THE EARLY CHRISTIANS
AND DEATH

The Romans and the early Christians are often viewed as two different groups of people. This is of course a mistake, when Christianity hit it big time it was in Rome, with the Roman people. This means Roman and Christian tradition became very much one and the same.


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Initial Problems
The Catacombs
Relics and the End of the Catacombs
Catacomb paintings

Initial Problems
In the beginning of the Christian era, people wasn’t really sure what to do with their dead. The problem was the return of the Messiah. It was common that people lost their faith after someone had died, if you were one of the chosen, such a gruesome fate shouldn’t be able to befall you. But, obviously, it did. The Christian authorities had to deal with it, and one of them was Paul, who wrote an epistle to the congregation in Thessalonike:

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [i.e. dead]. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1. Thess. 4:15-18)

When the Christians had realised that they could die before the return of the Messiah they had to develop rituals to take care of their dead ones in a suitable way. A very important aspect of this new religion was that they could not cremate their dead, which was common among the pagan Romans. The reason for this was that the Christians were supposed to rise from their graves when the Messiah came, and that is very hard to do if you are a heap of ashes.

The Catacombs
The catacombs are not a Christian invention. The first to be buried in them were instead rich, pagan Romans. The new deal with the catacombs was that the dead weren’t cremated but buried untouched by fire in life-size graves. This was of course much more expensive, but it suited the Romans who liked to show off when it came to death. This idea suited the Christians who had other motives for wanting to be buried without cremation. They wanted to be able to rise from their graves in their own bodies. But this also shows that the Christians, even in those early days, were not just the poor and helpless in the Roman society, but people with money. The poor, Christians or not, could never have afforded to be buried in this way.

The catacombs are graves cut out from under the surface of the earth. A catacomb could be just one chamber, but often they are not, and instead they can show an intricate system of corridors and chambers, all of them full of graves. The graves could be both in the walls and floors. The simplest graves were those placed in the corridors, called loculi. They are also, by far, the most common ones. They could hold one to two bodies. They were closed with a big slab of stone that were often marked in some way so that friends and relatives who came and visited the grave would recognise it. This was sometimes a short inscription, sometimes some form of a sign or small picture. Sometimes there was also a small coin cemented in the wall.

Those with more money could afford to be buried in a private chamber, so called cubicula. Here people were placed in graves both in the walls and in the floor, forma. It is also here most of the catacomb paintings were placed (se more about these paintings below). As stated before, these were not cheap graves. It also meant a whole lot of organisation. The catacombs were often really big and were often not founded by a coincidence but with a specific aim. The names of the catacombs, like Domitilla and Priscilla, tell by whom. Popes also founded some of the catacombs.

Due to their design catacombs could not be built everywhere, the earth had to be suitable. That is why ancient catacombs can be found only in certain areas. Those in Rome are perhaps the best known, but there are ancient catacombs also in Naples, Syracuse and Alexandria. The first catacombs, built in the second century A.D., were not exclusively Christian or pagan. Instead they shared the space. This changed once the Christian community got more organised.



Relics and the End of the Catacombs
What was so very special for the Christians when it came to the catacombs was the fact that many popes and martyrs were buried in them. Most of these martyrs belonged to the time before the Great Peace 313. The majority had became victims under the persecution that began under Diocletian’s rule in 303. But some where even earlier, during the third century there had been some periods of persecution too. The burial of popes in the catacombs continued into Carolingian times.

All catacombs were outside the city limits, just like in pagan times. The end of the catacombs came both with the decline of Rome, even though pilgrimages took place to them well into medieval times, and a shift in the view of where to bury people. In 386 Bishop Ambrose of Milan, chose to take the relics of two martyrs and place them inside a church in the city. This was unheard of before this. But it meant a new view on the dead and where to bury them, people still wanted to be close to the holy ones.

Catacomb paintings
The paintings of the catacombs are often considered as lacking artistic value. On the other hand, they are the only example of Christian Art before the religion was allowed. This habit of decorating the catacombs is not a Christian invention, even though it has about the same age as the religion in Rome. It was instead an idea formed by the pagans. The earliest paintings are from the third century, but it was not until the fourth century there really was any sign of development. The church experienced a more secured situation, and that made people from the upper classes join the religion. The catacombs generally do not contain that many paintings and most of them are in those chambers used by the rich.

The early Christian painters took after contemporary art both in concept and form, even though the chose biblical and Christian motives. In this period it was not in fashion to paint with a perspective, which means the pictures make a very flat impression with everything on the same level. They also chose to surround the pictures with borders in bright colours. But it was not just the form of the paintings that borrowed from the pagan painters, also some of same motives occur, for example birds, putti (young children with wings), and personifications of the four seasons. They were chosen because they were beautiful – and there seems to be no other motive. This habit of choosing motives for decorative purposes live on in the Christian art, even though there are some motives that have obvious religious functions. The best example of this is the orans, a praying person (at this time a person praying lifted his/her hands above the head up towards the sky). This is a reoccurring theme throughout the catacombs, and was also deployed as a decorative element.

The habit of copying other artists, both pagan and Christians, means that the catacomb paintings are very hard to date. This is not made easier by the fact that the artists never signed their work. It is also probable that several artists worked in the same catacomb, even at the same time. They might even be working in the same chamber, for all we know.

The motives chosen were from a very limited repertoire. They included the above-mentioned putti and seasons and other decorative ornaments, and also the praying orantes that were both a symbol of the religion and placed due to their decorative value. But there were also motives clearly collected from the Bible, and above all the Old Testament. The purpose was to show that God rewarded those who served him. There have been parallels drawn between these paintings and the mass read other the dead, because this had the same theme. To find such parallels between iconography and liturgy in a place like the catacombs, is perhaps not that strange.

Another popular motive was Christ as the Good Shepherd. Here it is also worth mentioning the orans again. Even though they had an aesthetic function they were also, and above all, personification of the Christian worshipper. The motives chosen were mostly just one to symbolise a whole biblical story. The motives rarely changed during the centuries the catacombs were used, the only thing that really did change was the borders surrounding the pictures.



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