The prehistoric goddess, the Orante, and the catacombs – now we can begin to reinterpret the pervasive religious symbol of the Orante in the context of nature symbols and the “mother earth” of the Roman catacombs.
First, many, if not most, of the symbols used in catacomb art were not purely decorative. Much of it held great meaning for the patron, the deceased, the loved ones, and the community at large. This meaning of course derived from contemporary religious and philosophical belief. Most Romans of this era had at least a rudimentary understanding of mythology and ritual practice, and gods and goddesses were an integral part of their everyday lives.
Second, the context of the catacombs – underground burials in “mother earth” – reflect the prehistoric goddess’ guardianship of both the earth and human death: the “womb-tomb” connection. However, the art of the catacombs shows that the deceased did not just go to a dark, foreboding place for eternity but was rather reunited with a beneficent deity in a paradise-like setting of peacefulness and abundance.
Third, the posture of the Orante in early Christian art reflects that of earlier, very powerful female deities from the prehistoric period. The hunt goddess, snake goddess and anthropomorphized frog provide intriguing models for the artists of the catacombs. These ancient deities represented energy, life and regeneration in female form; the Orante appears to have done the same for the Christians, Jews and pagans using the catacombs.
Fourth, the natural imagery used in so much of catacomb art, which was also used elsewhere by Jewish and Christian artists, is striking in its resonance with prehistoric goddess symbols. As we have seen, flora and fauna chosen in many catacomb paintings had clear symbolic goddess associations millennia earlier. Romans in the early Christian era remained an agricultural, pre-industrial people, so those using the catacombs to inter their loved ones would have seen many of these plants, animals and birds in their daily lives. This is not to say that early Jews and Christians did not take comfort in other symbols, such as the shepherd, menorah, Biblical figures, and the like, but rather that images from the natural world still evoked feelings of comfort that may have been linked to an all-powerful female deity.
Now we can begin to answer the question as to why a female religious figure was used in conjunction with security and peace and the theory that the Orante represents pietas. Could it be that pietas originally developed as female because of the role the goddess had played in providing for her people? The characters of the Hebrew and Christian faiths who need rescuing – Noah, Susannah, Daniel – are depicted in the guise of the Orante, according to Snyder, because she symbolizes the rescue of threatened Christians by membership in a community of faith, a community protected by a loving God. That this meaning is depicted by an ancient figure of a female with upraised arms which, cross-culturally, represents the powerful, all-embracing love and energy of a female deity must be taken seriously in these Judeo-Christian contexts.
A fifth link between the catacombs and the prehistoric goddess is the sometimes surprising appearance of Graeco-Roman goddesses and female personifications in catacomb art. Nike, Tyche, Demeter and Hera/Juno all make appearances in the Roman catacombs, in contexts of peacefulness, repose and abundance. Female deities of this era, even though depicted in literature as more-or-less distinct beings with their own mythologies and personalities (like their male counterparts), were descended from the prehistoric nature goddess. Many of them, including Demeter, had dominion over the underworld; others, such as Artemis and Athena, were called upon as city protector deities throughout the Mediterranean area. For Jews and Christians to accept these deities’ images in their final resting places strongly suggests that Jews and Christians still looked to a powerful female deity for solace, protection and deliverance.
Finally, some scholars connect the Orante with “the place of light and peace.” Light can also be linked to the prehistoric goddess – through her command of the sun, stars and moon.
The above analysis does not purport to claim that Christians or Jews who used the catacombs as burial places necessarily consciously and ritualistically worshiped the same goddess revered in Neolithic times. What it does show is that rituals to the goddess that originated in the Neolithic era most likely continued, as did some remnant of a belief in this very ancient deity and her power. To entertain this possibility means that we can no longer conduct “business as usual” in interpreting early Christian symbols and images, including the Orante. We cannot automatically maintain that Christians and Jews in the second through fourth centuries had completely transformed ancient symbols into their own, contemporary terms, discarding their earlier meaning. Neither can we say that the symbols they used had a purely decorative purpose, nor that a symbol that appears to be Christian or Jewish had only one meaning for all people who used it.
Early Christians had a choice of symbols at their disposal to stand forever over the graves of their loved ones. They could easily have chosen objects from the male gender and any number of different hand and body postures to represent peace, solace, deliverance, abundance and everlasting life; they did choose these others in other times and places. Rather, they chose a veiled woman with open eyes and upraised arms. The Orante, like other female personifications and deities of the Graeco-Roman era, is a direct descendant of the prehistoric nature goddess in both form and function, and her image was depicted because of her continuing beneficent power in the lives of her people.
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, including the Orante, 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.
Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Goddess and God: A Holy Tension in the First Christian Centuries. Marco Polo Monographs 10. Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La Publications, 2006.
“Catacomb,” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1994, Vol. 2, 944.
Brettman , Estelle Shohet. Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome. Boston, MA: International Catacomb Society, 1985.
“Early Christian Art,” Harper’s Encyclopedia of Art. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937, Vol. 1, 112.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess, ed. Joan Marler. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1989.
Gospel of Thomas 51.19-26, as quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979) 49, 67.
Lassus, Jean. The Early Christian and Byzantine World. New York and Toronto: McGraw Hill and Company, 1967.
Moehring, Horst. “Catacombs,” The Encyclopedia Americana International Edition. Danbury, CT: Grolier Incorporated, 1997, Vol. 5, 812-14.
Pitigliani, Letizia, “A Rare Look at the Jewish Catacombs of Rome,” Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1980).
Sjöö, Monica and Mor, Barbara. The Great Cosmic Mother. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987.
Snyder, Graydon F. Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, revised edition. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.