The Catacombs of Rome film documents 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.
The Catacombs of Rome is a film which contains a very unique collection of Paleochristian art, and includes frescoe paintings, sculptures, greek and latin inscriptions and ancient "graffitti". These precious images have all been filmed on location in Rome.
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.
With few colors and expressive brushstrokes, that somewhat resemble 18th century Impressionism, the frescoes of the catacombs have a vibrance of color and life. However, unlike impressionism, which tends to cloud the scene, the catacomb images evoke clarity and purpose.
In order to interpret the full meaning of many Christian images, it sometimes becomes necessary to understand pagan art. We should not be surprised to find that Paleochristian art adhered to many classical rules of expression which governed the figurative arts. Understanding how pagan art expressed itself, often unlocks the rich meaning of the Christian images.
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. It is not the passage of time, that has dealt a blow to the original splendor of the catacombs, as much as the actions of man in history which have taken their toll.
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.
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 Good Shepherd Vatican Museums
Christian Sarcophagus Vatican Museums
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 ]
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.
For modern archeology graffiti has often provided valuable clues and information. The scientific importance of such finds are as valuable as the meaning they impart upon us today. The simple yet profound and human message left by the hand of a christian two thousand years ago can not but inspire and move us.
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. While the decorative intention of these images should be emphasized, it is not always the case to presume the motiffs had no meaning.
For the pagans the vine was symbol of rebirth, because the wine harvest represented the continuos cycle of life. For the christians, a new idea of the vine was developed. Jesus was now the true vine of eternal life, and those who believed in Him were the branches. "I am the vine, ye are the branches". [Gospel of John, Ch.15 ver.5]
The 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. This is false and demonstrates a lack of history.
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 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.
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