Tag Archives: catacombs

The Cross in Early Christian Art

cross, 4th Century Sarcophagus, Rome

Cross, 4th Century Sarcophagus, Rome

There are no realistic representations of Christ Crucified and his passion in early Christian art. Realistic portrayals of Christ on the cross and his passion only appear in the early middle ages in the western church. The Crucifixion of Jesus was only portrayed symbolically at first, as in the example above, and early on appears in a variety of ways.

The Anchor Cross

anchor 4

Travelers from one port to another on the Mediterranean Sea at the time of Jesus were never sure of a safe passage until they dropped anchor. The anchor became the symbol of safe arrival, and so ancient seaports on the Mediterranean like Alexandria and Antioch adopted the anchor as a symbol for their city.

Early Christians used the anchor as a symbol of their hope of reaching a heavenly port, the kingdom of God; they inscribed it on their burial sites  in the catacombs to express their hope in Jesus Christ. The anchor closely resembles a cross and early Christians surely saw its resemblance. It’s the most common and sometimes only mark found on the earliest Christian graves in the ancient Roman catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and Callistus.

“Pax tecum,” “Peace be with you” the inscription (above) next to an anchor on one of these gravesites reads; the name of the deceased has been half-destroyed by grave robbers looking for valuables long ago. “Eucarpus is with God” we see in another below.

anchor 3

One reason early Christians hesitated to portray the crucifixion of Christ realistically was because the practice  was still  common in the Roman world until the Emperor Constantine  banned it in the 4th century. With crucifixion still before their eyes, Christians would hardly want it portrayed realistically in art, even if it were the crucifixion of the Savior.


The oldest known portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus, (left), is a mocking graffiti found on the wall of a barracks on the Palatine Hill in Rome, showing a crucified man with the head of a donkey, and before him a man with hand raised to the image. The Greek inscription from about the year 220 AD reads: “Alexander worships his god.” Undoubtedly, an instance of a Christian being mocked for belief in Jesus crucified.

The first centuries of Christianity, in  fact, produced little art. For one thing, it inherited a strong iconoclastic tradition from Judaism. The 2nd century writer Justin Martyr also offers another explanation in his Apology disputing Roman claims that Christians were atheists and a danger to society. Justin acknowledges they had no temples, no statues of gods, and did not participate in the rites of prayer as other Romans did.  But Christians were loyal Romans who believed in God, Justin argues. They worship, though, in their own homes and pray there to a God who cannot be imagined or adequately portrayed. (Apology 9,67)

Great Christian churches and shrines were not built till the 4th century, after  emancipation by the Emperor Constantine. Before that, Christian art is found mainly in the catacombs, where Christians buried their dead.

Moses strikes the Rock, Noah saved by the wood. Catacombs

Moses strikes the Rock, Noah saved by the wood.

The art of the catacombs, which are located mostly  around the city of Rome, comes down to us in a fragile state and can be hard to decipher after being underground for centuries. Its simple symbolic style can leave its powerful religious significance unappreciated. Art historians lament its lack of style compared to the sophisticated Roman art of its day.

The writings of Justin Martyr and other early Christian writers may help us better understand its simple, powerful message. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin uses a list of Jewish scriptures that he claims predict the coming of Christ, his life, death and resurrection. The core of these scriptures, commonly used by other Christian writers of his day–Tertullian, Barnabas, Irenaeus– were already used in the preaching message of the New Testament to prove that “all the prophets bear witness” to Christ, the promised Messiah. (Acts 10,43) Jesus, of course, was the first to appeal  to Moses and all the prophets to show why it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer. (Luke 24,26-27)

These same Jewish scriptures influenced the formation of the gospels. Other references were added in time and became part of early Christian baptismal catechesis, Christian worship and decoration for the  Christian resting places of the dead. The Jewish scriptures are the key to understanding the art of the catacombs.

In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin proposes to his Jewish opponent scriptures such as Psalm 22 and the Servant Songs of Isaiah 53, that indicate God’s plan to send a suffering Messiah who would redeem his people. These same scriptures shaped the accounts of the passion of Jesus in the four gospels.

