The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 1/The Catacombs of Rome
THE CATACOMBS OF ROME.
Novit etiam pictura tacens in parietibus loqui.
St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Christian Art began in the catacombs. Under ground, by the feeble light of lanterns, upon the ceilings of crypts, or in the semicircular spaces left above some of the more conspicuous graves, the first Christian pictures were painted. Imperfect in design, exhibiting often the influence of pagan models, often displaying haste of performance and poverty of means, confined for the most part within a limited circle of ideas, and now faded in color, changed by damp, broken by rude treatment, sometimes blackened by the smoke of lamps,—they still give abundant evidence of the feeling and the spirit which animated those who painted them, a feeling and spirit which unhappily have too seldom found expression in the so-called religious Art of later times. Few of them are of much worth in a purely artistic view. The paintings of the catacombs are rarely to be compared, in point of beauty, with the pictures from Pompeii,—although some of them at least were contemporary works. The artistic skill which created them is of a lower order. But their interest arises mainly from the sentiment which they imperfectly embody, and their chief value is in the light which they throw upon early Christian faith and religious doctrine. They were designed not so much for the delight of the eye and the gratification of the fancy, as for stimulating affectionate imaginations, and affording lessons, easily understood, of faith, hope, and love. They were to give consolation in sorrow, and to suggest sources of strength in trial. "The Art of the first three centuries is entirely subordinate,—restrained partly by persecution and poverty, partly by a high spirituality, which cared more about preaching than painting."
With the uncertain means afforded by the internal character of these mural pictures, or by their position in the catacombs, it is impossible to fix with definiteness the period at which the Christians began to ornament the walls of their burial-places. It was probably, however, as early as the beginning of the second century; and the greater number of the most important pictures which have thus far been discovered within the subterranean cemeteries were probably executed before Christianity had become the established religion of the empire. After that time the decline in painting, as in faith, was rapid; formality took the place of simplicity; and in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries the native fire of Art sank, till nothing was left of it but a few dying embers, which the workmen from the East, who brought in the stiff conventionalisms of Byzantine Art, were unfit and unable to rekindle.
In the pictures of the most interesting period, that is, of the second and third centuries, there is no attempt at literal portraiture or historic accuracy. They were to be understood only by those who had the key to them in their minds, and they mostly arranged themselves in four broad classes. 1st. Representations of personages or scenes from the Old Testament regarded as types of those of the New. 2d. Literal or symbolic representations of personages or scenes from the New Testament. 3d. Miscellaneous figures, chiefly those of persons in the attitude of prayer. 4th. Ornamental designs, often copied from pagan examples, and sometimes with a symbolic meaning attached to them.
It is a noteworthy and affecting circumstance, that, among the immense number of the pictures in the catacombs which may be ascribed to the first three centuries, scarcely one has been found of a painful or sad character. The sufferings of the Saviour, his passion and his death, and the martyrdoms of the saints, had not become, as in after days, the main subjects of the religious Art of Italy. On the contrary, all the early paintings are distinguished by the cheerful and trustful nature of the impressions they were intended to convey. In the midst of external depression, uncertainty of fortune and of life, often in the midst of persecution, the Roman Christians dwelt not on this world, but looked forward to the fulfilment of the promises of their Lord. Their imaginations did not need the stimulus of painted sufferings; suffering was before their eyes too often in its most vivid reality; they had learned to regard it as belonging only to earth, and to look upon it as the gateway to heaven. They did not turn for consolation to the sorrows of their Lord, but to his words of comfort, to his miracles, and to his resurrection. Of all the subjects of pictures in the catacombs, the one, perhaps, more frequently repeated than any other, and under a greater variety of forms and types, is that of the Resurrection. The figure of Jonah thrown out from the body of the whale, as the type that had been used by our Lord himself in regard to his resurrection, is met with constantly; and the raising of Lazarus is one of the commonest scenes chosen for representation from the story of the New Testament. Nor is this strange. The assurance of immortality was to the world of heathen converts the central fact of Christianity, from which all the other truths of religion emanated, like rays. It gave a new and infinitely deeper meaning than it before possessed to all human experience; and in its universal comprehensiveness, it taught the great and new lessons of the equality of men before God, and of the brotherhood of man in the broad promise of eternal life. For us, brought up in familiarity with Christian truth, surrounded by the accumulated and constant, though often unrecognized influences of the Christian faith upon all our modes of thought and feeling, the imagination itself being more or less completely under their control,— for us it is difficult to fancy the change produced in the mind of the early disciples of Christ by the reception of the truths which he revealed. During the first three centuries, while converts were constantly being made from heathenism, brought over by no worldly temptation, but by the pure force of the new doctrine and the glad tidings over their convictions, or by the contagious enthusiasm of example and devotion,—faith in Christ and in his teachings must, among the sincere, have been always connected with a sense of wonder and of joy at the change wrought in their views of life and of eternity. Their thoughts dwelt naturally upon the resurrection of their Lord, as the greatest of the miracles which were the seal of his divine commission, and as the type of the rising of the followers of Him who brought life and immortality to light.
