A Collection of Catholic Thoughts
ROME’S PALEO-CHRISTIAN ART: EVANGELIZATION FOR OUR AGE
Mrs Carol Long
The word “evangelize” means “to teach the Gospel” – but Pope Benedict XVI looked beyond words as a way to impart the Gospel when he stated that “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” The beauty of holiness and the beauty inherent in Christian art are universal means of evangelization that speak to man’s innate desire for God. Nowhere are Christian sanctuaries and the presence of saints more intimate and immediate than in the city of Rome.
Rome is the great depository of paleo-Christian art. In catacombs, cemeteries and churches built over private homes where Christians worshipped, art reveals the glory of a religion once suspect to the Roman state. In Rome’s churches, Peter and Paul are the most frequently depicted saints besides Christ Himself and His Blessed Mother. In Rome Peter witnessed to Christ and baptized believers, and the Roman historian Tacitus described a “vast multitude of believers” who awaited Paul’s arrival, when he was brought to Rome in chains with other prisoners from Jerusalem in 61 AD. Both Peter and Paul were imprisoned and martyred in the mid 60s AD during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Their stories remind us that through cruel persecutions Christianity thrived.
Today we can descend beneath St. Peter’s Basilica to walk through the streets of the pagan cemetery which contains the grave of St. Peter. This cemetery where a few Christians also had poor graves was originally above ground and next to Nero’s Circus where Peter was crucified upside down. Peter’s memory was kept sacred by a small shrine built above his simple grave, marked with the inscription “Petros Eni” (Peter lies here). Following the Emperor Constantine’s legal recognition of Christianity in 313, he soon built the Old St. Peter’s Basilica over the apostle’s grave. The cemetery was filled in, but the raised shrine was kept visible as the focal point of the Basilica, to which pilgrims from far and near immediately flocked.
Catholic pictorial tradition dates back as early as the 2nd century as revealed in funerary art of the underground burial sites known as catacombs. These were passages dug out of soft volcanic subsoil that eventually extended under all seven hills of Rome. The earliest images are simple inscriptions and symbols on the sealing stones of tombs. From the Catacomb of Domitilla is the Epitaph of Antonia with a fish and anchor. The anchor was an early symbol for the cross; the fish is an early ICHTHYS, the Greek word for “fish” and the initials for “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior”. This touching votive remains familiar and comforting even after two millennia. The subjects and symbols found in catacomb painting consistently stress the theme of salvation; the most common representation is of Christ as the Good Shepherd – who saves! In the Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus the scenes surrounding the Good Shepherd illustrate the Story of Jonah, the second most frequently depicted subject found in the catacombs! Jonah who remained in the belly of the whale for three days prefigures the saving Christ who would be in the belly of the earth for three days. The earliest known images of the Virgin Mary are in the Catacomb of Priscilla and date from the late 2nd or early 3rd century. These include an Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi but the oldest is the Virgin and Prophet which depicts Mary in front of a prophet who points to a star to signify messianic prophecy.
Many of Rome’s churches recall the private homes where the early Christians worshipped, received instruction, were baptized and helped the needy during the first three centuries. These private homes were known as “domus ecclesiae”, house churches. St. Paul in Romans 16:5 wrote “…Greet also the church at their house…” The houses themselves were called “tituli”, which referred to the name of the owner who held title to the property. The most ancient churches of Rome were often built over these tituli and named in memory of their owners who were martyrs, such as Santa Pudenziana, Santa Sabina, Santa Cecilia and San Clemente.
In the year 2000 St. John Paul II wrote haunting words: “The Church has once again become a Church of the martyrs.” May the testimony of Rome’s early Christian sites help strengthen us today in this new age of martyrs!