The Art of the Catacombs
The Catacombs of Rome the art of the ancient roman cemeteries. Known also as paleochristian art, this funerary art includes frescoes, sculptures, inscriptions and graffiti. Through this artwork, the early christians left testimony of their profound faith in Jesus Christ.
Paleochristian art stems predominantly from classical graeco-roman art, and its period ranges from the first to the sixth century.
The earliest examples of Christian art are to be found within the catacombs! The majority of marble sculptures for example, dated from the 3rd through the 5th centuries, are found on the sarcophagi of the catacombs.
The decoration of tombs was common among ancient Mediterranean cultures. The funerary art depicts epic and mythical stories, historical episodes, religious rituals, signs and symbols. The tombs of the Egyptians, and those of the Etruscans, are two examples which demonstrate how important this type of art has been in unlocking the beliefs and ideas of lost civilizations.
The funerary art of the catacombs reveals much about the early Christians, who they were and what they believed in.
The Christians who employed artists to decorate their tombs were trying to communicate messages, seeking to bring the light of the Gospel into a dark and cold funeral chamber, where their dead lay in "slumber" awaiting the final resurrection.
Frescoes, Sculptures, Inscriptions and Graffitti.
The frescoes within the catacombs have been slowly deteriorating, while others have been lost forever. The alteration of air circulation and temperature is one factor that contributes greatly to the decay. The sculptures on the other hand do not face the arduos task of survival as do the ancient pigments of color on stucco. Sculptures are carved in stone, and have withstood the test of time quite well.
The sculptures found in the catacombs can be divided into three main areas:
The sarcophagus is essentially antiquity's marble coffin. It has a variety of sizes ranging from infants to married couples. Some sarcophagi have sculptured reliefs on all four lateral panels, including the top cover slab, while others may be limited to three panels or just the frontal one.
Christian Sarcophagus Vatican Museums
The sculptured images of the pagan sarcophagi represented for the most part mythological stories, while the christian sarcopgahi illustrated scenes from the life of Jesus, biblical episodes, and sometimes the image of the deceased.
The statues found in the catacombs predominantly are of Jesus, represented as the Good Shepherd. The artistic model was the pagan figure of Orpheus, with the flute to his side and a lamb over his shoulder. Although the Christians did not adorn the catacombs with the miriad of statues the pagans had, they did adapt Orpheus to represent Jesus as the Good Sheperd: "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep knows me." [Gospel of John, Ch.10 ver.14 ]
The Good Shepherd Vatican Museums
Inscriptions have two characteristics:
Graffitti is quite common in the catacombs and its dates cover the 2000 year span. The early christians did not use our modern day spray paint of course, but employed simple cutting tools. Examples of the graffitti found in the catacombs are the messages left by the early Christians on the tombs or walls. There are however also written statements on walls such as one left by an 18th century archeologist who felt himself a priveledged pioneer. He stumbled into a hidden chamber by accident and felt compelled to leave his name and date of discovery. Some early pilgrims also inscribed brief devotional statements at the tombs of the martyrs.
Figures and Personalities
There are a number of anonymous figures as well as actual historical personalities depicted in the frescoes and sarcophagi.
The Figure in Prayer is usually a person with its arms outstretched. It can be an anonymous person or anyone of the other personalities mentioned above. The pagans prayed with their arms outstretched, and the Christians, as Origen writes, raised their arms further to heaven to remember Jesus on the cross.
Many early church personalities appear in the frescoes. Some are: Saints Peter and Paul, St. Cecilia, St. Cyprian and St. Eusibius.
There are many Banquet scenes depicting a group of people sitting at the table in the customary fashion of antiquity. Most of these images refer to the eucharistic remembrance of the Last Supper.
It is not uncommon to find painted or sculptured images of the deceased. In the Cubicle of the Veiled Woman located in the Catacombs of Priscilla, we note three moments in the life of this unknown woman:
On the sarcophagi, the deceased are usually depicted at the center of the front panel, flanked on both sides by reliefs of biblical episodes.
The Decorative Elements
The christians, like the pagans, employed decorative elements, such as vines, flowers, birds, architectural lines and drawings.
The Bible occupies a very important role in the interpretation of catacomb art, whether it be frescoess or scultpures. Without a reference to Biblical literature, the images within the catacombs could not be understood, just as Etruscan funerary images would be unintelligible without reference to mythological literature. For further information see the subject bible.
The Romanization of Christianity and the Christianization of Rome: the Early Christian Basilica
When Constantine became the patron of Christianity, he wanted to construct churches.
The traditional Roman temple type, as exemplified here by the Maison Carrée constructed during the reign of Augustus, was clearly inappropriate considering the association with Pagan cults:
Note that there is also a significant difference between the function of the Pagan temple and a Christian context.
