Although the nineteenth century was an epoch of novelty and of invention, there has never before been a period where an interest in the history of Early Ages had been more ambitious, or the findings of archaeological exploration more industrious. The entire world is bisected into two schools of seemingly opposite thought. One is trying to gaze into the future, convinced in the progress of humanity, and casting doubt upon the past which does not stand the moral test of principles or which are often founded on or subject to personal whims and prejudices. The other school of thought is realistic and no-nonsense, it does not reject the progress of the human race, but, reject baseless theories and ill-founded dubiousness; they study humanities past searching for lessons of truth and of wisdom, believing that somewhere in our early past, there had to have been wise men and honest chroniclers who told and wrote the truth. The animating principle of the former school, whilst not without some useful attributes, have caused colossal wrongs by throwing out observances, customs and traditions that were loved by the people, and in doing so, have completely eradicated the principles that originally brought them into existence. Always ready to — with great hype and fanfare— publicise all their self acclaimed successes, they have, more often led scholars into error, completely deceiving them with a web of spurious or unreliable assumptions. The latter school, noiselessly, proceeds busily with determined efforts; they attract very little attention indeed, at least until they suddenly obtain a result, one that is solid in its nature, durable in its effects, and unchallenged in its authentication of historic truth.
To the latter school of thought belong all those who are engaged in the serious study of Antiquities, which are not led by theory, but characterised by the method of reaching a conclusion through general laws from particular instances, the gathering facts, systematically collating them, and patiently waiting for acknowledgement from their peers. Not a single stone bearing the marks of humanities parietal art or cryptograms escapes them; a cuneiform character, a hieroglyph, a Greek letter, or a Latin date, imbues that cold piece of marble with an interest which gives it life and makes it speak, at first a stuttering intonation, then in an unmistakable language, when finally, merging with its other parts, it discloses the past in a manner that cannot be contested. Its through such perseverance and meticulous care to detail that the discoveries of The Rt. Hon. Sir Austen Henry Layard (†1894); of the Assyriologist George Smith († 1876) at Nineveh (Mosul in northern Iraq); and Heinrich Schliemann († 1890) a pioneer in the field of archaeology at Troy (now Hisarlik in present-day Turkey), Mycenae (in Argolis, north-eastern Peloponnese) and Tiryns (in Argolis in the Peloponnese), have been brought about. The schools of Barthold Georg Niebuhr —father of modern scholarly historiography— and of Arnold may be —in a manner— taken as representing those who write about history from a theoretical standpoints, and who, swayed by their own sceptical attitude, have rejected whatever they could not master or envisage. The élan vital and indomitable spirit for truth, however, which had motivated Layard, George Smith, and Schliemann are appropriately demonstrated to us by the following words of William Dyer, author of an article on Roman antiquity in Smith’s Classical Dictionary, and later works on the histories of the City of Rome and of the Kings. In his introduction to the History of the City of Rome, he says: “There is little motive to falsify the origin and dates of public buildings; and, indeed, their falsification would be much more difficult than that of events transmitted by oral tradition, or even recorded in writing. In fact, we consider the remains of some of the monuments of the regal and Republican periods to be the best proofs of the fundamental truth of early Roman history.” This is an extremely intelligent observation; and I will therefore take its meaning as a guide in the treatment of the content of this article on Early Christianity. The sources, accordingly, which I will utilise to look for and validate this information will be the monuments of Christian antiquity existing in our present day. These monuments are peppered over an extremely wide and far flung area — its span corresponds exactly in extent with the old Roman Empire (4.4 million km²). They vary in character — architectural, commemorative, sepulchral, artistic, both in painting and in sculpture. As a direct consequence, in an article limited by the amount of words used, it would be impossible to be inclusive of everything in such a large specialisation, and it is crucial that I confine myself to only a fraction, even here it would only be in summary.
Of all parts of the Roman Empire none could be better than the Eternal City itself, the capital, which became the focus of Christianity, and the home of Saint Peter and of his successors in the Petrine papacy, heads of the Church in their respective eras. The Christians had arrived from every part of the known world, their devotion to God made them commit their money, property and resources to advance the temporal security of the Church by building churches, sanctuaries, and sepulchral ornaments. No other part of the Roman Empire, for this reason, is more abundant in monuments of Christian antiquity than Rome and its area of land; and this is what I will share with you today. But even here, alas, as the objects deserving our focus are so numerous, to make this article rewarding and informative, it will still be necessary for me to limit myself to exploring the principal excavations from where these relics of early Christian archaeology are taken, the Catacombs of Rome, in which many of the Christians of the first few centuries were laid to their eternal rest.
