inspiration that came from an alien world, the world of classical antiquity. Or, rather, from two alien worlds, for a new science was rediscovering the world of nature at the same time. Somewhat surprisingly, as the case of Galileo shows, it was taken to be more threatening than Ovid’s stories of love and pagan gods.

The last such confrontation between pagan and Christian had occurred a thousand years earlier, in the fourth century. Virgil and Cicero were then the established men of letters, and public art was of pagan gods and political leaders. Christianity then represented the new and intrusive understanding, and it had been intermittently persecuted as being subversive. But Christianity did not just make a place for itself in the old, declining, pagan world; it overthrew the old worldview and helped to bury it.

It’s time to look at this earliest Christianity, which seemed so weak and fragile but proved so potent. It’s earliest physical record in Rome is not in a church, for the Christians’ early “house churches” have not survived: we must go underground, to the catacombs, to breath the spirit of the early Christians.

Catacombs: The Catacombs: Martyrs, Relics, and Hopes for the Future

As with Rome in general, visitors come to the catacombs for different and even opposed reasons. Some are drawn to places of intimate importance for the early Christians, saints and martyrs included, and the catacombs head the list of Roman links to the earliest years the faith.  Others are curious about burial places that are so large, deep, and unusual, and a few of these may shudder at the thought of the former presence of so many corpses, especially in places that used to have less light and ventilation than they have today. Even the geology of the catacombs is fascinating, for the volcanic tufa in which we find them is soft when dug but hardens when exposed to the air, which makes it perfect for creating a warren of underground tombs. But my principal goal is to understand the hearts and minds of Christian Romans, especially in relation to their pagan predecessors and their secular descendants, and in this connection, the catacombs offer important evidence.

Christians in the Roman Empire were subject to periods of persecution for three centuries before the Emperors Galerius, Constantine, and Licinius legalized the faith in 311 and 313. During the centuries in which it could be risky for Christians to maintain a public presence, some members of the community allowed their homes to serve as churches, but none of the Roman “house churches” survives. The main physical and artistic evidence of Christianity in Rome prior to its legalization is found not in churches but in an underground network of burial places that came to be called the catacombs but which the early Christians called “cemeteries,” from a Greek word, cœmeteria, which meant “sleeping places” or “dormitories.” Their word emphasized their belief that death was not final. Accordingly, the buried body was often referred to as a “deposit,” which implies something valuable that would be recovered later, in this case at the time of the resurrection, and both the art and inscriptions of the catacombs strengthened this central message. Pause for a moment and think how different the view of life on earth is for those who view it as a mere prelude to an eternal existence in God’s company as compared to those who see death as the abrupt and final end of our lives.

Though they did not do so in public, the early Christians used art to represent their faith underground, and very different circumstances ensured that it would be distinct from the art that matured in the large churches built soon after the faith was legalized and subsidized. Like all Roman burial places, the catacombs were located outside of the city’s religious boundary and protective walls, generally along a major road. They often have three, four, or even five levels of tunnels, called “galleries,” that may be as far as sixty feet underground; the total length of the galleries of all Roman catacombs is reportedly in the range of 400 miles. Skilled “tunnel men” planned, dug, and decorated the mazelike galleries. Their first task was to locate the large deposits of Rome’s remarkable volcanic soil, called “tufa” or “tuff,” which was soft enough to excavate but became firm enough not to collapse. Five or six of the forty or fifty known catacombs around Rome are now open to visitors. Post-papal Rome, now a century and a half old, has allowed the Roman Catholic Church to retain responsibility for the Christian catacombs.

Arcosolium, Catacombs of Domitilla, with frescoes (photo: Wikipedia public domain)

The large warren of catacombs testifies to the considerable size of the Christian community in Rome even before the faith was legal, and the

simplicity and rough similarity among the shelf-like burial slots along the sides of tunnels only a yard wide suggests a generally egalitarian community not drawn to ostentation, though some tombs, called arcosolia, are larger and more elaborate than the basic loculus. So too are the little rooms, the cubicula, that are built off to the sides of the tunnels. The wall and ceiling space of these underground chambers gave the early Christians a little more room for art and inscriptions than the tunnels did, but small, dimly-lit rooms are not suited for major works.

Sketch of tunnel and loculi in Roman Catacomb (Photo: Wikimedia)

Scholars carefully study the art in the catacombs, especially to understand its symbolism, its representations of stories in the Bible, and its occasional reliance on pre-Christian artistic themes or traditions, but I do not know of any powerful tribute to its beauty. Some paintings show a more developed artistry than others, but the allure of the catacombs’ art is found more in its heartfelt message—the message especially of Christian hope—than in its skillful execution. The very simplicity of the catacombs continues to attract devotion, and, for example, in 1965 forty-two Catholic Bishops wrote and signed what they called “the Pact of the Catacombs,” in which they pledged that they would

Try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport. . . . [and that they would] renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing . . . and symbols made of precious metals.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on helping the poor is often taken to be partly rooted in this pact and the catacombs that inspired it, though helping the poor is not the same as living as they do.