In Pagan practices the sacrifices and ceremonies generally occurred on the exterior. The temple served as the house of the cult. The cult statue and treasury could be housed there.
But Christianity was by definition a mystery religion, and thus needed to have a clear separation between the faithful and the nonfaithful. This would lead to a significant reorientation of religious architecture from an architecture of the exterior to an architecture of the interior.
Constantine and his Church planners also needed an architecture that had meaning in the Roman world. Totally new architectural forms would not be as effective as architectural forms that carried meaning. This led to use of category of Roman building known as the Basilica. Roman basilicas served places for public gatherings: law courts, financial centers, army drill halls, reception rooms in imperial palaces. Roman cities would regularly have a Basilica as a central public building. It was, like our City Hall, a center of public power.
These basilicas regularly had an architectural form we call an apse. The apse was a semi-circular projection usually off the short wall of the rectangular building. Note how the miniaturist has apparently suggested the apse context of this scene by enframing it within a semicircle.
The Basilica Ulpia constructed under Trajan at the beginning of the second century as part of his Forum in Rome is a good example of a civic basilica:
Although more recently converted to the function as a Christian church, this building was clearly designed as an imperial audience hall. Imagine coming into the presence of Constantine in this space, or imagine a grand entrance of Constantince into this space.
It was clearly this form that became the basis of the so-called Early Christian baslicas. A list of furnishing of the original church suggests its splendor:
A silver paten weighing twenty pounds./ Two silver scyphi weighing ten pounts./ A gold chalice weighing two pounds./ Five service chalices weighing two pounds./ Two silver amae each weighing eight pounds. A silver chrism/paten, inlaid with gold, weighing five pounds./ Ten crown lights each weighing eight pounds. Twenty bronze lights each weighing ten pounds. Twelve candlesticks each weighing thirty pounds.
Imagine the light effects of the candles and lamps with the gold and silver furnishings.
The Early Christian Basilica will form the foundation of much we know of Christian Church architecture.
The Early Christian Basilica became the stage for the elaboration of the eucharistic liturgy with its increased emphasis on processions.
In about 321 or 322, Constantine founded the church of St. Peter's in Rome:
This building, traditionally known as Old St. Peter's to distinguish it from the present church, was extremely influential in later medieval architecture.
It is believed to have built on the site of the burial of St. Peter, the principal disciple of Christ and the first Bishop of Rome. Focusing on the tomb of St. Peter in the apse of the church, Old St. Peter's should be classified as a martyrium as opposed to a community church. It is this function that has led to the explanation of the new architectural form we call the transept which marks the cross axis to the nave. The cross axes of the nave and transept allowed for the concentration of attention on the tomb of Peter. It is important to note that, although this form will be almost universal in later medieval church plans, the transept was only found during this period at the churches of St. Peter's and St. Paul's in Rome.
Chi-Rho Symbol (The Chrismon)
This ancient monogram of Christ first appeared in the early 3rd century and can be seen stamped on ancient coins, shields, helmets and numerous works of art and print. The symbol is derived from the first two letters (Chi, Rho) of the Greek work XPICTOC, (Christos), meaning Christ.
This symbol of a fish has been associated with Christianity for the best part of two millennia. It is made up of five Greek letters which make up the word ‘Eekthees’ which translates into English as the word ‘Fish’.
Each of the letters in this rebus represents a special meaning to the ‘born-again’ Christian: The first represents the name ‘Jesus’ which in Greek is pronounced ‘Iesous’. The second letter stands for ‘Christos’, which is the Greek form of the Jewish word ‘Messiah’, which translates into English as ‘Annointed One’. The third letter represents the Greek word ‘Theou’, which translates as ‘God’ or ‘of God’. The fourth letter stands for ‘Uios’ and translates as ‘Son’. The last letter represents the Greek word ‘Sooteer’ - meaning ‘Saviour’. The full meaning of the the entire Greek word translates therefore, as ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’
The lamb is a symbol when John Baptist , who described Christ as ¨the lamb of God”
During the second and third
centuries, a Christian would not draw a picture of Jesus on the cross. The
cross was still too hideous a reality to include it in art. However, one might
see a Chi-Rho, the abbreviation of the word Christos (left).
Meanwhile, Christians were portraying Jesus as the good shepherd.
Notice that in these images, Jesus is represented as a beardless youth taking care of the flock.
The symbolsThe signs and symbols we find painted in the frescoes, inscribed on the marble sarcophagi and slabs, and etched on the walls of the catacombs all deal with the christian faith, even though some symbols are taken directly from the pagan repertoire.
