Monday, February 27, 2006

The Early Christians

Christina Rainey
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

"The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was going to come into the world. But although the world was made through him, the world didn’t recognize him when he came. Even in his own land and among his own people, he was not accepted” (John 1:10-11).These words were quoted from John the Baptist, a prophet who announced the coming of God’s Son Jesus Christ. The world into which Jesus would be born will be full of people who will not recognize nor accept him as their savior. For those who did believe preached his word, retold his miracles and began a movement. These people were the Christians, the first followers of Jesus Christ and through them a religion was born.

The first followers established a new contemplative art style, with the birth of Christianity. Using the fresco art technique, anonymous artists created biblical images that retold stories of Jesus Christ and his followers. These images appeared on the walls of early Christian burial sites, known as the catacombs. These burial sites, specifically the catacombs of Priscilla, marked a beginning in Christian art that was designed for the viewer to reflect on the importance of Jesus Christ and his teachings. The images and symbols found in the catacombs of Priscilla worked as a catalyst for Christian imagery in later centuries. To understand the foundations of early Christian art, one must first digress into the historical background of the first Christians.

The story of the life and crucifixion of Jesus is transcribed in the New Testament and a chorological timeline has been pieced together by historians and archeologists. Jesus was born a subject of the Roman Empire around 4 B.C. in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod (Matt. 2:1). According to the film From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, the larger Roman Empire at the time ruled by August Caesar, spread across the Mediterranean sweeping through north Africa stretching as far west as Spain, to the east it encompassed Egypt, Turkey, Greece and the Palestine (PBS part one).Within King Herod’s province, the great city of Jerusalem was rebuilt on a monumental scale; an aqueduct was constructed and the temple was reconstructed. The temple served as a unifying source in the Jewish community, because it was a synagogue where the Jews could come and worship one God. Since Jesus was a Jew, the temple was a part of his culture. Even though it was a part of him, it was the place where the Jewish council condemned him to death.

Within his thirty-three years Jesus traveled to small villages within the Aegean population preaching, teaching and performing miracles all in the name of God. His speeches were gentle in tone and usually told in parables. His parables told of the Kingdom to come, what laws and rules to live by, and what would happen to those who followed and those who choose not to. Through these types of speeches he gained many followers who after his death retold his stories to followers and to anyone who would listen.

Eventually Jesus’ messages were heard throughout the Judea population and opposition rose against him and he became a victim of the Pax Romania, condemned by Roman rule (PBS part one). The leader that presided over his sentencing was Pontius Pilate, who reined over the Judea Province from 26 to 36 B.C. Pilate would leave his place of residence and go up to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday, to watch over the crowds of Jews to make sure nothing got out of hand. Each year at Passover, Pilate would release one prisoner. Since Jesus was a prisoner, Pilate let the people decided who should be set free, Jesus or another criminal and they choose the criminal. Jesus knew his fate and he was beaten and crucified. After being buried, three days later he rose from the dead, which is known as the Resurrection of Christ.

After the Resurrection of Christ, there are two different opinions on how the movement of Christianity started or commonly called the “Jesus Movement” began (PBS part 1). One is the biblical interpretation and the second is that of historians. The biblical interpretation begins fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection on a day known as the Pentecost. On this day believers gathered in Jerusalem to discuss what was to come next, when all of a sudden they were visited by the Holy Spirit according to the book of Acts 2:1-13. The Holy Spirit gave the believers the ability to speak in many different languages, so that the wonderful things that God had done could be heard by many nations. The second interpretation is that of historians. Professor Paula Fredriksen of Boston University claims that Christianity began from many centers, were the disciples of Jesus Christ met and tried to make sense of the experience of Jesus and what happened to him after his death. Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University concurs that the Christians began with many small enclaves, trying to keep the memory of Jesus alive by traveling door to door, preaching the word (PBS part two).