The practice of depositing the bodies of the dead in the ground the Christians took from the Jews. It was not wholly a Jewish custom, as may be seen by inspecting pagan tombs discovered not long since on the Latin road. But the favourite manner, used by the Romans, was that of cremation, a custom born of the sentiment of repugnance human pride has to what is so revolting in death. The Jew, who believed in the immortality of the soul, reverenced the tabernacle in which it had dwelt, and in which he believed it was again one day to live. “In my flesh shall I see my Redeemer” was for him a sacred thought of deep meaning, and a tenet of unshaken faith. He followed the example of Abraham and of the Patriarchs, and laid his dead to rest in tombs cut in the rock or excavated in the soil, leaving, in humble submission to God, the remains to resolve themselves into their former elements, as ordained by the Maker of man. To these reasons of the Jews the Christians added a still more weighty one, the fact of the Saviour of man having thus been laid to rest. Every Christian wished to have his body buried as that of his Master, with whom he expected one day to rise again.
Before the Christian religion was preached in Rome the Jews were there, and possessed places of burial which remain at this day. Rome, being the centre of the world at that day, was the starting-point whence radiated roads to every point of the compass. These were the Ostian Way, the Latin Way, the Flaminian Way, the Nomentan Way, and the great Appian Way, the main artery of communication with the vast East, running across the Campagna in a straight line to Brundisium, and so much frequented as to receive the appellation Regina Viarum, “Queen of Ways.” By this road St. Paul came to Rome, striking the Via Appia on his way northward from Puteoli, or Pozzuoli. Owing to the fact of its being the principal way out of Rome, it was selected by preference as the one along which the great families of the city erected the sepulchral monuments destined to hold the ashes of their members. Nothing could be more gratifying to family pride than that all who left or entered the great metropolis of the world, should see the statues of those whose deeds had made the family famous, and recognise, the taste and profusion of rich ornament, the culture and wealth of those to whom the monuments belonged. For miles outside the city, the Appian was lined with these tombs. This dis- play disposition and circumstances made the Christians leave to the pagans. They were obliged, more by public opinion than by law, to bury as privately as possible. The law of Rome was very considerate with regard to burial, and, in fact, would serve as a model for more than one of the present ruling states of the world. Even during persecution burial was protected by law. The jurisconsult Marcian ( Digest., i. 8, 56) says: “Any one makes a place sacred when he places in his property a dead body.” Paulus, another authority, states ( Sentent., i. 21, 4): “Whosoever lays bare a body permanently buried, or put for a time in any place, and exposes it to the light of the sun, commits a crime against religion” (De Rossi, Bull. Archaol. Sacr., an. 1865, p. 89). He also says that “ the bodies of criminals are to be given up to any persons seeking them for burial;” though sometimes, through odium of crime, especially of treason, it was not done. The Justinian Code (iii. 44, 11) contains a decree of Diocletian and Maxentius, of the year 290, in which they say: “We do not forbid the burial of those condemned for crime and subjected to a well-deserved punishment.” This was the law. But public feeling often sets aside law; and the Christians, with commendable prudence, took this into account. They therefore, as a rule, sought to bury where they would be least likely to be observed. The situations they sought were the hills around Rome, generally at the sides of the great Roman ways, not far from the city. A radius of about seven miles will include the most distant of the Catacombs, by which name are known the Christian cemeteries. The reason why the Christians sought the hills was because, as they buried deep under ground and not on the surface, they feared the water of the rivers getting into the tombs in low ground. Moreover, they found strata of soft rock, known as tufa, which cuts easily with a pick, and which, as long as it is underground, and not subject to the action of the weather, remains for centuries unchanged; this being in great part due to the equable temperature of the Catacombs, and especially to the absence of frost. Having selected a fitting place for their cemetery, which was generally on the farm of some Christian, they began by sinking a shaft, or by striking out from some sand-pit into, which projected this soft tufa. A corridor was excavated, seven or eight feet high, by three feet wide, the earth being carried up and scattered over the farm, or thrown into the old sand-pit. When the corridor was completed, they made burial-places in the sides of it, according to the size of the corpse, and about a foot and a half in depth and height, which were hermetically sealed with tiles or marble slabs, inscribed with the name of the occupant, with figures, facts, or dates. When these burial-places, known as loculi, or loculus in the singular, had taken up all available space, a further excavation was made; and, leaving a passage-way, it was the rule to throw the earth excavated into old corridors, sometimes completely filling them to within a short distance of the top. This is why the Catacombs are now said to be excavated: this filling is taken out. It was providential that the Christians filled up these corridors, for by this means the most valuable remains of Christian antiquity have been kept to our day. After burial in the Catacombs ceased, they were from time to time devastated, first by the Goths in the fifth century, and in the eighth century by the Lombards under Astolphus, in the year 755. This latter devastation was the worst of all. Tombs were violated, inscriptions and monuments broken to pieces and strewn around, mingled with earth and sand; and this mass contributed also to fill up the corridors. From this fact we can appreciate the prudence which causes the earth now taken from the Catacombs to be carefully sifted, and every portion of marble discovered in it to be jealously preserved for future use in making up the monument it belongs to, when the other parts will come to light.