In the 86th chapter of his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin lists other scriptures, beginning with the tree of life planted in paradise, that reveal the saving power of the wood of the cross. That saving wood was prefigured in the wooden rod Moses used to bring water from the rock in the desert and divide the sea for his people to pass over. The cross was prefigured in the ladder Jacob saw mounting to heaven. Abraham saw it in the oak at Mamre and in the wood Isaac carried to his sacrifice. David saw the cross in the tree planted by running waters, mentioned in Psalm 1. The cross was signified in the wood that saved Noah from the flood.


Isaac carry the wood of sacrifice. Roman catacombs.

Isaac carries the wood of sacrifice.
Roman catacombs.

Many of these Old Testament figures connect wood with water and feature in the early church’s catechesis and rites of initiation. The same catechesis speaks to the dead resting in the catacombs, who  believed in Christ. Through baptism and the sacraments Jesus Christ would bring them, through the mystery of his death and resurrection, to eternal life.

In other parts of the Dialogue, Justin offers the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and other Old Testament stories as images that speak of the Passion of Jesus. All these “signs” also appear extensively in the art of the catacombs.

3 children 1

Daniel in the Lion's den. Catacombs

Daniel in the Lion’s den.

In the 55th chapter of his Apology Justin adds signs from nature and human society to expand his argument for Christianity and the mystery of the cross, A ship can’t sail and arrive at its destination without a sail; a field can’t be plowed without a plow. Both of these are in the form of a cross. Human beings themselves are made in the form of a cross, Justin emphasizes. Figures with arms outstretched, Orants, appear everywhere in the catacombs. They imitate Christ who prayed with arms outstretched on the cross, and his prayer was heard. (Tertullian, On Prayer 14)

Orans, Catacomb

Orans, Catacomb

Noah saved by the wood of the ark. Roman catacombs

Noah saved by the wood of the ark.
Roman catacombs

The art of the catacombs found mostly in the 40 or so catacombs around Rome, offers a rich fascinating look at early Christian belief. Today In the Catholic Church’s prayers for the dying we can still hear the figures portrayed there  invoked once more.

“Welcome your servant, Lord, into the place of salvation…Deliver your servant Lord, as you delivered Noah from the flood, Deliver your servant, Lord, as your delivered Moses from the hand of Pharaoh. Deliver your servant, Lord, as you delivered Daniel from the lions den. Deliver your servant, Lord, as you delivered the three young men from the fiery furnace. Deliver your servant, Lord, as you delivered Job from his sufferings. Deliver your servant, Lord, through Jesus our Savior, who suffered death for us and gave us eternal life.” (Roman Ritual)

Good Shepherd, Old Testament figures of the Passion. Catacombs

Good Shepherd, Old Testament figures of the Passion. Catacombs

The Epiphany

Audio version of homily here:


Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the mysterious visitors from afar who came seeking the new-born King of the Jews. (Matthew 2,1-12)

Years ago, I remember wandering through the catacombs of Rome where early Roman Christians buried their dead. On the burial places of their loved ones they scratched the name of the deceased, little symbols and prayers, sometimes a picture from the bible.


In the catacombs of Priscilla there’s a 3rd century grave that belongs to a Roman woman named Severa. Her simple profile appears with an inscription that reads, “Severa, may you live with God.”

Beside the inscription are figures of the three Magi coming with their gifts to the little Child sitting on Mary’s lap. Over the Child is a star and the figure of a man, probably Balaam, the prophet who predicted a star would announce a new king in Judea. (Numbers 24,15-19)

What did this mean to her, you wonder? Surely Severa believed the Child brought eternal life to her and others like her. Perhaps she was baptized on the feast of the Epiphany, the oldest of the Christmas feasts, the most important day after Easter for baptisms in Rome and other western churches.



Her faith, which she would have expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, is the same as ours today. God made this world and guides it to its destiny. Jesus Christ is God’s Son, born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.

Severa believed in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

The Roman woman knew, too, the story of the Magi and Herod, the powerful king, who threatened the life of the new born Child. The power emperors who ruled Rome then were so much like the ruthless king, but Severa knew the Child was more powerful than them all. He would bring her to another world, God’s world.

