The Christian Art of the Catacombs

Author: Frederic Ozanam


By Frederic Ozanam (French Catholic Cultural Historian, 1813-1853)

The Italian genius developed in the atmosphere of the catacombs. We must descend there to discover the source of all that was destined to become so great. There, in those primitive ages, lived a people in the modern sense of the word, comprising women and children, the weak and the small, such as ancient historians despise and hold of no account -- a new people, a medley of strangers, slaves, free-men, barbarians, all animated by a spirit alien to antiquity and suggestive of a new order of things. This society had an ideal which it was eager to express, but the ideal was too comprehensive, too impassioned, too new, to find adequate expression in words; it required the service of all the arts. In that early stage of its development, poetry was not yet clear, precise, or clothed in the garb which it needed. But it animated all the arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, engraving, for all these are symbolic and are characterized by figurative expression and the endeavor to make the image reflect the idea, to reveal the ideal in the real.

We must imagine the catacombs as a network of long, underground corridors, stretching in all directions beneath the suburbs and the outskirts of Rome. We must beware of confusing them with the spacious quarries dug out for the purpose of building the pagan city. The Christians themselves excavated the narrow corridors which were to hide the mysteries of their faith and to be the resting- placeof their tombs. These labyrinths are sometimes as much as three or four stories high and they penetrate a depth of eighty to a hundred feet below ground, but in many parts they are so narrow and low that it is difficult to make one's way through even with lowered head. To the right and left are several rows and broad, deep trenches scooped out of the wall, in which bodies of men, women, and children are placed side by side and covered with a little lime. As if to confuse the pagan searchers, the underground passage makes a thousand detours, and to this day these very detours speak of the horrors of those early days of persecution when the cruel hunter chased his prey through these winding labyrinths. For this very purpose of persecution the corridor was made to wind, to ascend and descend, and to bury itself in the lowest depths of the earth. But though a work born of cruelty and horror, it is at the same time an eloquent work. No building raised by human hands teaches nobler lessons. In those murky passages the visible world and all trace of light is denied to all who penetrate those depths. The cemetery encloses all the hidden treasures of darkness, even as eternity "concludes and shuts up" all time, and the oratories, built at various points for the celebration of the holy mysteries, are like so much daylight breaking in upon immortality to comfort the souls for the night here below.


These oratories are covered with pictures which are often crudely executed and which are clearly the work of unskilled hands. Those ignorant workmen could do no better, working in haste and by the light of a lamp, in fear, and threatened with death. Yet often when the light of a torch is thrown upon the sacred walls, images are revealed whose design, form, and movement recall the best traditions of ancient art. At the same time, behind these very traditions lurks the principle which was destined to reanimate and transform them. The true faith of the martyrs is depicted in the expression of these beings whom the artist represents with eyes raised to heaven and hands outstretched in prayer. But in all, the intrusion of Christian art is revealed in the ideal which chose the subjects if these pictures, which planned the order of them and designed the types. In these desolate places, where images expressive of a society banned, persecuted, and mercilessly tracked might well be expected, are discovered instead those revealing a very different spirit. At the entrance of the vault appears the Good Shepherd bearing on His shoulders a lamb and a goat, indicating that He saves both the innocent and the repentant. Next, in four panels decorated with garlands of flowers and fruits, are depicted stories drawn from the Old and New Testaments, generally arranged in couples, as if to suggest allegory and reality, prophecy and history. In these figure Noah in the Ark, Moses striking the rock, Job on the dunghill, the Miracle of Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, Lazarus leaving the tomb, and most prominent -- Daniel in the lions den, Jonah cast out by the whale , the three Children in the furnace. All these are types of martyrdom -- martyrdom by beasts, water, and fire, but all symbolical of triumphant martyrdom such as is necessary to depict in order to maintain courage and console grief. We see no trace of contemporary persecutions, no representation of the butchery of the Christians, nothing bloodthirsty, nothing which could rouse hatred or vengeance, nothing but pictures of pardon, hope, and love.


Though the Christians of the catacombs found time to paint their chapels, they were zealous never to abandon the tombs of their dead without endowing them with some token of remembrance, some trace of their grief and reverence. Christian sculpture had its beginning in such hieroglyphics, and figures roughly hewn, without proportion, without grace, with no other worth than the ideal they represent. A leaf expresses the instability of life; a sailing boat, the fleeting of our days; the dove bearing the branch proclaims the dawn of a better world; the fishrecalls baptism, and at the same time, the Greek word which translates it unites in a mysterious anagram the majestic titles of the Son of God, the Saviour. On a nameless tomb there is a fish and the five miraculous loaves of bread, suggesting that here rests a man who believed in Christ, who, was regenerated by baptism, and who partook of the Eucharistic feast. As paganism gradually declined, the chisel of the Christian became bold and more productive. Instead of those indefinite emblems which he outlined on brick, he boldly cut the marble and produced the bas-reliefs of his sarcophagi which decorate the museums of Rome and the churches of Ravenna. In them we meet again the biblical subjects already treated in the catacombs, but other scenes are added. The richer and more definite symbolism announces that the time of the persecutions was over, and that the holy mysteries needed no longer to be celebrated in secret.

The tombs of Ravenna do not speak of death, everything there suggests the immortality given by the Eucharist to Christians: for instance, birds pecking at vines, doves drinking from a chalice, tender lambs feeding on the fruits of a palm.

But the designer, despairing of expressing his thought adequately in sculpture, had called speech to his aid, though at first it took a secondary place. The first inscriptions are a brevity which has its own eloquence. "This is the place of Philemon." Some are amplified by means of tender and comforting expressions such as "Florentius felix agneglus (sic) Dei" -- "Florentius, happy little lamb of God." Or yet again, "You have fallen too soon, Constantia, miracle of beauty and wisdom". And yet Constance had died as a martyr and the phial stained with blood marked out her tomb for the veneration of the faithful. But the young saint was only eighteen, and the Church forgave the cry of the parents' hearts. Sometimes these few words suggest all the terror of divine judgement, as do those in the following prayer which the Christian Benirosus had traced on his father's tomb: "Lord, take thou not us unawares when our mind is shrouded in darkness" -- "Domine, ne quando adumbretur spiritus, veneris." At another time the thought of the Resurrection breaks forth in the midst of lamentation and weeping. The family of the Christian Severianus invokes on his behalf Him who causes the seeds buried in the furrow to germinate.

At this period was produced the only poetry truly worthy of the name -- poetry expressed in language and metre. The muse could no longer be silent, for the time was approaching when the poet Prudentius was to celebrate the catacombs and their martyrs in the metres of Virgil and Horace. But till now poetry had happily remained popular and crude. It is surely indisputable that ignorant people traced these Latin inscriptions written inGreek characters and bristling with faults of orthography, lan- guage, and prosody, and the picture of the plebeian mothers, the slave-fathers, engraving stealthily their griefs and hopes on the stone before which they knelt in reverence, may be readily imagined. When the persecutors, the true Romans, descended into these cemeteries they must have laughed contemptuously and shrugged their shoulders at the epitaphs of these poor wretches who knew not how to write and yet claimed to teach the world. And truly that is what they were destined to do. The ancient Roman civilization was declining to its fall, and at that very moment Rome was to see emerge rom these subterranean passages with which she was undermined, from that Christian society which she had regarded as her enemy, a whole civilization and subsequently, an entirely new poetry.

Taken from the Fall 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor