Skip to comments.Indiana Jones and the Christian catacombs? Not quite
Posted on 07/28/2009 1:34:14 PM PDT by NYer
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Sometimes a job is just a job, even when from the outside it looks like it involves the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie.
Fabrizio Bisconti is the newly named archaeological superintendent of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, which oversees the upkeep and preservation of 140 Christian catacombs from the third and fourth centuries scattered all over Italy.
Most of the time, he said, the job is just work and study.
Staff members can spend a full month with surgical tools and cotton balls cleaning a third-century sarcophagus, but then there are those stunning, shocking, awe-inspiring moments of discovery.
Mid-June brought one of those "wow" moments when restorers cleaning a ceiling in the Catacombs of St. Thecla found what turned out to be the oldest known image of the apostle Paul. The fresco was hidden under a limestone crust.
Bisconti said treasure hunting and exploring were not his passions as a youth; he was into literature. But as a university literature student, he took an archaeology course "and fell in love."
"Certainly, there is great emotion when you find something new, but for us archaeology is our job, the subject of our studies," he said.
Bisconti said most of what he and his fellow archaeologists do all day involves very slow, painstaking precision care of the oldest intact Christian monuments and artwork.
Very little remains of any Christian church built before the fifth century, but the 140 catacombs in Italy offer clear evidence of how early Christians worshipped, how they lived and, especially, what they hoped and believed about death.
Because the catacombs are underground and were filled in with dirt in the fifth century -- when people began burying their dead in cemeteries within the city walls -- the catacombs remained remarkably intact, Bisconti said.
Deciding which catacombs to excavate and whether or not to open them to the public is a process that takes years and tries to balance the values of preservation, scholarship, education and Christian devotion, he said.
"Opening a catacomb means allowing its degradation," he said.
As soon as the dirt in a catacomb is removed, the frescoes and inscriptions start fading and decaying. Human visitors, who sweat and breathe, add moisture to the air, which speeds up the growth of mold and the flaking of any painted surface, he said.
The catacombs are technically the property of the Italian government, which under the terms of the 1929 Lateran Pacts with the Vatican, entrusted their care and oversight to the Vatican.
Most of the 140 Christian catacombs in Italy are in Rome, and only five of those are open to the public: the catacombs of St. Sebastian, St. Callixtus, Priscilla, St. Agnes and Domitilla.
"There are many, many other catacombs," he said.
For Bisconti, the most interesting of the closed catacombs is one on Via Latina in Rome. "It was discovered in 1955 and we have found more than 100 frescoes of scenes of the Old and New Testaments, but also of pagan myths," he said.
The most popular Old Testament stories are Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Jonah in the belly of the whale, the story from the Book of Daniel about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace -- "all of these gave support and comfort to Christians because they are examples of salvation," Bisconti said.
Most of the catacombs were built around the tomb of a martyr because other Christians wanted to be buried near a hero of the faith. Even after the catacombs were no longer used for burial and were filled in, paths leading pilgrims to the martyr's tomb were left open for several hundred years.
Most of the catacombs demonstrate the early Christian preoccupation with the equality of all believers, he said. The bodies were sealed into niches carved out of the earth, usually with very simple inscriptions.
Slowly, however, decorations were added and wealthier Christians were buried in sarcophagi or thick marble caskets.
Bisconti said his office is two or three years away from allowing the public to visit the Catacombs of Pretestato, located near the Catacombs of Domitilla. Never before opened to the public, the Pretestato burial grounds are the site of more than 1,000 sarcophagi, many still intact.
"It was very snobbish, very chic" to be buried there, Bisconti said.
The superintendent added that, whether dealing with a sarcophagus or with a simple niche in a catacomb, if a sealed tomb is found, Vatican workers leave it closed out of respect for the deceased.
Bisconti said it is true that the art and symbols found in the catacombs repeat the same things, "but that is because it was catechetical art. They were advertisements to convince people to convert. They were a way to repeat a message and demonstrate the conviction that it was true."
wow, how beautiful!
I was with a group that had a Mass in one of the catacombs (I think it was St. Sebastian).
It was an amazing experience to feel how the early Christians held Mass.
Certainly that had to be a "WOW" and satisfying moment for the guy who probably spends half his lifetime job toiling away as a scraper!
So where’s the obligatory pic of Harrison Ford ?????
This happened only a few months ago!
The fresco, which dates back to the 4th Century AD, was discovered during restoration work at the Catacomb of Saint Thekla but was kept secret for ten days.
During that time experts carefully removed centuries of grime from the fresco with a laser, before the news was officially announced through the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
There are more than 40 known Catacombs or underground Christian burial places across Rome and because of their religious significance the Vatican's Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology has jurisdiction over them.
A photograph of the icon shows the thin face of a bearded man with large eyes, sunken nose and face on a red background surrounded with a yellow circle – the classic image of St Paul.
The image was found in the Catacomb of St Thekla, close to the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which is said to be built on the site where he was buried.
St Thekla was a follower of St Paul who lived in Rome and who was put to death under the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th Century and who was subsequently made a saint but little else is known of her.
Barbara Mazzei, the director of the work at the Catacomb, said: "We had been working in the Catacomb for some time and it is full of frescoes.
"However the pictures are all covered with limestone which was covering up much of the artwork and so to remove it and clean it up we had to use fine lasers.
"The result was exceptional because from underneath all the dirt and grime we saw for the first time in 1600 years the face of Saint Paul in a very good condition.
"It was easy to see that it was Saint Paul because the style matched the iconography that we know existed at around the 4th Century – that is the thin face and the dark beard.
"It is a sensational discovery and is of tremendous significance. This is then first time that a single image of Saint Paul in such good condition has been found and it is the oldest one known of.
"Traditionally in Christian images of St Paul he is always alongside St Peter but in this icon he was on his own and what is also significant is the fact that St Paul's Basilica is just a few minutes walk away.
"It is my opinion that the fresco we have discovered was based on the fact that St Paul's Basilica was close by, there was a shrine to him there at that site since the 3rd Century.
"This fresco is from the early part of the 4th Century while before the earliest were from the later part and examples have been found in the Catacombs of Domitilla."
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister, said:"This is a fascinating discovery and is testimony to the early Christian Church of nearly 2000 years ago.
"It has a great theological and spiritual significance as well as being of historic and artistic importance."
The Catacomb of St Thekla is closed to the public but experts said they hoped to be able to put the newly discovered icon of St Paul on display some time later this year.
St Paul was a Roman Jew, born in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey, who started out persecuting Christians but later became one of the greatest influences in the Church.
He did not know Jesus in life but converted to Christianity after seeing a shining light on the road to Damascus and spent much of his life travelling and preaching.
St Paul wrote 14 letters to Churches which he founded or visited and tell Christians what they should believe and how they should live but do not say much about Jesus' life and teachings.
He was executed for his beliefs around AD 65 and is thought to have been beheaded, rather than crucified, because he was a Roman citizen.
According to Christian tradition, his body was buried in a vineyard by a Roman woman and a shrine grew up there before Emperor Constantine consecrated a basilica in 324 which is now St Paul Outside the Walls.
St Paul's Outside the Walls is located about two miles outside the ancient walls of Rome and is the largest church in the city after St Peter's.
His feast day is on Monday along with St Peter and it is a bank holiday in Rome where they are patron saints of the city.
Officials are considering opening the tomb below St Paul's in the Basilica's crypt which is said to hold his remains. Source
The portrait is striking in that, unlike most ancient cookie-cutter images, it shows some human emotion, even a definite intelligence and kindliness about it.
Thanks also for the interesting text!
Note: this topic is from July 28 2009.
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