Ancient cultures loved the use of symbols to express ideas. The peacock for the pagans was the symbol of eternal life. However, not all the pagans shared the idea of an afterlife, and for those who did, it was one clouded in mystery and wrapped in a shadowy world of obscurity. Pagan art strongly reflects this anguish, which was a vision of pain and sorrow.
The Christians adopted the symbol of the peacock, but developed a deeper meaning. Because of Revelation, the obscurity of death was cancelled by the victory of Christ's resurrection. The peacock therefore became the symbol of the eternal life of the soul.
The dove represented the peace and happiness of the soul, while the anchor represented hope in Jesus.
Symbols often were a synthesis of more than one idea. The anchor is an example. By its very functional nature, it represents the ideas of stability, security, and hope because it confirms the safe arrival of the ship at port after a perilous journey at sea.
By turning the anchor upside down, the greek letter TAU was formed, and the "T" resembled the shape of the CROSS. Thus the symbolism of the anchor was enriched by this additional element. Hope in Jesus represented the secure port of Salvation, which came about through His crucifixion and resurrection.
The fish was perhaps the favorite christian symbol, and we note the richness of its meaning.
The biblical and pagan cultural background was again important in the development of the symbol.
The New Testament abounds with references to fish. We recall Christ telling his disciples he will make them fishers of men. [Gospel of Matthew, Ch.4 ver.19] The fish therefore became the symbol of the Christian. He was saved in the net of the gospel news preached by the fishermen apostles.
The most important point regarding the symbol of the fish is that in Greek the word fish was written as "ICHTHYS". There are many misconceptions that the Christian used the word fish as a secret code or password. The word fish was not a secret code, but rather formed an acrostic, which was a typical classical style of poetry by which the letters of a word were ordered to form a phrase, or vice versa. In this case we can vertically read the greek word for fish:
Each letter in the word fish formed a word. The meaning of each greek word formed by the letters ICHTHYS are:
Taken as an acrostic, the greek word for fish acquired a very profound meaning for the christian. The phrase read: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was the primitive credo, the fundamental article of faith because it synthesized the theological essence the true follower of Christ was called to profess.
The art of mosaic is the simple decorating of a surface with small, fairly regular, discrete pieces of hard material, set closely together and fixed in place with an adhesive. The term "mosaic" is applied both to the process and to a completed work.
The earliest mosaics appeared in prehistoric times in Mesopotamia as a decorative protective covering for the perishable sun-dried brick architecture. Black, white and red geometric motifs affixed to columns with clay nails have been discovered in an Uruk temple at Varka, dating to the fourth millennium B.C. (at the Olynthos excavations).
Floor mosaics are more widespread than wall mosaics. In early mosaics the materials used were small pieces of gravel or marble or pieces of broken stone known as "opus signium," which were set into a mortar made from lime. Early designs of mosaics were generally based on the straight line, but later the surfaces were covered with carved, cube-shaped marble pieces.
Early works displayed simple colors, but later red, green and yellows were added to the black-on-white background. Developing from geometric shapes, objects, animals and humans were worked into the designs.
Floor mosaics originated in the ancient Mediterranean world, where simple pebble floors were laid in Crete during the Late Neolithic era. The practice continued into the Bronze Age, both in Crete and the in the Mycenaean palaces on the Greek mainland.
Floor mosaics of light and dark pebbles were executed in the eighth century B.C. in Central Anatolia's Gordion. Expertly embedded and set, they formed simple checkered patterns.
In addition to those found in Turkey, many superb examples of pebble mosaics can be seen in Greece, at Athens, Corinth, Delphi and Olympia, at Pella in Macedonia and Epidamnus on the Illyrian coast and in Motya in Sicily, as well as in Florence and Venice.
Another type of mosaic, originating in Egypt, is called "Opus vermiculatum" and was first applied only to jewellery and relief work. Very small pieces of marble in various shapes but which were generally rounded, paired up with glazed ceramic and glass characterized of this type of work. Up to 20 pieces per centimeter were used. These can easily be compared with the painting of the day.
Mosaics spread throughout the Roman provinces, and special schools of the art were found in Africa, Gaul, Germania and Syria. In the Byzantine era, wall mosaics became the natural complement of marble wall coverings.
The mosaics one finds in Turkey are from the Roman, Greek and Byzantine periods. Roman and Greek mosaics are generally found in the Antakya region, although they are also encountered in Southern Anatolia and the Aegean region.
Mosaics made from colored stones usually depict men, women and animals in mythological scenes and are generally surrounded by a geometric border. The best examples of Byzantine mosaics in Turkey are found in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Savior in the Chora and in the Fethiye Museum.