Christian Art 101 – The Catacombs of Priscilla & Early Christian Art
‘When I was a boy, receiving my education in Rome, I and my schoolfellows, on Sundays, used to make the circuit of the sepulchres of the apostles and the martyrs. Many a times did we go down into the catacombs. These are excavated deep in the earth and contain, on either hand as you enter, the bodies of the dead buried in the wall…we would enter the galleries dug into the bowels of the earth…rare light coming from the above land attenuated the darkness a little…we would proceed slowly, one step at a time, completely enveloped in darkness.’ – St. Jerome, Church Father
The cramped corridors of the curving catacombs of St. Priscilla were dug amidst the faint flames of earthy lamps. Their dancing shadows illuminate one of the earliest expressions of Christian faith voiced through the vocabulary of art. Doctrines such as the Baptism, Eucharist, Resurrection and Salvation were communicated emblematically. For example: the Fish exemplified Christ, the dove –peace, the anchor – hope, bread – the Eucharist and the peacock – resurrection. The scriptural Story of Salvation was also enlivened through painting and sculpture.
We are ushered into a small chamber by the gravelled galleries of the catacombs. Popularly called the Greek Chapel, this cubicle contains three niches for the sarcophagi as well as a long seat for burial meals called the ‘agape’. The ‘Greek Chapel’ bears no affinity to the Greeks. The name was assigned by the early excavators who observed two Greek inscriptions in the right niche of the enclosure.
The space is sumptuously decorated with Pompeian style frescoes and stuccos. The frescoes can be characterized by the green and red lines employed to isolate the respective representations and thus create an imitation of marble as was used in the classical construction.
The Greek Chapel houses the Fractio Panis fresco alluding to the Holy Eucharist. Seven persons are seen seated at the table. The first stretches out his hands and breaks the bread. Around the table are placed seven baskets, a reference to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves along with the Bread of Life discourse.
The catacombs of Priscilla are best known for the oldest image of the Madonna. Dating back to the third century, a fresco in a gallery portrays the Blessed Virgin with Christ Child on her knee. A prophet besides her is witnessed holding a scroll in his left hand and pointing out to a star with his right. This imagery is inferred to the prophecy of Balaam as mentioned in the Book of Numbers, chapter 24: 17 – ‘A star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.’
Within the cubicle of the Velata or the Veiled Woman reside some of the most intriguing images of early Christian art. This chamber is named after the woman painted on the central wall dressed in a tunic and a veil. She gazes towards heaven with her arms outstretched in prayer. This posture is commonly called the Orant. It indicates that the soul of the deceased woman is now one with God. Adjoining the praying woman are meaningful moments of her life on earth – her marriage and motherhood.
The Good Shepherd is painted in the crown of the cubiculum. A young Christ, devoid of a beard, stands in contrapposto and is surrounded by three goats, one over his shoulders. On either side are bushes with perching doves and peacocks indicating paradise. The image is symmetrical and symbolic of the eternal.
The temporary rooms of the catacombs contain paintings that are far from the perfect renderings of the Classical Age or the consequent Renaissance. Yet they express the early strides of faith towards the expanding, endearing and the unending language of art. What began as fleeting frescoes in gloomy graveyards would progressively parade up the ceilings of timeless Chapels. The unknown artists of the catacombs had established a firm foot into the great tradition of the Christian civilization and faith.
Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
For additional information: Take a virtual tour of the Catacombs of Priscilla on Google Maps!