From the corridors at intervals open out small rooms or chapels, known as cubicula. A cubiculm is usually not more than ten feet square ; not always that. It generally has an arched tomb, known as an arcosolium, in which the head of the family to which the chapel belonged was laid to rest, or some distinguished person or martyr was deposited. The remainder of the chapel is lined with loculi for the members of the family. The walls between them were plastered and frescoed.
For my purpose it is not necessary even to enumerate the various Catacombs, and useless to attempt to speak of more than one. For this reason I take the most celebrated, as well as the one richest in what we wish to study — the Catacombs of St. Calixtus.
Riding out on the Appian Way, passing the Baths of Caracalla, the tombs of the Scipios, the Columbaria of Caesar and of Pompey, you see before you the straight line of the Appian stretching on to the Alban Hills, crowned by the ruins of the temple of Jupiter Latialis, upon which stands a convent of the Passionist Fathers. On the right and on the left at intervals stand shapeless masses of masonry. What are they, or were they? They are the nuclei of sepulchral structures, which, covered over with beautiful marbles, and ornamented by statuary and alto-relievo work, were the pride of the old Roman families, and enclosed the ashes of their ancestors. About three miles out to the right stands conspicuously one of these masses, having beside it two trees which enable you to recognise, from a great distance, the site of the Catacombs of St. Calixtus. In the first century this area, or burial-place, belonged to the gens Cæciliana, a pagan family. Later, some of the family becoming Christian, it was in the possession of the lady, from whom that portion of this Christian cemetery is known as the crypt of Lucina. Here Christian burial went on during the latter part of the first, and during the second century, until every portion was so full of tombs that it was necessary to enlarge the cemetery. Pope Zephyrinus ruled the Church of Rome from the year a.d. 202, and Calixtus was the archdeacon. To him the Pope entrusted the charge of carrying out the work which made this the principal cemetery of Christian Rome. Not all the excavation here, however, was done during the life of Calixtus, for it was carried on as needed. As he began it, his name has been given to it. Others worked there as he had done. There is an inscription now in the Catacombs of St. Calixtus, which reads as follows: “By order of his Pope, Marcellinus, this Deacon Severus made a double cubiculum, with its one skylight and arched tombs.” This description accurately corresponds with the architecture of the place. Pope Marcellinus ruled the Church about the year 290, so that nearly a century elapsed before that portion was excavated. Work of that kind, however, ceased not many years after; for burial in the Catacombs began to be discontinued in the first half of the fourth century. It is necessary to call your attention to this fact, on account of the epoch to which the monuments belong — for those I am going to speak of belong to the first three centuries. An inscription of Pope St. Damasus, cut by his celebrated official engraver and sculptor, Furius Dionysius Filocalus, and placed in the Papal Crypt of St. Callixtus, has these words:
“hic, fateor, Damasus volui mea condere membra,Here, (I) Damasus, confess, I thought about putting down my remains, but I was afraid of profaning the holy ashes of the Blessed.
sed cineres timui sanctos vexare piorum.”
After speaking of the martyrs, confessors, and virgins buried there, for whom he had such love and veneration, he declares that he dares not desecrate their ashes by having himself buried among them. Damasus was Pope in the year 370. If a Pope thought the place too sacred for him, we may easily understand that these Catacombs had ceased to be places of burial. The incursions of barbarians later not only made the Catacombs inadvisable as places of burial, but counselled the removal of bodies to Rome.