The catacombs began as places for the early Christians to bury their deceased relatives, but they acquired new importance once saints and martyrs began to be buried in them, especially during the persecutions of Diocletian in the early fourth century. Every catacomb was believed to have been hallowed by the presence of saintly relics, including those of such major martyrs as Agnes, Sebastian, Lawrence, and Cecilia. The remains of Peter and Paul were believed by some to have been buried for a while in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian. The relics of saints increased the appeal of the catacombs not only as a place to be buried but also as a place to pray, and pilgrims came to Rome from far away to do just this, even without the ease and economy of trains and planes. In the middle of the fourth century Pope Damasus facilitated access to the martyrs’ tombs and identified their most important occupants by verse inscriptions, which is further evidence of the early Christians’ dominating focus on the next life and on the martyrs as helps in getting there.

Later, as Rome became increasingly subject to attack, popes began to bring relics out of the catacombs for safer keeping. The Pantheon, for example, was converted into the Christian church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs in the early seventh century, and it reportedly received twenty-eight cartloads of martyrs’ bones; later, Pope Pascal I moved relics from the Catacomb of Priscilla to Santa Prassede, where an inscription on the first pilaster of the right nave declares, “The bodies of 2,300 martyrs repose in this church of Santa Prassede, placed here by Pope Pasquale I.” Other popes did likewise, if on a smaller scale, until most martyrs’ bones had been removed. This ended the pilgrims’ visits to the catacombs, and even their existence was mostly forgotten. Most of the Roman catacombs came into use in the second century, stopped receiving new tombs in the late fourth century, and were mostly forgotten by the eighth or ninth century.

The rediscovery of one of them in the midst of the Catholic Counterreformation played a role in the controversy between Catholics and Protestants. They were arguing and shedding blood over the true teaching of Christ and meaning of Christianity, so the discovery of a catacomb and its intact paintings seemed to offer a new way of getting to know the first Christians. Who could be more authoritative models of the faith than the Christians who lived so close to the time of the Apostles and risked their lives for what they believed? These were the men and women who got Christianity legalized and made it the dominant religion and cultural influence of all of Europe. Was their example followed better by the Catholics or by the Protestants? Not always free of bias, scholars took the opportunity, which to some seemed even providential, to argue that their beliefs and practices were in harmony with those of the first Christians.

Among other things, Catholics stressed the importance of the saints in the art of the catacombs, a tacit reproach of Luther’s emphasis on Christ alone (“Solus Christus”), while Protestants argued that the art of the catacombs never hinted at a papal hierarchy: Peter was represented, but not with keys, a throne, or tiara, and Paul’s presence limited Peter’s preeminence. Protestant interpretations did not acknowledge a single Virgin Mary in the catacombs, though Catholics thought they saw one in the Catacombs of Priscilla. Protestants also stressed that Christ was usually the “Good Shepherd,” not a punishing deity, whereas the Catholic Michelangelo had depicted a punitive Christ a few years earlier in the Vatican’s much admired “Last Judgment.” Thus was born a new academic field, “Christian archeology,” though it did not settle the quarrel.

That there were so many drawings in the catacombs was itself newsworthy, for some Protestant leaders, especially Calvinists, justified the destruction of religious art on the grounds that it was an idolatrous violation of the Second Commandment.  Now Catholic scholars could defend the luxuriant art of the Catholic Counterreformation by showing that early Christians did not hesitate to represent religious subjects in their drawings.

The catacombs also showed that early Christians venerated martyrs and their relics, and Catholics of the Counterreformation claimed that this too supported their practice, not that of the Protestants, who had little time for the martyrs or their relics. Famous martyrs gave their names to catacombs and attracted pilgrims who came to pray in the presence of their bodily remains, so their tombs came to be placed in rooms larger and easier for pilgrims to visit. These parts of the catacombs became somewhat like military cemeteries, which honor the heroes buried in them, though the Christians’ honoring extended to veneration and the hope that the saints would act on their behalf. Christians also expressed this hope by seeking to be buried near the tomb of a saint.

Survey of the Art: A thorough survey of the art of the catacombs finds some examples that might be merely decorative, but in the vast majority of cases, decoration is not the goal. The main focus is on communicating the lively hope that God will deliver us even from death. The following examples are from the five main catacombs that are easily visited by the public in Rome today.

Although Old Testament stories do not encourage this hope as forcefully as those of the New Testament, some Old Testament stories are repeated in the catacombs and then reinterpreted in the light of Christ’s new teachings. Three such stories are frequent in the art of the catacombs: Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2), Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6:1-28), and the salvation of the three children from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:1-30). To the Christians, these stories represent God’s deliverance of His followers not from particular perils but from death itself.

The most common New Testament stories painted in the catacombs convey a similar message, as in Christ’s raising of Lazarus (John 11: 38-44) or healing of a leper (Matthew 8: 1-4). Viewers saw a “history” of God’s salvific actions painted on the surfaces of the catacombs and carved on sarcophagi, and seeing these events reassured them that their loved ones, and they themselves, would also enjoy His protection, even from death’s dark night. Unsurprisingly, a visit to the Roman catacombs is a spark for marveling at the apparent power of the early Christians’ hopes; they also prompt us to wonder how such hopes affect our lives when they are present as well as when they are not.