The troubles and contentions in the early Church, the disputes between the Jew and the Gentile convert, the excesses of spiritual excitement, the extravagances of fanciful belief, of which the Epistles themselves furnish abundant evidence, ceased to all appearance at the door of the catacombs. Within them there is nothing to recall the divisions of the faithful; but, on the contrary, the paintings on the walls almost universally relate to the simplest and most undisputed truths. It was fitting that among these the types of the Resurrection should hold a first place.
But the spiritual needs of life were not to be supplied by the promises and hopes of immortality alone. There were wants which craved immediate support, weaknesses that needed present aid, sufferings that cried for present comfort, and sins for which repentance sought the assurance of direct forgiveness. And thus another of the most often-repeated of the pictures in the catacombs is that of the Saviour under the form of the Good Shepherd. No emblem fuller of meaning, or richer in consolation, could have been found. It was very early in common use, not merely in Christian paintings, but on Christian gems, vases, and lamps. Speaking with peculiar distinctness to all who were acquainted with the Gospels, it was at the same time a figure that could be used without exciting suspicion among the heathen, and one which was not exposed to desecration or insult from them; and under emblems of this kind, whose inner meaning was hidden to all but themselves, the first Christians were often forced to conceal the expression of their faith. This figure recalled to them many of the sacred words and most solemn teachings of their Lord: "I am the Good Shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." Often the good shepherd was represented as bearing the sheep upon his shoulders; and the picture addressed itself with touching and effective simplicity to him whom fear of persecution or the force of worldly temptations had led away. When one of his sheep is lost, doth not the shepherd go after it until he find it? "And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing." "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." How often, before this picture, has some saddened soul uttered the words of the Psalm: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep: seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments"! And as if to afford still more direct assurance of the patience and long-suffering tenderness of the Lord, the Good Shepherd is sometimes represented in the catacombs as bearing, not a sheep, but a goat upon his shoulders. It was as if to declare that his forgiveness and his love knew no limit, but were waiting to receive and to embrace even those who had turned farthest from him. In a picture of very early date in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, the Good Shepherd stands between a goat and a sheep, "as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left." But in this picture the order is reversed,—the goat is on his right hand and the sheep on his left. It was the strongest type that could be given of the mercy of God. Sometimes the Good Shepherd is represented, not bearing the sheep on his shoulders, but leaning on his crook, and with a pipe in his hands, while his flock stand in various attitudes around him. Here again the reference to Scripture is plain: "He calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out;. . . and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice." Thus, under various forms and with various meanings, full of spiritual significance, and suggesting the most invigorating and consoling thoughts, the Good Shepherd appears oftener than any other single figure on the vaults and the walls of the catacombs. It is impossible to look at these paintings, poor in execution and in external expression as they are, without experiencing some sense, faint it may be, of the force with which they must have appealed to the hearts and consciences of those who first looked upon them. It is as if the inmost thoughts and deepest feeling of the Christians of those early times had become dimly visible upon the walls of their graves. The effect is undoubtedly increased by the manner in which these paintings are seen, by the unsteady light of wax tapers, in the solitude of long-deserted passages and chapels. In such a place the dullest imagination is roused, troop on troop of associations and memories pass in review before it, and the fading colors and faint outlines of the paintings possess more power over it than the glow of Titian's canvas, or the firm outline of Michel Angelo's frescoes.