The cessation of burial in the Catacombs certainly gives us sure data with regard to what is found in them. But there are other indications which serve to fix still more clearly the epoch to which the monuments we wish to use belong. In the crypt of the Catacombs of St. Calixtus, the wall of which has the representation of the Good Shepherd surrounded by His sheep, some of which are drinking of water flowing from the rock, on careful examination I found that the plaster, which served to close a loculus , lapped over the painting. Now, this loculus had been made by cutting through the painting, because all the other portions of the walls of the crypt, had become filled with bodies. Consequently this was an old fresco when it was cut through. People don’t cut through new paintings. But, as I said, burial in the Catacombs ceased, or began to cease, in the early part of the fourth century. This fresco was old then. Other indications show it to belong to the groups of the early part of the third century, while art was still, flourishing. In fact, the judgment which artists, irrespectively of religious persuasion, have pronounced with reference to these frescoes of St. Calixtus, allots them to the early part of the third century. Just as those who are engaged in Biblical research learn to distinguish, with great accuracy, the epoch of codices or Bible MSS., by the material on which they are written, the style of lettering, and other less indications; so, too, artists determine with great sureness, and very close approximation, the period to which paintings belong. Who cannot tell a pre-Raphael from a Giulio Romano? Who is not able to distinguish a Byzantine head from a Roman face of the time of the Caesars? Just so is it with regard to the paintings of the Catacombs. Some might wonder how they could last so long under ground, and be inclined to doubt of their genuineness. Let them go to the Golden House of Nero on the Esquiline, admire the delicate and graceful figures of the Cripto Portico; and, when they have given expression and full play to their feelings of admiration of the art of the first century, let them visit the Catacombs and doubt, if they can, of the possibility of frescoes lasting eighteen hundred years.
The age and the style of these paintings are not the only interesting features they possess. Perhaps that which most attracts is their symbolical character. For they do not represent the tenets of Christianity in an obvious way, but in a manner easily understood when once explained, but not easily divined by an unskilled person. The reason of this is that in the first ages so great was the danger of discovery, and so merciless the shafts of ridicule aimed at the Christians, that it was deemed necessary to conceal under symbolical forms the sacred teachings of the faith. The very sacredness of these truths, more even than anything else, counselled the carrying out of the apostolic admonition “not to cast pearls before swine.” Hence arose the “disciplina arcani,” the economy of secrecy, which veiled and protected the mysteries of religion. In virtue of this economy it was not lawful for those initiated in the doctrines of Christianity to speak of, or represent publicly, certain of its tenets and usages; for example, the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, of the Blessed Eucharist, the sufferings of our Saviour, even the sign of the cross. The existence of this discipline is not only evident from the careful study of the remains of early symbolism, but is clear from the express words of the Fathers of the first centuries. Thus Tertullian, in his book addressed to his wife (Ad Uxorem, lib. ii. c. v. ed. Venetiis, 1744), says to one who is married to a pagan: “How will you escape the observation of your husband when you make the sign of the cross upon yourself or the objects you use? How will he not know what you partake of in secret before any other food? And if he should know it to be bread, he will not believe it to be what it seems.” Origen says (Homeliae ix., in Leviticum, № x): “ He knoweth who is initiated what is the Body and the Blood of the Word of God; let us not, therefore, delay treating of things clear to those who know, but which cannot be disclosed to those who do not know.” Pope Julias I upbraids the Eusebians for speaking too openly about the Blessed Eucharist. In his Homeliae xi on St. John, St. Augustine writes even more explicitly: “If you ask a catechumen, Do you believe in Christ? he answers, I believe; and he signs himself with the sign of the cross of Christ … Let us ask him: Do you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood? He does not know what you are saying, because Christ has not yet trusted Himself to him.” A fact made known a few years ago justifies fully this precaution of secrecy. In excavating the palace of the Caesars, at Rome, a large room was discovered which had served as a waiting-room for the pages of the emperors. On the walls were found etchings, and one of these represented a cross, and on it a figure crucified, having the head of an ass. At the foot of the cross stood a figure, with his hand raised to his forehead, according to the Eastern mode of adoration, and underneath was written in Greek: ΑΛΕ ΞΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ΘΕΟΝ “Alexamenos worships God.” The original is preserved in the Kircherian Museum in Rome, and was brought to the notice of English-speaking people by the late Cardinal Wiseman. This is sufficient to account for the hidden manner in which the cross is found in the Catacombs. At one time it is an anchor, at another two diameters of a circle crossing each other at right-angles; again it is what is known as a gamma cross 卐 or a trident. The earliest representation of Christ on the cross I have seen is a fresco of the early part of the third century, it being a trident with a fish upon it, the fish being a symbol of Christ, as I shall presently explain.
