When devotion reached the City's aristocratic families
Even before the Sack of Rome in 410, an event that shocked the Romans and the entire ancient world as much as the violent attack on the Twin Towers did the world today, the catacombs were gradually being abandoned since the outskirts of Rome were no longer the only sites designated as Christian burial grounds.
Some of these necropolises then sprang up within the Aurelian Walls [previously prohibited]; and emerged from their underground sites, clustering around and within the more important Martyrs' Shrines, introducing a custom that was to spread throughout the orbis christianus antiquus.
The decline in the funerary role of the catacombs, however, was not traumatic. On the contrary, in connection with the tombs of the Martyrs, in the last part of the fourth century — under the Pontificate of Pope Damasus (366-384) — one notes that burials were densely concentrated around the sepulchres of those first "witnesses" to the Christian faith. This increase in the number of tombs is actually proof of a sudden increase in devotion.
Some of them show by their arrangement, decoration and fittings or by their lavishness, the extremely high rank of those who commissioned them, in the ecclesiastical and/or the aristocratic hierarchy. This intense exploitation of the spaces behind or beside the "important tombs" as burial sites gave rise to special funerary areas, eloquently described as retrosanctos [behind the saints].
As mentioned above, the phenomenon also occurred around the Shrines of Martyrs above ground and especially near the circular basilicas that sprang up in the time of the Constantinian dynasty near the tombs of St Lawrence, St Agnes, St Peter and St Marcellinus, Pope Mark, and in the memoria apostolorum on the Appian Way.
Some of these tombs imitated the proportions and characteristics of the imperial mausoleum, as in the famous examples of the large sepulchres with a central plan, like Constance's on the Via Nomentana or Helen's on the Via Labicana.
Besides these imperial tombs that display sumptuous decorations in opus sectile and in mosaic, we should draw attention to a whole series of mausoleums, smaller and more simply decorated, that likewise express an aspiration to emulate the sepulchres of the potentiores.
In the catacombs too, towards the end of the period of their funerary use, important cubicula came into being with wall paintings. Although they were no longer close to the tombs of the Martyrs and no longer had the privilege of being arranged in visible sites above the ground, they developed a complex form of architecture, dug out of the tufa rock and decorated with pictorial sequences showing deep artistic and devotional commitment.
Thus, in the Catacombs of Domitilla the sumptuous cubiculum of the corporation of the pistores (bakers) was created; likewise, in the Catacombs of Commodilla the cubiculum of the granary store official, Leone, was hewn from the rock and decorated in an extremely sophisticated pictorial style.
Even more important is the private hypogeum found on the Via Latina. Those who commissioned it belonged to the highest senatorial aristocracy, who headed a group of families, some of whom were pagan and some converts to Christianity, giving rise to a curious form of religious syncretism.
Although this monument has been dated to the second half of the fourth century it shows the fraught conversion to Christianity of the last pagans who held out, as is well known, in the City's senatorial class.
To this context belongs a painted cubiculum in the Roman catacombs of St Thecla on the Ostian Way, known since the 18th century. It has undergone an extremely sophisticated restoration process which has restored to us a complex decorative sequence. It was commissioned at the end of the fourth century by a well-off aristocratic Roman family that had the sumptuous duplex cubiculum made in the vicinity of a community cemetery. It is duplex in the sense that the real sepulchral area is provided with an antechamber which makes new use of an older cubiculum from the Constantinian epoch. Well, the older structure was adapted and embellished with a large lunette for a masterful representation of that Apostolic College, complete with a flock of sheep, symbolizing the solidarity of the Church and her powerful coherence in the face of the heresies and especially the Arian heresy, which had cast doubt on the consubstantiality of the Father and of the Son.
The cubiculum true and proper, after the successful restoration work, revealed five figures in medallions on the vault in imitation of a coffered ceiling, something like the one that was to adorn the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls desired by three Emperors, Theodosius, Valentinian II and Arcadius in the last years of the fourth century.
In the centre is the image of the Good Shepherd. In the four corners one can easily recognize the busts of four Apostles — St Paul, St Peter, St Andrew and St John — from their features: Paul shows the awe-inspiring features of the pneumatic thinker; Peter, those of the practical and reliable reference point of the Roman Church; Andrew those of unkempt impetuosity and John, those of sweetness and amiability.