Another symbol of the Saviour which is frequently found in the works of the first three centuries, and which soon afterwards seems to have fallen almost entirely into disuse, is that of the Fish. It is not derived, like that of the Good Shepherd, immediately from the words of Scripture; though its use undoubtedly recalled several familiar narratives. It seems to have been early associated with the well-known Greek formula, Ίησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υίὸς Σωτὴρ, Jesus Christ the Saviour Son of God, arranged acrostically, so that the first letters of its words formed the word ἰχζὺς, fish. The first association that its use would suggest was that of Christ's call to Peter and Andrew, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,"—and thus we find, among the early Christian writers, the name of "little fish," pisciculi, applied to the Christian disciples of their times. But it would serve also to bring to memory the miracle that the multitude had witnessed, of the multiplication of the fishes; and it would recall that last solemn and tender farewell meeting between the Apostles and their Lord on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, in the early morning, when their nets were filled with fish,—and "Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise." And with this association was connected, as we learn from the pictures in the catacombs, a still deeper symbolic meaning, in which it represented the body of our Lord as given to his apostles at the Last Supper. In the Cemetery of Callixtus, very near the recently discovered crypt of Pope Cornelius, are two square sepulchral chambers, adorned with pictures of an early date. Those of the first chamber have almost utterly perished, but on the wall of the second may be seen the image of a fish swimming in the water, and bearing on his back a basket filled with loaves of the peculiar shape and color used by the Jews as an offering of the first fruits to their priests; beneath the bread appears a vessel which shows a red color, like a cup filled with wine. "As soon as I saw this picture," says the Cavaliere de Rossi, in his account of the discovery, "the words of St. Jerome came to my mind,—'None is richer than he who bears the body of the Lord in an osier basket and his blood in a glass.'"
In the same cemetery, very near the crypt of St. Cecilia, there is a passage wider than common, upon whose side is a series of sepulchral cells of similar form, and ornamented with similar pictures. In one of them a table is represented, with four baskets of bread on the ground, on one side, and three on the other, while upon it three loaves and a fish are lying. In another of the chambers is a picture of a single loaf and of a fish upon a plate lying on a table, at one side of which a man stands with his hands stretched out towards it, while on the other side is a woman in the attitude of prayer. It seems no extravagance of interpretation to read in these pictures the symbol of that memorial service which Jesus had established for his followers,—a service which has rarely been celebrated under circumstances more adapted to give to it its full effect, and to awaken in the souls of those who joined in it all the deep and affecting memories of its first institution, than when the bread and wine were partaken of in memory of the Lord within the small and secret chapels of the early catacombs. To the Christians who assembled there in the days when to profess the name of Christ was to venture all things for his sake, his presence was a reality in their hearts, and his voice was heard as it was heard by his immediate followers who sat with him at the table in the upper chamber.
There are several instances, among these subterranean pictures, of a symbolic representation of the Saviour, drawn, not from Scripture, but from a heathen original. It is that of Orpheus playing upon his lyre, and drawing all creatures to him by the sweetness of his strains. It was a fiction widely spread soon after the introduction of Christianity among the Gentiles, that Orpheus, like the Sibyls and some other of the characters of mythology, had had some blind revelation of the coming of a saviour of the world, and had uttered indistinct prophecies of the event. Forgeries, similar to those of the Sibylline Verses, professing to be the remains of the poems of Orpheus, were made among the Alexandrian Christians, and for a long period his name was held in popular esteem, as that of a heathen prophet of Christian truth. Whether the paintings in the catacombs took their origin from these fictions must be uncertain; but driven, as the Roman Christians were, to hide the truth under a symbol that should be inoffensive, and should not reveal its meaning to pagan eyes, it was not strange that they should select this of the ancient poet. As he had drawn beasts and trees and stones to listen to the music of his lyre, so Christ, with persuasive sweetness and compelling force, drew men more savage than beasts, more rooted in the earth than trees, more cold than stones, to listen to and follow him. As Orpheus caused even the kingdom of Death to render back the lost, so Christ drew the souls of men from the very gates of hell, and made the grave restore its dead. And thus from the old heathen story the Christian drew new suggestions and fresh meaning, and beheld in it an unconscious setting-forth of many holy truths.
