In the labyrinth of the catacombs, the origins of early Christian art are frozen in time.
Around the subject of the catacombs still lingers a series of misconceptions that must be cleared up. First of all, the catacomb complexes weren’t used by the Christian communities as hiding places from persecutions (which were cruel but not as frequent as some believe), nor as living spaces. The catacombs were underground cemeteries (as opposed to the more common subdiali, above-ground cemeteries) which could only be constructed if the geological conditions allowed; either tender rock under a thin layer of earth or natural caverns were necessary. This explains why their diffusion is limited to only a few geographical areas including Sicily, North Africa, Naples and Rome, the spot with the highest concentration of catacombs recorded with galleries over 100 kilometers long and containing more that 750,000 tombs. The Romans preferred the custom of cremation and, in fact, their cemeteries were full of columbaria, large rooms filled with small niches in which cinerary urns were placed. Wealthy families had columbaria of large dimensions constructed that they then rented out or sold as if they were apartments for eternal lodging in the hereafter. For reasons connected with their faith, the Christians preferred to bury their dead and because of the very high prices of the land above-ground, they adopted a hypogeal system, creating underground cities set up on more than one level (up to a maximum of five) and divided into principal ambulatories, galleries and secondary hallways, sometimes layed out haphazardly (like in the case of the catacombs of San Pancrazio), other times set up in either a “comb” or a “grid” system. It was common practice among Christians to dig tombs near those of martyrs. The most desired spots for burial were, of course, those ad santos, as close as possible to the saints’ bodies. This explains why a great concentration of loculi (rectangular niches in the walls) can always be found in these areas of the catacombs.
The origins of this subterranean system are traceable to pagan burial grounds like, for example, the underground galleries of the Roman forum. The Latin expression ad catacumbas, from the Greek kata kumbas meaning “beside the cave” was used to designate a Christian cemetery located between the second and the third milestone of the Via Appia, close to the “memorial” of the Apostles Peter and Paul, whose corpses were brought from their respective places of origin during the persecutions of Valerian in A.D. 257. Since this spot was very frequented even after the ninth century, its name came to signify “underground cemetery.” The ancient name for “catacomb” was cemeteria which means “to lay down with care” or “to let sleep,” a clear indication that for the Romans, death was a non-definite event, a sleeping in the hereafter from which there was an eternal awakening.
The above-ground pagan cemeteries were packed with all different sorts of tombs of various shapes, sizes and materials such as terracotta, stone, marble and lead. To take advantage of the surface area, multiple family tombs varying in grandeur and luxury were created.As a result of one of the most important peremptory principles of Roman legislation that forbid burials within the city walls, Romans began burying their dead outside the city and in the periphery, usually along the consular roads. In the beginning, the catacombs were dug out of private property and therefore took on the names of people (such as the catacombs of Balbina and Commodilla, for example). In the third century A.D., especially under Pope Calixtus (who died a martyr in 222), there was a reorganization in the Roman community.
The Church began to buy up areas of land that had particular significance for the religion, such as Ostiense (site of the martyrdom of St. Paul) and the Vatican (site of the martyrdom of St. Peter) and manage them in the name of the entire Christian community. As these areas were often subjected to raids by barbarians and Arabs, the relics of the martyrs were moved into the city; this precaution was meant not only to protect the treasures, but also to render the neighborhoods outside the walls safer. Since catacombs didn’t exist before the second century A.D., there are no Roman catacombs which date back to the time of the Apostles. In fact, St. Peter was buried in a very simple tomb in the company of pagans and Christians on the slopes of the Vatican hill in an above-ground Roman cemetery.It was only in the middle of the 16th century that, in search of “The image of the primitive Church,” underground Rome was re-penetrated and explored. Still today great subterranean discoveries are made such as the catacomb complex on the Via Latina. Catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs are the only examples of early Christian art that have survived centuries of pillage, destruction and decay.
The catacomb paintings that are today visible date from between A.D. 200 and the fifth century. They represent events described in the Old and the New Testament, texts upon which the Christian faith is, of course, based. It is interesting to note that the Christian paintings found inside the catacombs use pagan typology; the style is, in fact, identical. However, the anxiety to save the individual after death and the allegoric use of cemeterial representations stimulated a totally Christian method that appropriated image-types from the pagan repertoire like, for example, those of Orpheus, Adonis and Hercules, adapting them to communicate the ideas of the new faith. The originality of Christian art, in fact, lies in its extensive use of symbolism (Orpheus representing Christ, for example) compared to Roman art, which was predominantly illustrative. The oldest paintings date back to about A.D. 200 (in the cubicula of St. Calixtus) and consist of “mirror” decorations (paintings of which the two halves are symmetrical) and architectural scenes with a purely ornamental function – in the taste and style, therefore, of the epoch of the Antonini. With the passing of time, the repertoire of the scenes becomes richer and includes figures of the Good Shepherd and of the person praying, while generic symbols like those of the seasons and of Cupids are placed next to scenes from the Old and the New Testament.
The repertoire is still, however, very limited, but will soon become rich in the course of the fourth century A.D. From a stylistic point of view, pagan and Christian painting techniques develop at the same rate.Holy-communion banquets are frequently represented in catacomb paintings, and one of the most splendid fractio panis scenes, which depicts a figure about to break the bread and share it with the others, can be found in the catacombs of Priscilla. Wonderful holy communion paintings are also preserved in the Chapel of the Sacraments in the catacombs of St. Calixtus. The early Christians not only represented this sacred event, but they actually celebrated it in commemoration of the dead. Feasting in the company of the tombs of the deceased was a common custom in the ancient world, and the Christians incorporated it into their religious rites. The memory of Peter and Paul was honored in banquets ad catacumbas, at the site of their burial. In the Greek Chapel in the catacombs of Priscilla a fractio panis painting can be found along with long benches which were used for the feasts.
In the catacombs of Domitilla there exists an extraordinary cubiculum in the area of the Flavi-Aurelii, important for the simple fact that the loculi have never been opened. The names of the deceased are still clearly legible on the marble slabs that seal the tombs: Publius Aelius Rufinus, Marcus Aurelius Januarius and Gaia Julia Agrippina. Also in the catacombs of Domitilla is the hypogeum of the Flavii, an area where tunnels are on four levels. In the hypogeum impressive remains of wall painting can be seen; one can only imagine the original magnificence of the space when the painting covered the walls entirely. Much was unfortunately lost when other loculi were built around the gallery and when 18th century visitors vandalized the walls with their graffiti. The decorative style of the painting leads experts to believe that this area, the oldest part of the catacombs, dates to the beginning of the second century.
The paintings can be compared to other examples of early Christian painting such as those found in the Greek Chapel in the catacombs of Priscilla. Adorned with elegant stucco decorations, one is struck by the freely painted figures which are cast into a refined, suggestive atmosphere, far from the classic canons linked to naturalism. In the Chapel of the Velati, one can marvel at the very lifelike head of Abraham in the “Sacrifice.” These paintings mark the beginning of a new expressive system, typically didactic, that will characterize Christian art for centuries.