A frequent non-Biblical subject is the banquet that Christians used to hold on anniversaries of the death of their loved ones. As remembered in the art of the catacombs, these banquets were important occasions for remembering God’s love. This they referred to by the Greek word agape, which keeps it clearly distinguished from the erotic love that was so vital for such pagan gods as those Bernini represented in the Borghese. They are also quite different from such banquets as those recorded by Plato and Xenophon, when Socrates took up serious philosophical questions in an atmosphere of levity. The Christians’ agape banquets are represented fifteen times in the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Pietro, for example. Such a subject makes sense simply because small dinner parties occurred frequently in the catacombs, but they are also associated with themes that go closer to the heart of the faith. When painted on the walls of the catacombs, the banquet refers also to the Eucharistic feast, or to New Testament events closely linked to it, such as the marriage feast of Canna, the last supper, or the multiplication of the loaves and fish. These connections are made clear by the addition of other scenes or the inscription “agape.

Christ the Good Shepherd carries a sheep on his shoulders in the Catacomb of San Callisto (Wikimedia Commons)

Christ is of course a common subject of Christian art, but he is represented in very different ways, as we will see often. In the catacombs, he is most commonly a shepherd, a beardless young man with nothing regal or evidently divine about him. Called “the good shepherd,” this way of representing Christ has him with a small sheep draped across his shoulders; and though it is invested with new meaning, the image comes straight from pre-Christian art. Once, however, in the Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, we get a glimpse of what was to come: Christ is represented not as a shepherd but as a king. He is enthroned, older, with a dark beard and a halo. To the sides of his halo are the alpha and omega referred to in the Book I of Revelations: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Saints Peter and Paul stand at his left and right. Peter wears his usual square beard; Paul has a long beard and receding hairline. Both wear white togas. This is perhaps the earliest example of a pattern that later becomes common.[2]

Symbols: Inscribed or painted symbols also conveyed the core Christian message. In very rough order of frequency, these include the good shepherd, the “orant,” a fish, the dove, the Alpha and the Omega, the anchor, and the phoenix. Like the good shepherd, the orant and the phoenix were common in pagan art, but they take on a new significance when painted by Christians.

The word “orant” is from Medieval Latin for a person in the posture of prayer, with arms held out to the sides, gently bent, and palms up. In the art of the catacombs, the orant generally represents the soul of the deceased, now in peace.  The very act of prayer shows the soul to be rich in faith, but it is less easy to know what the content of the prayer might be. Orants might be interceding for those still alive, or thanking God for their salvation.

As the early Christians detected the promises of the New Testament already foreshadowed in some passages of the Old Testament, so they also saw the promise of immortality even in some pagan myths. The phoenix is a colorful bird in Greek mythology that rose again from its own ashes, for example, and so for the Christians it became a symbol of the resurrection even of the body.

The Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, declare that the Christian God is the beginning and the end. The anchor holds one steady even in storms and is the symbol of the early Christians’ deepest hope, which is for life everlasting with God.

The dove later became the common symbol of the Holy Spirit, but when placed on tombs by the early Christians, it was a symbol of the soul’s peace after death. In this usage the dove often had an olive branch in its beak, which refers to the story of Noah, who released a dove on three occasions to help him look for dry land after God’s punishing flood began to subside. When the dove returned with an olive branch in its beak, Noah concluded that the floodwaters were receding, which strengthened the hope that they would be saved (Genesis 8:11).

The fish is important mostly because it represents Christ, for the Greek word for fish, ΙΧΘΥΣ, [iota chi theta upsilon sigma] is an acrostic for “Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior.” Fish may sometimes refer also to the miracle according to which Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Mt. 14: 13-21).

Christ the Good Shepherd has a lamb on his shoulders: he carries off the soul he has saved. This design probably referred first to the bucolic scene of the twenty-third Psalm, and especially to the verse promising safety even in “the valley of the shadow of death,” but when we turn to the New Testament we see Christ himself as the good shepherd and the promise of life becomes explicit and emphatic. We read in John 10, verses 11-12, for example: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” This and other passages use the shepherd metaphor also to establish Christ’s love for his followers, which are as weak and needy as lambs (John 21:16-17; Luke 15:4-6). Shepherds and even good shepherds appeared also in pagan art, but never with such meaning: the same form conveys radically new content.

Catholics and Protestants can agree that the catacombs’ main theme is that we are not alone in our weakness. Their art testifies to the belief that a loving God delivers his followers from evil, even when the evil in question is death itself. As the catacombs suggest, it was a message deeply rooted and widely represented among the early Christians, and other evidence shows that the most articulate leaders of the early Church used their great talents to promulgate it. This is a potent message and sets the early Christians sharply apart from their pagan predecessors and, I think, from the main beliefs of modern western societies as well.

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