We know very little about Christian imaging before the fourth century. Persecutions and other upheavals have erased all but traces, making the tantalizing remnant all the more fascinating. Anyone searching for images of Christ is struck by an astonishing fact: There are hardly any direct representations of Him. Those one finds are bare sketches, focused not on Christ himself, but on the miracle He is performing, or the wonder of the crowd watching.
Catacomb paintings do not depict Christ personally, but the life He brings, and the joy of initiation into that life. They are about the miraculous transformation of hassled human beings into the “little fishes” who, plunged into the waters of baptism and feeding on the big fish in eucharistic feast, become ready to participate in eternal peace. Like the Gospels and the liturgy, catacomb paintings tell the good news about Christ: God still saves (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) as He did of old. More wondrous yet, God now saves, through wondrous signs, all who profess his name.
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For this reason, to walk through the catacombs is to experience a paradox: In total darkness, in the bowels of the earth, among thousands of graves, one need only enter a cubiculum to be suddenly transported into a paradisiac bower full of fruits, leaves, and feasting birds. Images of salvation echo across the domed roof and from wall to wall, alluding to the wonders God has wrought for those He has loved. Moses strikes the rock, providing refreshment for his thirsty people; Daniel is kept safe among the lions; Noah finds rest in the ark, as the dove returns; three children exult in the midst of the furnace’s flames; and, most common of all, Jonah is spewed to shore by the whale, to “rest refreshed” under the bowery shade of his gourd. Had Christ not said: “I will give you no sign except the sign of Jonah”?
All the catacomb paintings are signs that allude to a single experience: Christ’s divine power bringing mankind from this world to the next, from sickness to health, from death to eternal life. We get glimpses of it in succinct allusions to the miracles described in the New Testament: the paralytic picking up his bed; the hemorrhaging woman healed; the resurrection of Lazarus. While such scenes sketch Christ in action, these events, like the Old Testament types, are themselves but signs of the real feat planned by God since time immemorial, and wrought by his Son: the salvation of all mankind.
The pledge and proof of Christ’s success, encountered already by Christians in the present life, is the eucharistic meal, foretaste of the eternal banquet. Often indistinguishable from one another as depictions, the Eucharist, Cana, the multiplication of the loaves, the last supper, and that heavenly banquet often fill the arcosolia — half-moons above the sarcophagi — which provide ideal spaces for focal scenes. Indeed, the sacraments of initiation are the key to the harmony of all the images scattered on the walls, which orchestrate the liturgical thanksgiving.
This explains why the most common, the most central, and the most detailed image of Christ to be found in the catacombs is not a portrait, but a metaphor for the peace His presence brings: Christ’s own image of the Good Shepherd. Variations on this theme abound, but in every case the catacomb shepherd carries a single lost animal on his shoulders, often not a lamb but a goat. The image stresses the universality of the grace offered, the depth of sin from which it saves, and the personal nature of that salvation. Around him wax paradisiac trees, as he holds back wolves, wild pigs, and donkeys that menace the fold. Often he carries a pail of milk, symbolizing the Eucharist as the Church’s milk, the nourishing word given her, the body of Christ, the food of babes. As St. Peter says, “Desire the milk of the word, that you may grow by it to salvation.”
This faith in the triumph of the Resurrection allows the catacomb artists to use pagan myths in their depiction of Christ, for they, too, express the fundamental human thirst for a joy stronger than death. The salvation celebrated on the catacomb walls is what all humanity, since time immemorial, has been waiting for. History, the early fathers of the Church pointed out, is a universal preparation for Christ’s coming. Hercules harrowing hell, Odysseus conquering the sirens’ seduction, and, above all, the shepherd Orpheus are powerful types of Christ. St. Clement of Alexandria explains why:
See the power of his new song: out of stones, it makes men; out of wild beasts, also men. Those who were dead, who had no part in real life, when they heard this song, came alive. This descendant of David, who lived before David, the Logos of God, left behind lyre and zyther, soulless instruments, to accord to himself, through the Spirit, the whole world, gathered up in man. He uses this as a many-voiced instrument. What does he want with this instrument, the Word of God, the Lord, with his new song? He wants to open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf.
We may be shocked by the failure of early Christians to image the Christ they worshipped. Indeed, they do not attempt to depict the “Christ of history” which would fascinate the nineteenth century, nor do they attempt to sketch a relevant existential Christ, as model for modern man. Against attacks on this lack of representation, the Christian’s answer is simple and unadorned: We ourselves are the best image we can propose. As Minucius Felix’s Octavius argues with his pagan challenger: “Do you think that we wish to conceal the objects of our worship, because we have neither temples nor altars? By what image am I to represent God, since, rightly considered, man himself is the image of God?”
And indeed, the most common of catacomb images is the orans, the praying figure. Arms raised in cruciform position, these are Christians in prayer, filled with the Spirit sent by Christ, exulting in their salvation. The author of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas puts it powerfully: God’s power does not cease manifesting itself with the Old Testament. It is seen today better than ever, scattered on all mankind, as the ancient promise is fulfilled: “Your women and children will prophesy.” Christ is visible in the martyrs, His witnesses, for their heroism does not manifest their own strength, but Christ in them. Felicitas says it all, as she answers her companions, worried that a woman who could not bear childbirth without screaming would break down under torture: “Then it will not be me, but Christ who will suffer.”
The “peace of the Church” brought by Constantine in the fourth century triggered a great flurry of experimentation with Christ imaging, sparking wonderful new expressions of His Incarnation. Perhaps the most moving image — and the image most forgotten today — is that of Christ as puer aeternus, eternal youth, conquering the aging world, as shown on the splendid sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. That wonderful adolescent, with his half-opened budding lips and curly hair, naively triumphant, is offering with both hands the new law of eternal life: young Christianity’s affirmation that the good news is news indeed, and ever new. The image challenges us to remember that Christianity is a total revolution in history; that in Christ we are born again to eternal youth ourselves, no longer bound by the eternal cycles of fate that held the pagan world in an iron grip. Never will the grace, the charm of God’s condescending to us in Christ find more perfect expression. Beyond any reflection of a cultural context, this image portrays the eternal youth of our God.
The apse of San Pudenziana then proposes an image of Christ shaped by the Church’s experience of power and official status, in a style that will become ever more common: the majestas Domini, or majesty of the Lord. Mature, monumental, noble, and grave, this Christ is a philosopher-king, enthroned at the heart of the cosmopolis, the real Eternal City, teaching the way to wisdom and happiness. His disciples surround him and listen: Those raised under the Jewish law are behind Peter, apostle to the Jews; those prepared for the Gospel by the pagan search for the good life are behind Paul, apostle to the gentiles. Christ’s victory on the Cross is heralded to the corners of the earth by the four living ones, symbols of the Gospels. This philosopher-king is “bringing about the universal and catholic congregation of the human race,” as St. Augustine put it.
The majestic Lord, fixed at the center of the cosmos and proclaimed to the edge of existence, is an image from which modern man — who relegates Christ to the private lives of various small, sectarian communities — can learn much. But never again did Christians express, with the mysterious simplicity of the earliest Christian art, such youthful exultation in our salvation, in Christ who delivered us from death, in the loveliness and generosity of our God made man.
This article was originally published in the January 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.