A subject from the Gospels, which is often represented, and which was used with a somewhat obscure symbolic meaning, is that of the man sick of the palsy, cured by the Saviour with the words, "Arise, take up thy bed, and go to thine house." It belongs, according to the ancient interpretation, to the series of subjects that embody the doctrine of the Resurrection. It is thus explained by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and others of the fathers. They understood the words of Christ as addressed to them with the meaning, "Arise, leave the things of this world, have faith, and go forward to thy abiding home in heaven." Such an interpretation is entirely congruous with the general tone of thought and feeling exhibited in many other common paintings in the catacombs. But later Romanist writers have attempted to connect its interpretation with the doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sins, as embodied in what is called the power of the Church in the holy sacrament of Penance. They lay stress on the words, "Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee," and suppose that the picture expresses the belief that the delegated power of forgiving sins still remained on earth. Undoubtedly the painting may well have recalled to mind these earlier words of the narrative, as well as the later ones, and with the same comforting assurance that was afforded by the emblem of the Good Shepherd; but there seems no just reason for supposing it to have borne any reference to the peculiar doctrine of the Roman Church. The pictures themselves, so far as we are acquainted with them, seem to contradict this assumption; for they, without exception, represent the paralytic in the last act of the narrative, already on his feet and bearing his bed.
Among the favorite subjects from the Old Testament are four from the life of Moses,—his taking off his shoes at the command of the Lord, his exhibiting the manna to the people, his receiving the tables of the Law, and his striking the rock in the desert. Of these, the first and the last are most common, and the truths which they were intended to typify seem to have been most dwelt upon. Moses was regarded in the ancient Church as the type, in the old dispensation, of our Saviour in the new. Thus as the narrative of the command to Moses to take off his shoes was immediately connected with the promise of the deliverance of the children of Israel from the land of bondage, so it was regarded as the figure under which was to be seen the promise of the greater deliverance of the world through faith in Jesus Christ, and its freedom from spiritual bondage. Moreover, the shoes were put off, "for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground"; and it is a natural supposition to regard the act as having been considered the symbol of that Holiness to the Lord which was the necessary preparation for the great deliverance. Like so many other of the paintings, it led forward the thoughts and the affections from time to eternity. And this figure was also, we may well suppose, taken as an immediate type of the Resurrection, in connection with the words of Jesus, "Now that the dead are raised even Moses showed at the bush, when he calleth the Lord" (or, as it should be translated, "when, in telling you of the bush, he says that the Lord called himself") "the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." With this interpretation, it affords another instance of the constancy with which the Christians connected the thought of immortality with the presence of death.
So also the smiting of the rock, so that the water came forth abundantly, was adopted as the sign of the giving forth of the living water springing up into everlasting life. "The rock was Christ," said St. Paul, and it is possible, that, with a secondary interpretation, the smiting of the rock was sometimes regarded as typical of the sufferings of the Saviour. The picture of this miracle is repeated again and again, and one of the noblest figures in the whole range of subterranean Art, a figure of surpassing dignity and grandeur, is that of Moses in this sublime scene in one of the chapels of the Cemetery of St. Agnes. In the performance of this miracle, Moses is represented with a rod in his hand; and a similar rod, apparently as the sign of power, is seen in the hands of Christ, in the paintings which represent his miracles. It is a curious illustration of the gradual progress of the ideas now current in the Roman Church, that upon sarcophagi of the fourth and fifth centuries St. Peter is found sculptured with the same rod in his hands,—emblematic, unquestionably, of the doctrine of his being the Vicegerent of Christ,—and on the bottom of a glass vessel of late date, found in the catacombs, the miracle of the striking of the rock is depicted, but at the side of the figure is the name, not of Moses, but of Peter,—for the Church had by this time advanced far in its assumptions.