Let us go down the stairway that leads into the Catacombs of St. Calixtus. A descent of thirty feet brings us to a corridor, and a turn to the right leads us to the entrance of a crypt which gives the name by which these Catacombs were known to antiquity, ad sanctum Xystum. This subterranean chapel is about fifteen feet long by eight feet wide, with a skylight. Here were buried St. Xystus and twelve other Pontiffs. The bodies were taken out and brought to Rome in consequence of the ravages of barbarians already referred to. The slabs which enclosed the remains were broken and thrown on the ground; among them, those of Popes Eutychianus († December 7, 283), Fabianus († January 20, 250), Lucius I († March 5, 254), and Anterus († January 3, 236), which have been recovered from the debris and replaced in loculi. Here was the inscription of Pope Damasus I spoke of, in which, after commemorating the sufferings and triumphs of those laid to rest in the Catacombs, he declares himself “afraid to disturb the ashes of the just.” The portions of this inscription recovered are incise into a piece of peperino (brown or grey volcanic tuff), or stone of the Alban Hills and in Soriano nel Cimino, near Rome. To the name ad sanctum Xystum was coupled the further appellation, ad sanctam Cæciliam; for tradition told of the burial of St. Cecilia at this place. When Pope Paschal I., who became Pope the year 817, set about bringing the bodies of the martyrs and Pontiffs to Rome, he sought for her body, but could not find it. He tells us in the Liber Pontificalis what happened to him. He says he was one morning at St. Peter’s with his clergy, when St. Cecilia appeared to him and reproached him for giving up the search for her body, saying he had been so near to her in the chapel in which he had been, this crypt of the Pontiffs, that he could have spoken to her, face to face. On coming to himself he told his clergy what had happened. They proceeded to St. Xystus and St. Cecilia, and found the body on the other side of the wall of tufa which separates the crypt from that of St. Cecilia. She was in a sarcophagus, richly clad in a robe of golden tissue, with ornaments of gold upon her person ; the delicate body lay on its side, her head, nearly severed by the lictor’s axe from the neck, enveloped in a light veil and turned to one side, the face downward, while her arms lay naturally with the hands in front, one hand with one finger extended, the other with three — she thus professing her faith in one God in three Persons. The remains were reverently taken up and carried to her house in Rome, across the Tiber, which had been the scene of her martyrdom, which she had left to be used as a church, and deposited under the high altar. There they remained until His Eminence Paolo Emilio Cardinal Sfondrati, in the year 1599, by permission of the Pope, while repairing this church, opened the tomb and recognized officially the authenticity of the relics. The urn was opened in the presence of cardinal Sfondrati and many others, among whom were the Maltese scholar and archaeologist Antonio Bosio —the first systematic explorer of subterranean Rome—, and Stefano Maderno, the Italian sculptor, who made the beautiful statue of Saint Cecilia, so much admired, which is now under the high altar of the church.
Let us leave this place, though so full of edifying and refreshing memories, to wend our way through the labyrinth of corridors. Through an opening in the side of the crypt we find ourselves in a corridor lined on one side and the other with empty loculi. They once had occupants; the marks are there to show that — a tile still in its place, or a crumbling bone. Look well into them, and see the nature of the rock; how the mark of the pick, as fresh as if made yesterday, makes it evident that it yielded easily to the stroke. Cold and heat have had no effect on it. We are too far underground for that. We pass on. Here right before us is an open doorway. We enter and find ourselves in a small room perhaps ten feet square and seven in height. It is full of loculi. But the ceiling and the spaces between the burial places have been plastered and painted. Over your head you see a representation of the Good Shepherd, so often met with in the Catacombs. At your left on entering you see on the wall a fresco-painting. There is a man with a rod in his hand, and he is striking a rock from which water is flowing. The subject is evidently Scriptural. It recalls Moses striking the rock in the desert. But it is not Moses. The very opposition, so marked in the New Testament, to every Judaizing spirit, would have itself exclude the frequently recurring figure of Moses. The rod in the hand, typifying power, might lead one to think it might be the prophet like unto Moses, to be raised up — Christ Himself. But Christ is not the one who strikes, but the thing struck; for, as St. Paul says: “They all drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” A matter-of-fact argument helps us out of the difficulty and tells us who this figure is. Discs of glass have been found in the Catacombs at the tombs, illuminated in gold and black, which were covered over with a second plate of glass and annealed in a furnace, so as to hermetically seal the edges and so protect the picture. Several have come to light representing this picture we see before us, and one of them is now in the Vatican Library. Over the head of the man striking the rock is read the name Petrus, Peter. Peter is the antitype of Moses; he is the leader of the New Dispensation. So speaks Saint St. Ephraim the Syrian in ‘Sermon on the Transfiguration of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.’ Moses, the œconome of the Father, he says, saw Peter, the procurator of the Son.
Adjoining this painting we see a group. A man is seated on the bank of a stream; he is fishing, and has caught a fish, which he is drawing out of the water. There is a boy standing in the water, and a man by his side is pouring water on his head. We are reminded at once of the words of Christ to the Apostles, “Henceforth you will be taking men.” Here is the apostolic fisherman. The fish is the Christian.
This symbol of the fish is most interesting, and plays a most important part in Christian symbolism. So much importance did the early Christians attach to it that they made small fish of bone or metal, and carried them about as we carry watch-charms. It was the symbol of a Christian. It has been said that the Erythraean sibyl first used the acrostic ΊΧΘΥΣ (Greek: Ichthus—fish); but the verses attributed to that sibyl are regarded as spurious. The acrostic itself was in use, however, from the early ages : first, because the five letters of the word are the initial letters of the five words Ἰησοῦς Χρῑστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ (Iēsoûs Khrīstós, Theoû Huiós, Sōtḗr). ἸΧΘΥΣ therefore, recalls at once Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
Moreover, the fish lives in the water, and so does the Christian by baptism. This made Tertullian, in his book on baptism, say: Nos omnes pisciculi secundum Ichthun nostrum Christum; in aqua nascimur, et non nisi in aqua permanendo salvi sumus — “We are little fish, after the manner of our great fish, Christ; we are born in the water, and only by remaining in the water are we safe.” Then, writing of Quintilla, who denied the efficacy of baptism, he adds wittily: “The cruel Quintilla knows well how to kill the fish by taking them out of the water.” Saint Optatus Bishop of Milevum in Numidia (now Mila in Tunisia), in the fourth century, in his comment on the book of Tobias, says that the fish caught by young Tobias, at the instance of the angel, was a type of Christ; for it was useful to cure blindness, heal disease, and put to flight the evil spirit. This, he says, is what Christ does: illuminat, sanat, et fugat diabolum. The fish, therefore, in Christian archaeology, represents Christ and the Christian. In this fresco we have the Apostle who secured a soul for Christ, the soul being represented by the fish caught. How that soul enters into life is shown by the other figures, a boy standing in the water, and a man by his side pouring water on his head. This is baptism; and, what is of further value, we have here child-baptism. We see the early Church did not wait till a child grew up to man’s estate to determine and choose for himself. She recognized God’s right to our service and obedience from the first breath we draw, and consecrated the child to Him ere vice could taint it, and passion, grown strong with age, hold sway in the heart.
On the plaster connected with this group, and separated only by a line of colour, is a man with a bed on his back. Here is the healing of the paralytic man of the Gospel. You remember, my friends, when and why our Lord wrought this miracle. On seeing this man lying in his bed totally paralysed, Christ said to him: “Have courage, son; thy sins are forgiven thee.” The Jews murmured and said: “How can this man forgive sin? Only God can forgive sin.” Knowing their thoughts, our Lord turned to them and said: “Why do you murmur in your hearts? Which is easier to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee, or, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk? But that you may know the Son of Man hath power to forgive sin,” turning to the paralytic man, He said, “Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.” The man arose, and took up his bed, and walked. This power of forgiving sins Christ gave to the Apostles and their successors when He said to them: “All power has been given me in heaven and on earth. As the Father hath sent me, I send you.” The Christians recognised, therefore, when they raised their eyes to this picture, the truth of the belief in the forgiveness of sins. Not only were they taught by the monuments of the Catacombs to so believe, but an inscription by Pope Damasus, who, as I have said, ruled the Church in the fourth century, and which is found in the crypt of St. Eusebius, tells how, in the beginning of the third century, a fierce controversy raged in the Church of Rome about the forgiveness of certain sins of a most grave nature. Eusebius was then Pope; the leader of the severe and gloomy Novatianists was Heraclius. This man taught that those who had fallen away (Lapsi) from the faith during persecution could not be forgiven. The Pope defended the doctrine of the Church that all sins, short of resistance to the Holy Ghost, could be remitted. The result was disagreements, conflict, and bloodshed. The Pope and Heraclius were both was driven into exile —by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius—, and on the shores of Sicily where Pope Eusebius on August 17, 310 “left this world and life” and where nothing more was heard of Heraclius.
