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.

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