Spanning over 350 miles in length and still possessing original sections of bone-rattling cobbles, the Appian Way was once famous for displaying the crucified remains of Spartacus’ army. While still popular, visitors instead choose to see another type of remains called the catacombs.
Catacomb of Vigna Cassia, courtesy of PCAS
Under Roman rule, it was illegal to bury the dead inside city walls. But while the Romans cremated their dead, early Christians did not have this option and faced the problem of finding land for burials. This problem was solved by digging deep within the soft tufa rock prevalent around Rome, allowing tunneled layers of rectangular niches to be easily carved out. Experts have estimated that at one time, there were approximately thirty-six active catacomb sites up to 90 miles in length and holding between 500,000 and 750,000 remains.(1)
After Christianity became the official state religion in 394 A.D., the need for catacomb burials slowly declined (2) and site locations were forgotten until rediscovery in the 16th century. Today, there is a continual swarm of tourists visiting any one of the three major catacombs on Via Appia: St. Callixtus, San Sebastiano and Santa Domatilla.
The catacombs not generally open for public viewing are the most interesting as they hold unique carvings and frescoes. Since all Christian catacombs in Rome are property of the Catholic Church, no one is allowed to explore them without special permission from the Pontifica Commissione di Archeologia Sacra.(3) However, enough photos have been shared by the Vatican and other fortunate researchers that give a good sampling of this early cemetery art
One example found on a tomb sealing slab commemorates a carpenter. A plumb bob and compass is inscribed alongside an anchor and fish, two popular Christian identifiers. The second example is a memorial to Severus the wine merchant who is remembered with a wine cask.
More commonly known are the wall frescoes. But notice how certain pagan symbols were assimilated for creative use within the new faith. Motifs include the fish, the shepherd (pictured below on the left), doves, children gathering grapes (representing the eucharist), peacocks (the bird of the Resurrection) and a variety of vessels (symbolizing purity). (4)
Popular myths about Orpheus who turned back to look, as did Lot’s wife, or even Hercules’s last three tasks, generally agreed to be metaphors about overcoming death, were also considered apt Christian correlations.
Orpheus photo courtesy of PCAS
One of the more fascinating influences comes from the Cult of Isis. Isis was the ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood and fertility whose worship eventually spread throughout the Greco-Roman world around the same time as early Christianity. She was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife – beliefs very similar to those held by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox about the Virgin Mary.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Intriguing comparisons indeed, but to the painters hired to create these works of art, these new Christian motifs simply may have had no more meaning than any other theme they were paid to create at the time. Christian myths, just like Greek myths, were visualized through the adaptation and combination of a stock set of image types but during this vital and active process of adapting types to service the demands of their customers, the artists transformed Roman culture. It is in part due to them that a Christian art was able to emerge at all in Rome – entirely out of the forms and themes of its pagan environment. Just as these artists had made Greek myths and religious themes meaningful to a Roman clientele, so they made Christian subjects Roman and in the process, began a fundamental transformation in the identity of the Roman state. (5)
Certainly the artistic metaphors achieved their original objectives. The images not only reinforced the explicit verbal teachings of the Church with visual illustration, but they also taught rather sophisticated Biblical themes in a relatively simple and highly accessible manner. Story frescoes shown below include the three Hebrew youths in the furnace, Jonah and the whale, Adam and Eve and Jesus healing the bleeding woman.
Yet the frescoes have also ignited a continuing controversy – that of women in the priesthood. Inscriptions and images found on tombstones, frescoes and mosaics throughout the Mediterranean show that women held respected roles in the early Christian church that were identical to those held by men; those of apostle, priest, deacon and bishop. (6) Proof that women could indeed, have played an active part in the early Christian priesthood comes from such frescoes as St. Priscilla in her priest-like garb, or St. Praxida, shown here with St. Paul.
The woman apparently causing most of the heartburn is Bishop Theodora. In her book, When Women Were Priests, Karen Jo Torjesen sets the stage. “Under a high arch in a roman basilica dedicated to two women saints, Prudentiana and Praxedis, is a mosaic portraying four female figures. The faces of Mary and the other two saints are recognizable. But the identity of the fourth is less apparent. A carefully lettered inscription identifies the face on the far left as Theodora Episcopa, which means Bishop Theodora. The masculine form for bishop in Latin is episcopus; the feminine form is episcopa. The mosaic’s visual evidence and the inscription’s grammatical evidence point out unmistakably that Bishop Theodora was a woman. But the “a” on Theodora has been partly effaced by scratches across the glass tiles of the mosaic, leading to the disturbing conclusion that attempts were made to deface the feminine ending, perhaps even in antiquity.” (7)
Photo courtesy of Sylvia Poggioli, for NPR
Finding the answers to these lingering questions continues to be a challenge as frescoes were the main teaching tool for both the stranger and the illiterate believer. In 2006, a group of American Catholic women visited Rome to explore these liturgical and archeological findings with the possible goal of initiating a further discussion with church leaders. At this time, no such conversation has been reported and the debate continues.
However, the point emphasized from these catacombs remains the same. Marking one’s tomb and painting a story so that others understand, demonstrates a connecting tie throughout the human age. The painting styles and inscriptions may be more elaborate than the carved flowers or cherubs we are used to seeing, but the act of remembrance is still the same.
© 2009 by GE Anderson
(2) Lonely Planet: Rome. © 2006, page 131.
(3) National Geographic, Maria Cristina Valsecchi. Ancient Catacombs
(4) Italian Painting, Keith Christiansen. © 1992, page 20-21.
(5) The Oxford History of Art, Jas Elsner © 1998, page 153.
(7) When Women Were Priests by Karen Jo Torjesen
(8) NPR Podcast : Pilgrims Trace Early Roles of Women in Church
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