If the images of Peter and Paul represent the manifesto of that concordia apostolorum that in the time of Pope Damasus had become the slogan of a religious policy that saw in the rehabilitation of the Apostle to the Gentiles an attempt to rebalance the partes of the Church and of the Empire: then the images of Andrew and John, seen here for the first time to the surprise of all those who postponed their appearance to the late fifth century, if not to the Byzantine age, speak to us of a widespread cult of the Apostles.
This cult must have been fostered by the circulation of the relics of the Apostles and by a devotion that arose with the pilgrimages to the Apostolic memorials in the Holy Land.
With regard to the former point, we cannot forget that Constantine had erected in the Eastern capital a basilica apostolorum in the form of a cross, that later became his tomb. In the centre of it, near a sort of large ciborium, were arranged the stelae in memory of the Twelve Apostles.
With regard to the second point, Ambrose had built in Milan a basilica apostolorum, also cruciform, in which he placed the relics of the Apostles —that may have come from Aquileia, Concordia or Rome — in a precious silver casket.
This was the time of the great pilgrimages to the Holy Land whose destinations were the places of biblical memory from which pilgrims brought home souvenirs of the great miracles of the Old Testament and of the miracles worked by Christ and by the Apostles.
If, in most cases, pilgrims took away from the shrines small metal or ceramic ampullae filled with water and sand or small devotional medals, in other cases they carried in their mind's eye the image of the protagonists of salvation history.
Aetheria's journey is famous, but other noblewomen, who have remained anonymous or are mentioned in the correspondence of St Jerome, travelled to these evocative shrines. Priests, deacons and ordinary Christians — after the illustrious example of Helen — also went in search of relics to place in the monuments of the Christian oecumene, in precious containers, such as the famous small ivory reliquary from Brescia, also made at the end of the fourth century and that reproduces among other things medallions showing Christ and the Apostles, or of the even more famous ivory capsella from Samagher. These, however, can be dated to the fifth century and are decorated with scenes possibly of Roman shrines and can therefore be connected with a pilgrimage to the "holy City" of the West.
The decoration of the cubiculum of St Thecla therefore fits perfectly into this spirit which is part of that "apostolic devotion" invented by Ambrose and that reached Rome, especially the aristocratic families of the city.
Presumably it was the matrons who first venerated the Martyrs, but also the Apostles in that incipient form of monasticism inaugurated — so people said — by St Jerome, who encouraged a sort of "domestic asceticism" which developed around the domus of the widow Marcella on the Aventine.
It is symptomatic that in the cubiculum of St Thecla the image of a noble matron should be represented, sumptuously dressed in a tunic and mantle with a refined hairstyle and precious jewels, while she shows the scroll of the Law, with which she was very familiar since — according to Jerome — certain widows and virgins of the "Aventine circle" knew the Sacred Texts in Greek and in Latin.
The noblewoman is shown together with her little daughter in a prayerful attitude, while two saints (Peter and Paul once again?) welcome her into the next world, showing a surprising intimacy with the Apostles and Martyrs, breaking every form of taboo and inaugurating a religio amicitiae among these excellent and privileged Christians and the Saints.
If the rest of the cubiculum contain other biblical scenes ("Daniel in the lions' den", "Peter striking the rock", the "Adoration of the Magi", "The sacrifice of Isaac"), the visitors' gaze lingers on those first images of the Apostles whom the deceased woman and/or her family chose as protectors. And they raised these busts to the rank of true and proper icons which, for the first time, reveal the characters, idiosyncrasies and psychology of Christ's first followers.
However, this is not the only find! What should surprise us most is the appearance of the Apostles' busts in the darkness of virtually unknown catacombs at a time which is usually considered transient, a leave-taking from the first great Christian season, in expectation of the Byzantine civilization which, in the East rather than in the West, invented the type and cult of icons.
We must certainly hail the unexpected antiquity of these images, so characteristic, so recognizable, ready to present the artists of Ravenna with likenesses of the Apostles, almost a century early.
Yet after the moment of wonder and surprise, we must immerse the most important discovery in the historical and devotional atmosphere of a period experiencing the conversion of the "last pagans", of the aristocracy, of the senate, under the banner of international dialogue. Its protagonists were the "aristocratic" Fathers of the Church, Damasus, Ambrose, Paulinus of Nola and Jerome, true promoters and "orchestra conductors" of that cult of Saints that was profoundly to affect, connote and mark late antiquity and the early Middle Ages with the creation of the great Roman martyria, with the strategic deployment of the Milanese shrines, the monastic seal on the great centre of veneration for Felix the Confessor at Cimitile and with "guided" visits of pilgrims to the biblical memorials in the Holy Land.