The story of Jonah appears also in four different scenes upon the walls of the chapels and burial-chambers. In the first, the prophet appears as being cast into the sea; in the second, swallowed by the great fish; in the third, thrown out upon dry land; and in the fourth, lying under the gourd. They are not found together, or in series; but sometimes one and sometimes another of these scenes was painted, according to the fancy or the thought of the artist. The swallowing of Jonah, and his deliverance from the belly of the whale, has already been referred to as one of the naturally suggested types of the Resurrection. When the prophet is shown as lying under a gourd, (which is painted as a vine climbing over a trellis-work, to represent the booth that Jonah made for himself,) the picture may perhaps have been read as a double lesson. As God "made the gourd to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief," so he would deliver from their grief those who now trusted in him; but as he also made the gourd to wither, so that "the sun beat upon the head of Jonah that he fainted and wished in himself to die," it was for them to remember their utter dependence on the will of God, to prepare themselves for the sorrows as for the joys of life. Nor was this all; the story of Jonah was one especially fitted to remind the recent convert of the long-suffering and grace of God, and to suggest to those who were enduring the extremities of persecution the rebuke with which the Lord had chastened even his prophet for his desire for vengeance upon those who had long dwelt in evil ways. It recalled to them the new commandment of love to their enemies, and it bade them welcome with rejoicing even the latest and most reluctant listener to the truth. It repressed spiritual pride, and checked too ready anger. Was not Rome even greater "than Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six-score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle"? Such were some, at least, of the meanings which the Christians of the catacombs may have seen in these pictures. It would be long to enter into the more subtile and less satisfactory interpretations of their symbolic meanings which are to be found in the works of some of the later fathers, and which afford, as in many other instances, illustrations of the extravagance of symbolism into which the studies of the cell, the darkness of their age, and the insufficiency of their education often led them.
Two subjects are of frequent repetition in the catacombs, which bear a direct reference to the personal circumstances in which the Christians from time to time found themselves. One is that of Daniel in the lions' den,—the other that of the Three Children of Israel in the fiery furnace. Both were types of persecution and of deliverance. "Thy God, whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee." Daniel is uniformly represented in the attitude of prayer,—the attitude adopted by the early Christians, standing with arms outstretched. Very often single figures with no names attached to them are thus represented above or by the side of graves. They were probably intended as figures of those who lay within them, figures of those who had been constant in prayer; and this conjecture is almost established as a certainty by the existence of a few of these figures with names inscribed above them,—as, for instance, "Hilara in pace."
Noah in the ark is also one of the repeated subjects from the Old Testament; the ark being represented as a sort of square box, in the middle of which Noah stands, sometimes in prayer, and sometimes with the dove flying towards him, bearing a branch of olive. It was the type of the Church, the whole body of Christians, floating in the midst of storms, but with the promise of peace; or, with wider signification, it was the type of the world saved through the revelation of Christ. It bore reference also to the words of St. Peter, in his First Epistle, concerning the ark, "wherein few, that is eight souls, were saved by water; the like figure whereunto, even baptism, doth also now save us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Sometimes, indeed, the act of baptism is represented in a more literal manner, by a naked figure immersed in the water; sometimes, perhaps, by still other types.
Paintings of the temptation and the fall of Adam and Eve, in which the composition often reminds one of that adopted by the later masters, are often seen on the walls; and the sacrifice of Abraham, in which with reverent and just simplicity the interference of the Almighty is represented by a hand issuing from the clouds, is a common subject. Less frequent are pictures of David with his sling, of Tobit with the fish, of Susanna and the elders, treated symbolically, and some few other Old Testament stories. Their typical meaning was plain to the minds of those who frequented the catacombs. From the Gospels many scenes are represented in addition to those we have already mentioned: among the most common are the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves; our Saviour seated, with two or more figures standing near him; and his restoring sight to the blind. Every year's new excavations bring to light some new picture, and our acquaintance with the Art of the catacombs is continually receiving interesting additions.
There appears to have been no definite rule in respect to the combination of subjects in a single chapel. The ceilings are generally divided into various compartments, each filled with a different subject. Thus, for example, we find on one of them the central compartment occupied by a figure of Orpheus; four smaller compartments are filled with sheep or cattle; and four others with Moses striking the rock, Daniel in the lions' den, David with his sling, and Jesus restoring the paralytic. At the angles of the vault are doves with branches of olive; and the ornaments of the ceiling are all of graceful and somewhat elaborate character. The purely ornamental portions of the paintings, though obviously formed on heathen originals, are almost universally of a pleasing and joyful character, and in many cases possess a symbolic meaning. Flowers, crowns of leaves, garlands, vines with clustering grapes, displayed more to the Christian's eyes than mere beauty of form. In these and other similar accessories the symbolism of the early Church delighted to manifest itself. On their terracotta lamps, fixed in the mortar at the head of graves, on their sepulchral tablets, on their rings, on their glass cups and chalices, the Christians put these emblems of their faith, keeping in mind their spiritual significance. Many of these symbols have preserved their inner meaning to the present day, while others have long lost it. Thus, the crown and the laurel were the emblems of victory; the palm, of triumph; the olive, of peace; the vine loaded with grapes, of the joys of heaven. The dove was at once the figure of the Holy Spirit, and the symbol of innocence and purity of heart; the peacock the emblem of immortality. The ship reminded the Christian of the harbor of safety, or recalled to him the Church tossed upon the waves; the anchor was the sign of strength and of hope; the lyre was the symbol of the sweetness of religion; the stag, of the soul thirsting for the Lord; the cock, of watchfulness; the horse, of the course of life; the lamb, of the Saviour himself.
