Early Evidence of Devotion to Apostles Found in Rome Catacombs
22 June 2010
The Catholic Spirit
In the basement of an Italian insurance company's modern office building, Vatican archaeologists -- armed with lasers -- discovered important historical evidence about the development of Christian devotion to the apostles.
At Rome's Catacombs of St. Thecla, in the burial chamber of a Roman noblewoman, they have discovered what they said are the oldest existing paintings of Sts. Peter, Paul, Andrew and John.
Technicians working for the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology discovered the painting of St. Paul in June 2009 just as the Year of St. Paul was ending.
Barbara Mazzei, who was in charge of the restoration work, said June 22 that she and her team members knew there were more images under the crust of calcium carbonate, but excitement over the discovery of St. Paul in the year dedicated to him led them to announce the discovery even before the rest of the work was completed.
Presenting the complete restoration of the burial chamber to reporters a year later, Msgr. Giovanni Carru said that the catacombs "are an eloquent witness of Christianity in its origins."
Into the fourth century, Christians in Italy tried to bury their dead near the tomb of a martyr. The walls of the tombs of the wealthy were decorated with Christian symbols, biblical scenes and references to the martyr.
At the Catacombs of St. Thecla, the noblewoman's burial chamber -- now referred to as the Cubicle of the Apostles -- dates from late in the fourth century. The arch over the vestibule features a fresco of a group of figures the Vatican experts described as "The College of the Apostles."
The ceiling of the burial chamber itself features the most typical icon found in the catacombs -- Christ the Good Shepherd -- but the four corners of the ceiling are decorated with medallions featuring the four apostles, said Mazzei.
Fabrizio Bisconti, the commission's archaeological superintendent, said that in the decorations of the catacombs one can see "the genesis, the seeds of Christian iconography," with designs from the very simple fish as a symbol of Christ to the resurrection image of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead.
The discovery of so much attention to the apostles in the Catacombs of St. Thecla documents the fact that widespread devotion to the apostles began earlier than what most church historians believed, he said.
"This is the time when the veneration of the apostles was just being born and developed," he said, and the art in the catacombs no longer presented just the martyrs or biblical scenes.
The burial chamber also features frescoes of Daniel in the lion's den, the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to Jesus, Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and a very large wall painting of the noblewoman herself -- jeweled, veiled and with "an important hairstyle," a symbol of status in ancient Rome, he said.
Mazzei said that when restorers first went into the burial chamber in 2008, all the walls were white -- completely covered under the crust of calcium carbonate that ranged from a millimeter thick to 4-5 centimeters deep. The Vatican, however, had watercolors and diary descriptions from the 1800s testifying that there were paintings on the walls.
In the past, she said, restorers would use tiny scalpels and brushes to remove the white crust, but some of the paint always came away with it. Restorers were left trying to find the right balance between removing enough to see a faint image of a catacomb fresco and destroying it.
Then along came the laser, Mazzei said.
After attending an art restoration conference and listening to presentations on how lasers were being used on frescoes in buildings above ground, she said she suggested to the Vatican that they gather a team of experts to see how lasers would work in the extremely humid catacombs where almost no air circulates.
"We went slowly and basically set up an experimental laboratory" in the catacombs, she said.
The restoration project was just as painstaking as the scalpel-and-brush method because it involved firing the laser pinpoint by pinpoint across the surface of the cubicle, "but the result is totally different," Mazzei said.
She said the two-year project to restore the tiny cubicle cost only about $72,000 because many of the consultants donated their time and the laser company gave the Vatican a steep discount.
Bisconti said the Vatican has no plans to open the Catacombs of St. Thecla to the public, although the pontifical commission occasionally gives permission for groups to visit as long as they are willing to pay a licensed guide and escort.
June 22, 2010
ROME - The earliest known icons of the Apostles Peter and Paul have been discovered in a catacomb under an eight-story modern office building in a working-class neighborhood of Rome, Vatican officials said Tuesday.
The images, which date from the second half of the 4th century, were discovered on the ceiling of a tomb that also includes the earliest known images of the apostles John and Andrew. They were uncovered using a new laser technique that allowed restorers to burn off centuries of thick white calcium carbonate deposits without damaging the dark colors of the original paintings underneath.
The paintings adorn what is believed to be the tomb of a Roman noblewoman in the Santa Tecla catacomb and represent some of the earliest evidence of devotion to the apostles in early Christianity, Vatican officials said in opening up the tomb to the media for the first time.
Last June, the Vatican announced the discovery of the icon of Paul — timed to coincide with the end of the Vatican's Pauline year. At the time, Pope Benedict XVI also announced that tests on bone fragments long attributed to Paul "seemed to confirm" that they did indeed belong to the Roman Catholic saint.
On Tuesday, Vatican archaeologists announced that the image of Paul discovered last year was not found in isolation, but was rather part of a square ceiling painting that also included icons of three other apostles - Peter, John and Andrew - surrounding an image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
"These are the first images of the apostles," said Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of archaeology for the catacombs, which are maintained by the Vatican's Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology.
The Vatican office oversaw and paid for the two-year, euro60,000 restoration effort, which for the first time used lasers to restore frescoes and paintings in catacombs. The damp, musty air of underground catacombs makes preservation of paintings particularly difficult and restoration problematic.
In this case, the small burial chamber at the end of the catacomb was completely encased in centimeters (inches) of white calcium carbonate, which under previous restoration techniques would have just been scraped away by hand. That technique, though would have left a filmy layer on top so as to not damage the paintings underneath.
Using the laser, restorers were able to sear off all the layers of calcium that had been bound onto the painting because the laser beam stopped burning at the white of the calcium deposits, which when chipped off left the brilliant darker colors underneath it unscathed, said Barbara Mazzei, the chief restorer.
See also: Fourth Century Image of St. Paul Uncovered in Roman Catacomb