Passing from this fresco of the paralytic man, we see on the wall facing the entrance the most important and interesting of all the monuments in this room. It represents to us a central group and two pendants or lateral paintings belonging to it. The central group has seven persons reclining at a table, and upon the table are two fish. In front of the table there are eight baskets of bread. We immediately recur in thought to the miracle in the desert of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Yet that miracle, as we read in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, was only the prelude or preface to the promise of the Blessed Eucharist; and, therefore, though we have here an allusion to that miracle, the importance which the Christians gave to the symbol of the fish makes us realise that there is something more meant here. In a double room in the first portion of these Catacombs, of which I spoke as the crypt of Lucina, there are seen, on either side of the wall of the inner room, two live fish swimming, each with a basket of bread on its back, and in the centre of each basket a bottle of red wine. This makes it evident that the Blessed Eucharist is intended to be represented. Our Lord from material food elevated the mind of those He spoke with to the thought of a supernatural food, and bade them “seek not the bread that perisheth, but that which endureth unto life everlasting, which the Son of Man will give you,” which was His Flesh and Blood. So here this fish and bread, while referring to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the desert, recalls the doctrine of the Blessed Eucharist in a way not to be mistaken. That meaning is made still more evident by the two lateral pictures. The one on the left hand presents us two persons, one standing near a triquetra, with his hands stretched over the triquetra, upon which are a loaf of bread and a fish.
The triquetra is a symbol of sacrifice. It was a pagan symbol, to be sure; but the Christians were not narrow, and when symbols used by pagans were not specifically pagan, but suggested ideas common also to a true system of religion, they did not scruple to use them. This can be seen in the very accessory ornaments of this room we are in. So here, wishing to represent a sacrifice, they took the triquetra, offered on it a loaf of bread and a fish, put the priest there with his outstretched hand in the act of sacrifice, and alongside a figure praying, with the hands raised just as the priest raises his hands at Mass — the Orante, or praying figure of the Catacombs, which here represents the Church. We see here typified the sacrifice of the Mass. The Blessed Eucharist is both sacrament and sacrifice. The lateral picture on the right makes still more evident what the picture on the left means; for it gives us a man, a boy, a tree, a fagot or bundle of wood, and a ram. The man is Abraham, the boy is Isaac, the tree represents the landscape of the mount, the bundle of wood was brought up by Isaac, and the ram is what was sacrificed by Abraham instead of his son. Now, we know that Isaac was a type of Christ, for he carried up the hill the wood upon which he was to be offered up; and Christ did the same when He carried the cross. There is, therefore, a unity in this fresco; the lateral paintings illustrate and explain each other, and both are closely connected with the central group, giving us, in this way, the Blessed Eucharist as a sacrament and a sacrifice, that sacrifice being the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, offered in an unbloody manner, in the Mass.
The symbol of the triquetra was of such importance in the eyes of the early Christians that not only did they repeat it often, but in one of the principal crypts in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, near the one we are studying, it is to be seen, no one standing by it, in the most conspicuous place, having upon it two loaves of bread and a fish. This fact proves how prominent a place in Christian symbolism the triquetra, and the type of sacrifice, held.
Before leaving this subject I call attention once more to the seven figures here reclining at the table. All except the one in the middle have their right hands raised. This, it is well known, is the attitude of adoration. The middle one has his right hand stretched out over the objects on the table, which is the position of one offering a sacrifice. Taken in connection with what I have just described, the positions are most significant, and represent to us the sacrifice of the New Law and its great Sacrament, in which Christ is adored and offered under the form or appearance of bread and wine. On the walls of this room, near the ceiling on either side, are to be seen the frescoes of Jonas thrown into the sea and swallowed by the sea-monster, and afterwards thrown up on the shore. This fact Christ alluded to as a type of His death, burial, and resurrection. St. Paul says: “If Christ has not risen, then is our faith vain.” The Christian hunted to death, knowing what a cruel fate awaited him when discovered, strengthened himself by the sight of these pictures which told of the resurrection with Christ, one day, in glory.