This preaching of the word was known as the Diaspora of Judaism. Since Christianity, at the time was still a part of Judaism the diaspora made a network of cities in which apostles like Paul could travel and preach. By the end of the first century a multitude of Jewish cities around the Aegean Basin created a network of Christian cities. Christianity had spread to Greece, Italy, Gaul, Germany, Africa, Egypt and provinces east of the Euphrates by the end of the second century (Webb xii).

One of the first to travel around the Jewish cities in the Aegean Basin was Paul. Paul, one of the first major apostles, was a great instrument in converting and establishing Christianity as its own sect separate from Judaism. He preached in synagogues that served as a community center where people of every walk of life could be found. This sense of community fostered by the Christians drew people into the religion and helped the religion to rise over paganism. Paul, seeing the chance to gain more followers, converted the gentiles (people who hadn’t heard or did not understand the word of God), but the conversion of the gentiles became a problem. For did they have to become Jewish first and then a Christian? Paul addressed this question and argued that baptism could take the place of male circumcision, thus deeming that circumcision was not a requirement to be a part of the Christian community (PBS part 2). This and other defining differences such as places of worship and dietary laws, started to develop between the two groups. Eventually, these little differences were overshadowed by the Jewish revolt, which marked the beginning of a split between the two religions.

The Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire occurred around the time of 66-73 A.D. The revolt, ended by Titus, resulted in the sack of the city, the death of many Jews, and the destruction of Jerusalem temple. With its end the Jewish and Christian populations scattered throughout the Roman Empire. This helped in the diaspora but caused a gap between the two religions. With the destruction of the city the Jews and the Christians had to rethink the foundations of their beliefs, and rebuild on new ideas.

Before the siege, a new step was being made by the Christians. According to a letter by Paul to the Romans, the first Christians settled in Rome around 57 AD (Webb xi). As the number of Christians grew in Rome, so did the need for private burial grounds. Up until the end of the 2nd century Christians were buried along side their pagan counterparts. By this time, the number of Christians was estimated to be between thirty to fifty thousand in Rome (Krautheimer, Webb xii).With a growing population that had enough economic wealth as a community and the desire to have a place exclusively to themselves to perform burial rituals, the Christians began building the catacombs.

The word catacomb, originates from the word “toponym as catacumbas”, which means “at the hollows” (Vincenzo 5). This name also refers to a depression in the ground caused by the exploitation of a soft volcanic rock material called tuffa, to air. The catacombs were made out of tuffa because the rock was easy to shape and once exposed to the air it would harden quickly. This allowed for builders to make later additions to the catacombs.

The widely acclaimed belief that the catacombs were built for the Christians to escape persecution is not true. At this time ninety percent of the Mediterranean worshipped pagan Gods, so it was not a problem for the Christians to worship (PBS part 3). The Christians faced persecution because they refused to offer a sacrifice to the reigning emperor. The Roman emperor was to act like God and unlike the pagans’ worship, the Christians only believed in one God. For this reason they faced persecution and they were willing to be persecuted for their beliefs. Churches were closed and orders were given to kill all who did not offer a sacrifice. The persecutions were the most prevalent under the rein of Diocletian and Galerius between 285-311 A.D. It did not hinder the growth of the community and since they were willing to die for their beliefs, the catacombs were not an escape but a place of salvation to God.

The images found in the catacombs are similar to pagan tombs, but the Christians incorporated their own faith. Like the Etruscans and the Romans, the Christians embellished their tombs with frescos and used similar colors such as red, blue, brown, yellow, and green (Milburn 27). Unlike the images found in the pagan tombs the images served a higher purpose for the Early Christians: biblical enlightenment, a reflection of their faith, a reminder of the power of the deliverance that God has to save those who put their faith in him, and commutative prayer. Most of the scenes were taken from the Old Testament but there are some from the New Testament. With these frescoes, the rise of the early Christians is not just found in scriptures or preached, but now the stories can be seen in the form of Christian art.

