The ancient catacombs winding for miles beneath Rome, favorites of tourists from all over the world, provide a glimpse of religious life for several centuries of the early Christian era. In the next few posts, we will look at the catacombs from perspectives not usually considered – the symbols evocative of ancient goddess worship and nature and a new interpretation of a significant Christian figure. We will begin to see some of the more challenging ways in which early Christians, pagans and Jews expressed their beliefs of comfort, peace and hope in these places of the dead.
Here we will give an overview of the catacombs and their historical and religious context and take a look at the array of symbols that were depicted in them.
Located in a rough circle approximately three miles from the city center, the catacombs date between the mid-second century and 400 of the Christian Era (CE). They derive their English name from the Greek “kata kymbas” and Latin “catacumba,” neither of which has a clear meaning, contributing to the abiding intrigue and mystery of these underground burial sites. While legend has it that early Christians escaped persecution by hiding in the catacombs, this cannot be generally true, since they were well-known, accessible and too small for large gatherings.
Invading Goths ransacked the catacombs in the sixth century, and in 817 most of the bones interred there were removed to churches and chapels within Rome by order of Pope Pascal I. The catacombs were first excavated in the late sixteenth century. About 40 chambers are known.
Some of the catacombs whose names are most familiar are St. Callistus, St. Sebastian, Priscilla, and Marcellinus and Peter. (Images of many of the catacomb paintings can be found here.) The catacombs preserve some of the earliest Christian, as well as Jewish and pagan, art related to death, resurrection and reunification of the deceased with the deity.
- As resting places for the deceased, the catacombs first recall ancient burial practices symbolizing the return of the soul to mother earth and the goddess with whom the earth and nature were equated.
- As peaceful final resting-places of refreshment and bliss, the catacombs embody the universal cycle of life, death and regeneration.
- As repositories of dozens of symbols of life, nature, fertility, and abundance, the catacombs are a rich gallery of images pointing to the link between a powerful female deity and a hopeful, even joyful, belief system, for Jews, pagans and Christians.
Religious Symbols in the Catacombs
Catacomb art is a rich repository of religious symbols, some of which originated in a much earlier time. In the catacombs are depicted Graeco-Roman goddesses, plants, flowers, trees, birds, animals, food and fish. Since the primary function of the catacombs was to provide a permanent resting place for the deceased, it is highly likely that many symbols chosen for the paintings held meaning related to death, resurrection and the afterlife. The art generally conveys peacefulness, plenitude, and deliverance from danger. There is remarkably little sense of human sinfulness, death (even the death of Jesus on the cross), fear or the awesomeness of God. Death appears as an almost welcome release from the perils and hardships of life, not as a dark, foreboding place to be dreaded.
The underground burials were sacred ground, with apparently little or no theological conflict occurring between the many groups using them. This space was also “ground” itself – mother earth, nature, a locus of life-sustaining and life-enhancing vegetation. This connection between nature and peacefulness is well illustrated in the Jewish catacomb of Vigna Randanini. In the words of L. Pitigliani, the wall paintings in this catacomb have “a festive air. . . . There is nothing solemn about the graceful, mythological figures, leaping dolphins and sea horses, flying birds, palm trees full of dates, and garlands of flowers.”
Furthermore, one of the vault frescoes of Vigna Randanini depicts a Winged Victory (the Greek goddess Nike) crowning a naked youth in the center of a round design; Nike holds a palm leaf in her right hand. The central picture is surrounded by symbolic flora and fauna: a peacock with its feathers spread sits on a column, while two birds stand on either side of a pedestal with a basket of flowers and fruit on top. The vault decoration also includes curved and straight lines in a design that gives a swirling, watery appearance.
Many symbols found here not only evoke nature, but also are also reminiscent of a prehistoric “great” goddess, described most powerfully by the late anthropologist and prehistorian Marija Gimbutas. Nike, like many female deities in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, is a direct descendant of this prehistoric goddess. The palm leaf has very early goddess resonance, as do birds, flowers and fruit, geometric designs, and water. The peacock, sacred to Juno/Hera, Queen of Heaven, is also significant: the eyed feathers of peacock’s tail represented the goddess’ starry heavens or her all-seeing awareness. On Roman coins, Juno’s peacock meant apotheosis for women.
Symbols such as the tree, the vine, wine, fish and bread are found frequently in the catacombs. The tree, like the palm, represents for Christians either a sign of victory (the presentation of a palm to the winners of the games) or a sign of life – or both. Of course, in many contexts victory could mean victory over death, which is nearly equivalent to the symbol of life. Church historian Graydon Snyder asserts that the tree appears “most frequently in the context of the Good Shepherd,” which may derive from Orpheus with the tree symbolizing “satisfactory existence.” However, far back in time the tree represented life in the sense of nature, life-giving fruit, shade, and shelter; these too were all under the dominion of the great goddess.