“Severa, may we live with you in God.”


The Anchor and the Cross

anchor 4

Traveling from one port to another  on  the Mediterranean Sea was never safe in early times. For early travelers the anchor was a symbol of safe arrival. Ancient seaports  on the Mediterranean like Alexandria and Antioch adopted the anchor as a symbol for their city.

Early Christians adopted the sign as a symbol of their hope of reaching a heavenly port, the kingdom of God, and they inscribed it on the burial sites of their dead in the catacombs to symbolize their hope in Jesus Christ. The anchor closely resembles a cross, and that surely was what early Christians thought it to be. It’s the most common, and sometimes the only mark, found on the earliest Christian graves in the ancient Roman catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and Callistus.

“Pax tecum,” “Peace be with you” an inscription (above) next to an anchor on one of these gravesites reads; the name of the deceased has been half-destroyed by grave robbers looking for valuables long ago. “Eucarpus is with God” we see below.

anchor 3

The Woman who touched Jesus’ Garments

Mark 5, 21-43

We read this story today at Mass. Why does Mark insert the story of the woman who touched Jesus’ garments into the story of the dead girl brought back to life? Was it simply that she happened to meet him on his way to the girl’s house? Maybe there’s another reason.

A picture of the woman touching the garments of Jesus is one of the oldest pictures  found in the catacombs of Rome, where early Christians buried their dead. Is it there  to remind them that those who died had also touched the garments of Jesus? They didn’t see him, but he met them in signs.

Those buried there believed in him and were baptized with water; they received his life through that sign and entered into the mystery of his death and resurrection. They received his body and blood in the signs of bread and wine, and so like the woman they touched his garments.  His power and life went out to them.

The Gospel of Mark was written in Rome, most scholars say. Is Mark’s arrangement of the  stories of Jesus raising the dead girl to life and the woman touching his garments a way of teaching Roman Christians about the mystery of death? Jesus was with them on their last journey.

In preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council the Roman authorities responsible for the catechism instructed publishers to put the picture from the catacombs of the woman touching the garments of Jesus at the beginning of the section on the sacraments.

She’s an example, an image of the present church which knows Jesus through sacraments.  She helps us believe in the power of simple signs.

Peter and Paul

Today, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Vatican began a new website on the internet that combines a number of their websites under one portal: www.news.va

Good idea, nice and simple. Begun on the Feast of the two apostles who are considered the founders of the church of Rome it’s a website addressed to the world. And on its opening page there’s the pope playing with what’s surely an iPad. May others do likewise. I’m not quite sure about Peter, but I’m sure Paul would have loved one of those things.

One story on the new site is about a new discovery archeologists made of a 6th century portrait of St. Paul, the Apostle, from a catacomb near Naples. Paul, is described in the story as looking like a Roman philosopher. He peers out from the side of an arcosolium, a burial place, at the mourners who come to honor their dead. He who saw the Risen Christ carries news of new life.

His portrait looks like other early portraits of him, just a Peter’s portrait is pretty much established early on. Peter looks like a rough and ready fisherman–which I’m sure he was. I think he would be uncomfortable to hear himself described as “the prince of the apostles.”

Not that he was a shrinking violet. In today’s readings, St. Augustine claims that the three affirmations of love Jesus called him to make, according to the Gospel of John, were to conquer Peter’s “self-assurance.”

“Quite rightly, too, did the Lord after his resurrection entrust his sheep to Peter to be fed. It is not, you see, that he alone among the disciples was fit to feed the Lord’s sheep; but when Christ speaks to one, unity is being commended to us. And he first speaks to Peter, because Peter is the first among the apostles.

“Do not be sad, Apostle. Answer once, answer again, answer a third time. Let confession conquer three times with love, because self-assurance was conquered three times by fear. What you had bound three times must be loosed three times. Loose through love what you had bound through fear. And for all that, the Lord once, and again, and a third time, entrusted his sheep to Peter.”

“There is one day for the passion of two apostles. But these two also were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day, consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labours, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.”