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The Catacombs of Rome film documents the presence of the Bible in the ancient christian roman cemeteries. Archelogical evidence demonstrates how the early christians drew on the Old and New Testament Scriptures to form the theological foundations of their new faith. Biblical passages are depicted throughout the catacombs in images, frescoes, sculptures, symbols, and inscriptions. The early christians of Rome believed Jesus to be the fulfillment of God's promise of Salvation as narrated in the Bible.
The Biblical Stories in the Catacombs
From the Creation of Adam and Eve to the Resurrection of Jesus, the key moments of what is known as Salvation History appear in the art of the catacombs. We often find Old Testament episodes juxtaposed to New Testament stories. These artistic compositions, with their distinct symmetrical order, convey fundamental theological significance.
The Old Testament
We find the following Old Testament stories among the episodes depicted in the art of the catacombs:
The scene of Adam and Eve appears throughout the catacombs. For the early christians, it represented God's love for humanity in the Creation. Despite man's fall, God's love did not abondon humanity. All of the subsequent Old Testament figures represented this relationship between God and man - one of faith, hope and love. The Old Testament representations give a sense of dramatic expectation and promise. Death came into the world with man's fall, but faith in God liberates man's soul from death.
Noah's faith in God liberated him from the death of the torrential waters of the great flood. Noah is always depicted in a box (the Arc) from the waist up. With his arm's outstretched, the dove flies over him nearby, representing the renewed peace on earth.
Abraham's faith in God met a supreme test, yet the great patriarch was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac for the love of God. Abraham's faith was pleasing to God, Isaac was liberated from death, and Abraham's hope for life was renewed.
The faith of Moses was so steadfast, that he liberated an entire people from bondage. His heroic faith led Israel out of Egypt across the perilous waters of the Red Sea. In the catacomb frescoes, Moses is usually depicted as he lets water come forth from a rock in Horeb to quench the thirst of the multitude. However, in the sarcophagi appear the full scene of Moses crossing the Red Sea with Pharoah's army in hot pursuit.
The prophet Daniel was thrown to the lions, but his faith liberated him from the ferocious beasts. In the catacomb images, Daniel always appears with his arms outstretched between lions. For the ancients the lion was symbol of death. The early christians believed faith liberated man from death, as it freed Daniel from the lion's den.
The three young men Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were thrown into the fiery furnace by the irate king Nebuchadnezzar upon their refusal to partake in idolatrous worship. However, their faith in God liberated them from death.
It is important to remember that the christians were called upon as roman citizens to perform their religious duties and burn incense to the emperor. This amounted to idolatry for the christians, and treason in the eyes of the Roman authorities for those who refused. Hence the christians were persecuted on grounds of treason.
The representation of Jonah is the second most repeated image found in the catacombs. It narrates three key moments in the saga of the prophet Jonah:
The story of Jonah represented the promise of resurrection. The prophet's faith liberated him from death and freed him from the dark bowels of the sea monster after three days. When Jesus was asked for a sign, he responded that the only sign that would be given was the sign of Jonah. Hence, the sign of His resurrection. [Luke 11:29-30; Matthew 12:38-40]
The New Testament
For the early christians, the signs of faith and hope represented by the figures of the Old Testament found their fullfilment with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.
The images discovered in the catacombs, found in the frescoes and sculptures alike, extend from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to His Resurrection and its aftermath.
Among the images of the New Testament found in the catacombs are:
The constant theme communicated by the christian images is that faith in Jesus liberates man from death and grants him salvation. The biblical message of man's redemption is continuously underlined in the art throughout the catacombs.
The resurrection of Lazarus is the most repeated image in the art of the catacombs. As in the case of Jonah, it refers to the resurrection. Possibly the last great miracle performed by Jesus, it precedes Christ's Passion.
Christ was brought to tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, as Martha and Mary expressed their grief, lamenting that if Jesus would have been present, their brother would not have died.
Christ then called Lazarus out of the tomb, and thus chose his beloved friend to serve as a sign that He, Jesus, was the Author of Life and Redeemer of mankind. [Gospel of John, 11:1-44]
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