Many of these symbols were, it is plain, derived from the Scripture, but many also had a heathen origin, and were adopted by the Christians with a new or an additional significance. It was not strange that this should be so, for many associations still bound the Christians of the early centuries to the things they had turned away from. Thus, the horse is frequently found upon the funeral vases and marbles of the ancients; the peacock, the bird of Juno, was the emblem of the apotheosis of the Roman empresses; the palm and the crown had long been in use; and the funeral genii of the heathen Romans were in some sort the type of the later Christian angels. But although this adoption of ancient symbols is to be noticed, it is also to be observed that there is in the Christian cemeteries on the whole a remarkable absence of heathen imagery,--less by far than might have been expected in the works of those surrounded by heathen modes of thought and expression. The influence of Christianity, however, so changed the current of ideas, and so affected the feelings of those whom it called to new life, that heathenism became to them, as it were, a dead letter, devoid of all that could rouse the fancy, or affect the inner thought. A great gulf was fixed between them and it,--a gulf which for three centuries, at least, charity alone could bridge over. It was not till near the fourth century that heathenism began, to any marked extent, to modify the character and to corrupt the purity of Christianity.
And with this is connected one of the most important historic facts with regard to the Art of the catacombs. In no one of the pictures of the earlier centuries is support or corroboration to be found of the distinctive dogmas and peculiar claims of the Roman Church. We have already spoken of the pictures that have been supposed to have symbolic reference to the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and have shown how little they require such an interpretation. The exaltation of St. Peter above the other Apostles is utterly unknown in the works of the first three centuries; in instances in which he is represented, it is as the companion of St. Paul. The Virgin never appears as the subject of any special reverence. Sometimes, as in pictures of the Magi bringing their gifts, she is seen with the child Jesus upon her lap. No attempt to represent the Trinity (an irreverence which did not become familiar till centuries later) exists in the catacombs, and no sign of the existence of the doctrine of the Trinity is to be met with in them, unless in works of a very late period. Of the doctrines of Purgatory and Hell, of Indulgences, of Absolution, no trace is to be found. Of the worship of the saints there are few signs before the fourth century,--and it was not until after this period that figures of the saints, such as those spoken of heretofore, in the account of the crypt of St. Cecilia, became a common adornment of the sepulchral walls. The use of the _nimbus_, or glory round the head, was not introduced into Christian Art before the end of the fourth century. It was borrowed from Paganism, and was adopted, with many other ideas and forms of representation, from the same source, after Romanism had taken the place of Paganism as the religion of the Western Empire. The faith of the catacombs of the first three centuries was Christianity, not Romanism.
In the later catacombs, the change of belief, which was wrought outside of them, is plainly visible in the change in the style of Art. Byzantine models stiffened, formalized, and gradually destroyed the spirit of the early paintings. Richness of vestment and mannerism of expression took the place of simplicity and straightforwardness. The Art which is still the popular Art in Italy began to exhibit its lower round of subjects. Saints of all kinds were preferred to the personages of Scripture. The time of suffering and trial having passed, men stirred their slow imaginations with pictures of the crucifixion and the passion. Martyrdoms began to be represented; and the series—not even yet, alas! come to an end—of the coarse and bloody atrocities of painting, pictures worthy only of the shambles, beginning here, marked the decline of piety and the absence of feeling. Love and veneration for the older and simpler works disappeared, and through many of the ancient pictures fresh graves were dug, that faithless Christians might be buried near those whom they esteemed able to intercede for and protect them. These graves hollowed out in the wall around the tomb of some saint or martyr became so common, that the term soon arose of a burial intra or retro sanctos, among or behind the saints. One of the most precious pictures in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, precious from its peculiar character, is thus in some of its most important parts utterly destroyed. It represents, so far as is to be seen now, two men in the attitude of preaching to flocks who stand near them,—and if the eye is not deceived by the uncertain light, and by the dimness of the injured colors, a shower of rain, typical of the showers of divine grace, is falling upon the sheep: on one who is listening intently, with head erect, the shower falls abundantly; on another who listens, but with less eagerness, the rain falls in less abundance; on a third who listens, but continues to eat, with head bent downward, the rain falls scantily; while on a fourth, who has turned away to crop the grass, scarcely a drop descends. Into this parable in painting the irreverence of a succeeding century cut its now rifled and forlorn graves.