One of the earliest catacombs, the catacomb of Priscilla, exhibits many signs of early Christian imagery. Located along the Via Salaria, the catacombs of Priscilla was built by the Acili Glabriones family. The Acili family, members of the Roman aristocracy converted to Christianity and donated their land to the Christian community. The name is said to come from an inscription found in the catacomb, regarding “the most illustrious woman, Priscilla and M. Acilius,” this suggests that Priscilla was a member of the Acili family (Galate 5). Using their wealth, the Acili built the catacomb near the first decades of the first century out of an abandoned pozzolana quarry (Matt 8). Being the largest of its period, thousands are buried here in addition to six popes and 365 martyrs (Matt 8).

The catacomb was rediscovered in the 16th century by Antonio Bosio. Through the maze of intricate passage ways, the catacomb is divided into two main floors (see power point). The first floor is divided into three nuclei, the Arenario, the Cryptoporticus, and the Cistern. In the passage ways between rooms loculi can be found on the side walls. Loculi, rectangular in shape, are horizontal cavities hollowed out of the walls. Each cavity contained a corpse and were stacked one on top of other. The second floor is one main gallery with loculi and larger circular tombs.

The Arenario is considered to be the nucleus of the catacomb and contains many important 3rd century frescos, and the Christians first attempts at epigraphs, or inscriptions. The image of the Virgin Mary and child can be found in this area. Accompanied on their left side by the prophet Balaam or Isaiah who is pointing at a star is said to be the first known image in history of the Virgin and child. Continuing further in a family chamber, the fresco ceiling known as the Veiling can be found. In the center, a medallion of the good shepherd is surrounded by various birds and this is the first representation of Jesus Christ carrying members of his flock. On of the side walls is the scene of three Jewish boys placed in a furnace, their story represents the power of faith and prayer. On the other side is the image of Abraham, who was the father of Israelites and the predecessor of future nations. On the front panel the viewer can see the scene of Jonah getting spit out by a whale. This represents the power of God, faith and prayer. On the back wall is a scene of a woman raising her hands toward the heavens. On her left side a women and child are seated and on her right three men stand. This scene represents members of a deceased family. Also in this area, in 1906 loculi slabs were found. These slabs, rectangular in shape were made out of terracotta and were used to cover the tombs. These slabs usually contained epigraphs. The epigraphs were simple, usually just having the name of the one who was buried or a Christian wish for a joyful life in heaven. More than three hundred Latin and Greek epigraphs were found in this area and these represent the first attempts of the Christians to make inscriptions (Vincenzo 30).

The last two areas are known as the Cyprotiocius and the Cistern. The Cyprotiocius was made into a chapel, known as the Greek Chapel. Within this room, the early Christians held the celebration known as the Eucharist, where they imitated the Last Supper by eating the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Jesus. The various scenes in this room come together to make a theme of salvation and the divine intervention that God has (Milburn 36). On the arc above the door is a picture of Moses with his walking stick, striking a rock to create water. On the further archway is the scene of the three wise men giving gifts to the baby Jesus. The two side walls tell the story of Susana and the elders. Walking further into the small chapels are the scenes of Daniel in the lions’ den, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the raising of Lazarus, and Noah in the Ark. The last image to be found is that of the banqueting scene, which represents the Last Supper. The last room, the Cistern, or the hypogeum of the Acili, is the private burial area of the family. Not much is known about this area other than the fact that its composition is simple, two rectangular corridors connected to the Cistern.

The images found in each area served as propaganda for the early Christians. Each image displayed was connected to a biblical story and illustrated the power of God. For example, through prayer God saved the three Jewish boys from getting burnt in a furnace. This and the other images reflected on the fundamentals of the Christian faith such as prayer, faith, and redemption offered by Jesus. Each different in content served one higher purpose: to reflect on the importance of Christianity.
Besides using biblical scenes, the early Christians used “symbolic summarize in shorthand the essence of Christian hope” (Milburn 30). The symbols, most taken from pagan images, were important because they served as a connection to the stories related to Christian faith. The symbols stood as distinction between those who were a part the faith and those who were not. Early Christians could rejoice when they saw the symbols and take pride in what their religion entailed and look forward to going to the Kingdom of heaven. Each symbol mentioned here was found in the earlier works in the catacombs and continue to be found in later Christian images.