Doves and other birds also figure prominently in catacomb art. Whether under the guise of Aphrodite or Astarte, the dove represented for pagans of the Graeco-Roman era the all-powerful goddess, while for Christians it was often equated with John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the frequency of the dove’s appearance in the catacombs cannot be purely coincidental. In several instances (e.g., the catacomb of Priscilla, several times in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini, and in the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter), the dove is presented with an olive branch or roses. For people of the Neolithic era, both the olive branch and the dove symbolized the peace of the goddess. A contemporary (third century) illustration from the sarcophagus in Sta. Maria Antiqua, Rome, brings together several of these symbols: Eirene (Peace), dove, olive branch and Orante; we will examine the figure of the Orante in more detail in our next post.
Elsewhere in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini, four doves, depicted with a spray of roses, may signify the four seasons, which were also under the domain of the goddess in the prehistoric mindset. Another example of doves is from the catacomb of Priscilla: a figure of the Good Shepherd stands amid his flock of sheep flanked by doves who sit on two trees.
The roses too were significant, appearing in graveside funerary rituals and symbolizing immortality, rebirth and hope from very early times. A hen and roses appear on a wall painting in cubiculum I in the Vigna Randanini catacomb. Ducks and hens, fish, baskets of food, and roses are depicted together in the Vigna Randanini and Saints Marcellinus and Peter catacombs, bringing together themes of fertility, water, nourishment and immortality – all linked to the prehistoric goddess.
Fortuna/Tyche, symbol of nature’s profusion, is another goddess descendant appearing in a vault painting in the Vigna Randanini catacomb. She holds a cornucopia in her left hand and pours a libation with her right. As both giver of plenty and taker of life, she was very much at home in the catacombs.
Another two female deities appear in the catacomb of the Via Latina . In cubiculum O, a wall painting shows Demeter as a fashionable Roman matron. As Brettman explains in Vaults of Memory, “With her right hand she sprinkles grain from a sheaf; in her left she bears aloft the flaming torch of life.” In cubiculum E the goddess appears again: “a voluptuous pagan earth goddess clutches to her bosom a serpent, symbol of earth’s fecundity. The scene has been associated with the myth of the fertility goddess Persephone.” This scene, like many others, reinforces the link between life and death and recalls that people saw the earth as both womb and tomb. The “flaming torch of life” symbolizes the hope that the way to the other world is illuminated for the deceased by the deity, and the serpent/snake is the return to earth and new life (via the annual spring shedding of its skin) and life energy.
Significantly, the Via Latina catacomb was a private pagan-Christian catacomb. This suggests that the families who buried their kin here did not find it contradictory to honor ancient deities, including goddesses or female personifications, along with the Christian God. Perhaps they felt that the goddess better represented fertility and the earth than did Jesus, a male.
The fish is a very complex symbol, carrying several meanings for early Christians; it too hearkened back to a much earlier time. There appear to be two early Christian uses of the fish symbol, one nautical representing life in an alien environment and the other in conjunction with the communal meal: Jesus the Christ is “eaten” in the eucharistic meal.
Even the church father Tertullian in his work de baptismo appears to connect early, goddess-related symbols to Christian theology. Tertullian and other early Christian leaders argue that the goddess, one of whose domains was water, the environment of the fish, has been replaced by Jesus the Christ; the goddess’ life-giving waters, essential to all living things, have been replaced by the more esoteric and symbolic waters of baptism, possible only through conversion to the Christian faith. A similar transformation has taken place with regard to the fish as a major component of the meal. Fish as a source of food would again, in the nature-centered, pre-industrial mindset, be a gift from the deity, especially the female deity who rules over all plants and animals. In the Christian context, the deity becomes male; the communal meal is given to devotees by the grace of a male God in the form of Jesus the Christ.
The Roman catacombs provide a rich context in which to analyze the possible survival of prehistoric nature goddess symbols, rites and practices into the early Christian era, and Rome in general provides an excellent backdrop for study of the intersection between ancient pagan beliefs and those of the earliest Christians. Christians from the second through fourth centuries, as Christianity was developing throughout the Mediterranean region, buried their kin side-by-side with pagans and Jews in massive underground spaces. Imagery evoking female deities and personifications was prominent, strongly suggesting that Romans took great comfort in the power of female forces to protect and provide for their deceased kin for all eternity.
The imagery further suggests that the notion of death was more akin to that of prehistoric times – death as an integral part of life, not a foreboding inevitability to defeat and overcome – than of predominant Christian theology as professed not only by male leaders, but also by everyday people through the creeds. Death as depicted in the catacombs was a place of beauty, peace, abundance, deliverance and light. That the evidence from prehistory shows a parallel belief system at work is no coincidence.
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