I shall close this Article, dear readers, with a few words on a subject regarding which Catholics are so frequently attacked, but which is to them a source of such great consolation and happiness: the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. It has been stated, by more than one of the writers who in non-Catholic circles are looked on as authorities, that there are no representations of the Mother of God in the Catacombs. This is a mistake. There are several pictures of her that I have seen. One well known is in the Catacombs of St. Agnes, representing the Mother of Christ with her Child. The monogram of Constantine, the ⳩ shows, however, it belongs to the fourth century. There is in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus one much more ancient, being painted in the early part of the third century. It represents the three wise kings bringing their gifts to the new-born Saviour, who is in the lap of His Mother. She is seated on a throne, and extends with majestic dignity her hand to receive the gifts they bring. The whole style of this fresco is excellent, and shows how the arts were flourishing when it was painted. This same subject recurs frequently also in sculpture. There is a sarcophagus at the Lateran Museum in Rome, of the fourth century, which is most remarkable and valuable on account of its symbolism. Among other groups it presents us with the Blessed Virgin and her Child receiving gifts from the Magi. By the side of the throne, upon which she is seated, stands the figure representing the Holy Ghost, as can be seen by comparing it with the Holy Ghost in the Trinity figured just above it. He has His hand upon the throne, just as He is represented as having there.
Besides these representations, we have those of the saints, of those particularly who shed their blood for the faith, by whose tombs are found the small vials of their blood, gathered and preserved by the piety of the faithful as a sign of their victory over persecution. Often on their tombs, or by the side of the place where these sacred remains reposed, was to be found the prayer of the Christian, rudely painted on the wall, and invoking the aid of the saint. What especially strikes one, and in its spirit of beautiful charity touches the heart, is the expression often found of prayer for the dead. The words refrigerare, “refresh,” is the favorite word for signifying this prayer. It is, in fact, the liturgical word of prayer for the dead. In the Canon of the Mass the priest every day prays that God may give to the departed locum refrigerii — “a place of refreshment.” In the Catacombs of Prætextatus the Archaeologist Commander Giovanni Battista de Rossi, to whom I am indebted for most of the information and explanation I have given you, found the following words on a sepulchre uncovered in 1851: Deus Christus omnipotens refrigeret spiritum tuum — “May Christ the Almighty God refresh thy spirit.” In the same cemetery of Praetextatus he found also this expression: Refrigeri [sic], Januarius, Agatopus, Felicissim. Martyres … — “Refresh, O Januarius, Agapitus, Felicissimus, martyrs, the soul, etc.” The inscriptions in the Catacombs are very frequently ungrammatical, a sign that they were written by rude people in the simple language of faith and feeling. In fact, it is a canon of archaeology, the ruder and simpler, the more ancient ; the more elaborate and polished, the more modem. In the Catacombs of Hippolitus, in the sixteenth century, Bosio found the words: Refrigeri tibi domnus Ippolitus — “ May our master, Ippolitus, give thee refreshment.” The word dom nus is a title of distinction signifying “preeminence,” as lord or master. In a tablet at the Museum of St. John Lateran, taken from the Catacombs or crypts of Rome, I have read the words: Refrigera Deus anima — the stone ending here, probably cutting off the final m — “Refresh, O Lord, the soul.”
We note therefore dear reader, how the doctrines of the Christian faith we believe are illustrated through the discoveries of the 2nd to 4th centuries Catacombs in the heart Rome — and how they portray for us the existence of a belief of the early Church during the primacy and rule of ‘Cephas’ Saint Peter the Apostle Bishop of Rome and Patriarch of Antioch, the Sacrament of Baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the Blessed Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Resurrection of Christ, the veneration of the Holy Mother of God and of the saints, supplication for the departed. We look around us, and we find no church holding all these doctrines but the Holy Catholic Church of Rome. We recognize ourselves as one with the early Christians; were they to rise from their tombs they would come to us. Let us thank God for the perpetuity of His faith and for our possession of it; let us hold fast to it, appreciate it all the more feelingly, as we realise its miraculous life and its unsurpassed beauty.
One thought on “Rome – Early Christianity”
Extremely interesting. Thank you for presenting this.
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