The good shepherd, chi rho, fish, dove, and Orans were the most prevalent images found. The good shepherd is said to appear 120 times in the catacombs throughout Rome (Milburn 30). It is used because of the many scriptural references to Christ acting as a shepherd. One such scripture reference is that of Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.”
The chi rho is one of the most commonly found Christian symbols. Composed of the Greek letters P overlaid by the letter X, it summarizes the name of Christ. It appears in various forms and sometimes combined with Greek letters alpha and omega, which represent the beginning and the end. The chi rho and the alpha and omega can be found in almost any work of art that reflects Christianity. The fish is the most commonly found and used symbol by the Christians. It is the symbol of baptism, for as the fish cannot live except in water, a true Christian cannot live a purposeful life according to God unless he/she has been through the waters of baptism. In early times it was used to identify other Christians; one Christian would draw a part of the fish in the sand, and another who recognized it would finish the symbol. Today the fish can most frequently be found on the bumper of cars of the faithful. The Greek letters I X O Y C, make up the phrase ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,’ which coincidently also means fish. When the two are placed together they reference to the biblical story of Jesus feeding thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish. The dove with an olive branch or without serves as a symbol of purity and peace and the representation of the Holy Ghost (the spirit of God). There are many biblical stories that include the dove, the one that is most recalled is the story of Noah and the Arc. Usually depicted as a woman with hands lifted towards the heavens, the Orans represented the human soul. The Orans had the same meaning for Christians as for the pagans: it represented pietas, which meant that affectionate respect is given to the state, the ruler, to family, or to in this case God.

These symbols were a discreet form of propaganda and promoted the ideals of Christianity. They were used to discern those that were faithful and those that were not. For the Christians were the only ones who could recognize the symbols and meaning behind them. Even though they are simple, these were the first representations of Christian symbolism in the catacombs.

The symbolism and artistic projection of biblical scenes found in the catacomb of Priscilla and other catacombs were influential to future generations. The images laid a foundation of Christian reflection that expanded artistically with later centuries. By the 4th century Christianity became official under the rule of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Under his rein churches increased and the art technique and style advanced. Within churches the mosaic style became popular and images started to reflect a heavenly realm including saints and apostles.

The frequent use of symbols can be found in almost every church in Rome and even at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Santa Maria in Trastevere is a good example of the different stages of development in Christian art. 3rd century inscription fragments decorate the outside façade, and in the interior there are frescos and 13th century mosaics.
As a modern viewer, the reason why I go to visit the catacomb of Priscilla and other monuments related to the rise of Christianity is to take a pilgrimage into the past. Looking at images in an academic textbook is not the same as actually seeing it. When you are in the place that you have seen only through pictures, your eyes become transfixed in awe at what predecessors have done. The images serve the same purpose as they did before; to remind the viewer that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it” (John 3:16-17).

*Thank you for reading my paper now you get a treat, click here.


Ferrua, Antonio. The Unknown Catacomb: A unique Discovery of Early Christian Art. transl. Iain Inglis. Florence: Geddes and Grosset, 1990.

Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Public Broadcasting Station. Paramount Home Entertainment, 1998.

Grabar, André. Early Christian Art. transl. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. New York: Odyssey Press, 1968.

Matt, Von Leonard. Early Christina Art in Rome. comm. Enrico Josi. New York: Universe Books, 1961.

Milburn, Robert. Early Christina Art and Architecture. England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1988.

The Life Recovery Bible: New Living Translation. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.,1998.

Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti, and Danilo Mazzoleni. The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, inscriptions. transl. Cristina Carlo Stella and Lori-Ann Touchette. Regensburg: Schnell and Steiner, 1999.

Webb, Matlida. The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.