But the Art of the catacombs, after its first age, was not confined to painting. Many sculptured sarcophagi have been found within the crypts, and in the crypts of the churches connected with the cemeteries. Here was again the adoption of an ancient custom; and in many instances, indeed, the ancient sarcophagi themselves were employed for modern bodies, and the old heathens turned out for the new Christians. Others were obviously the work of heathen artists employed for Christian service; and others exhibit, even more plainly than the later paintings, some of the special doctrines of the Church. The whole character of this sculpture deserves fuller investigation than we can give to it here. The collection of these first Christian works in marble that has recently been made in the Lateran Museum affords opportunity for its careful study,—a study interesting not only in an artistic, but in an historic and doctrinal point of view.
The single undoubted Christian statue of early date that has come down to us is that of St. Hippolytus, Bishop of Porto, which was found in 1551, near the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Unfortunately, it was much mutilated, and has been greatly restored; but it is still of uncommon interest, not only from its excellent qualities as a work of Art, but also from the engraving upon its side of a list of the works of the Saint, and of a double paschal cycle. This, too, is now in the Christian Museum at the Lateran.
Another branch of early Christian Art, which deserves more attention than it has yet received, is that of the mosaics of the catacombs. Their character is widely different from that of those with which a few centuries afterwards the popes splendidly adorned their favorite churches. But we must leave mosaics, gems, lamps, and all the lesser articles of ornament and of common household use that have been found in the graves, and which bring one often into strange familiarity with the ways and near sympathy with the feelings of those who occupied the now empty cells. Most of these trifles seem to have been buried with the dead as the memorials of a love that longed to reach beyond death with the expressions of its constancy and its grief. Among them have been found the toys of little children,-- their jointed ivory dolls, their rattles, their little rings, and bells,--full, even now, of the sweet sounds of long-ago household joys, and of the tender recollections of household sorrows. In looking at them, one is reminded of the constant recurrence of the figure of the Good Shepherd bearing his lamb, painted upon the walls of these ancient chapels and crypts.
It was thus that the dawn of Christian Art lighted up the darkness of the catacombs. While the Roman nobles were decorating their villas and summer-houses with gay figures, scenes from the ancient stories, and representations of licentious fancies,--while the emperors were paving the halls of their great baths with mosaic portraits of the famous prize-fighters and gladiators,--the Christians were painting the walls of their obscure cemeteries with imagery which expressed the new lessons of their faith, and which was the type and the beginning of the most beautiful works that the human imagination has conceived, and the promise of still more beautiful works yet to be created for the delight and help of the world.
[To be continued.]
- The Cavaliere de Rossi, in his very learned tract, De Christianis Monumentis ΙΧΘΥΝ exhibentibus, expresses the belief that these pictures, besides their direct and simple reference to the Lord's Supper, exhibit also the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The bread he considers as the obvious material symbol, the fish the mystical symbol of the transubstantiation. His interpretation is at least doubtful. The bread was to be eaten in remembrance of the Lord, and the fish was represented as the image which recalled his words, that have been perverted by materialistic imaginations so far from their original meaning,—"This is my body which is given for you." But the date of the origin of false opinions is a matter of comparative unimportance.
- One picture of this scene in the Catacombs of St. Hermes is said to be in immediate connection with the sacrament of Penance "represented literally, in the form of a Christian kneeling on both knees before a priest, who is giving him absolution." We have not seen the original of this picture, and we know of no copy of it. It is not given either by Bosio or in Perret's great work. Before accepting it in evidence, its date must be ascertained, and the possibility of a more natural explanation of it excluded. How is one figure known to be that of a priest? and in what manner is the act of giving absolution expressed?