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Laser reveals Apostles

· After those of Peter and Paul the oldest devotional portraits of Andrew and John come to light in Catacombs of St Thecla ·

Fourth-century frescos discovered on Ostian Way thanks to modern technology

The delicate and meticulous restoration work that began two years ago in the painted cubiculum at the Roman Catacombs of St Thecla just off the Ostian Way resulted in an important surprise in June 2009 when the celebrations for the Pauline year were drawing to a close. On that occasion, in the pages of L’Osservatore Romano [Italian daily edition], those in charge at the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology announced the discovery of an evocative portrait of St Paul.

It proved possible to date this bust, in a golden medallion, to the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century. It thus has the honour of being the oldest extant image of St Paul.

The image of the Apostle to the Gentiles in thought travelled round the world, exciting devotees and experts alike, who sought in that face the character, wisdom and psychology of the most refined thinker of early Christian times.

The wide open eyes, wrinkles, hollow cheeks, baldness and long, dark pointed beard assured even the most sceptical that we had before us the volitive, ironical portrait of a man who radically changed his lifestyle thanks to a dazzling conversion.

And precisely while the laser used by the restorers for the first time in the confined and extremely damp space of a Catacomb was revealing all its details, another medallion appeared on the vault. It depicts the bust of Peter who can be recognized by his particular features, characteristic of the oldest portraits of the fisherman-Apostle: his mass of white hair and his beard, his square face, features typical of an older man.

At this point, those in charge of the Commission asked the press and the experts for enough time to restore the entire cubiculum which promised further important finds. These had been foreseen by those involved in the restoration process but needed verification and in-depth study in the fields of iconography, art history and style. The restorers set to work again with the miraculous instrument in the silence and darkness of the Catacombs of St Thecla.

It has not been an easy task in recent months to preserve the necessary calm in order to proceed systematically in the task of removing the dark layers that covered these important pictures. Nor has it been easy to keep secret the finds that came one after another, exciting first the restorers and then the scientists in charge of the operation who, obviously, told only their superiors of the discoveries being made by that felicitous restoration work.

The time is now ripe to reveal in its entirety the discovery of the decorative sequence in the cubiculum that resembles the sumptuously decorated tomb of a noblewoman who belonged to the Roman aristocracy in the last part of the fourth century. At this time in Rome the Senate was making a final attempt to defend a pagan religion that made its last stand during the reign of Theodosius.

Well, the Rome of the “last pagans” was also the Rome of a systematic Christianization which, precisely, was also to affect even the highest ranks of the Empire's hierarchy. St Jerome was very close to a group of devout matrons who began to practise forms of “domestic ascesis”. The most important of these women was Marcella. She withdrew to her palace on the Aventine in the suburbs, introducing a type of religious life reserved for the matrons of “well-to-do” Rome who kept up a constant exchange of letters with Jerome and in some cases even followed him to the Holy Land, in search of the sites of the memorials of the patriarchs, of the prophets, of Christ and of the Apostles.

Widows, virgins and pious women of the Roman aristocracy also encouraged a cult of the Roman Martyrs, in the wake of Pope Damasus' political and religious policy but also with regard to the Apostles.

The memories of the latter, on the other hand, were set at the centre of the Constantinopolitan Apostoleion, desired by Constantine in the new Rome to house his own remains. And St Ambrose, in the basilica apostolorum that he had built on the Roman road, had the relics of the Apostles that were brought from Concordia, Aquileia or Rome placed in the centre of the cruciform basilica. Our route that went through places important for the devotion to the Apostles and that might also have reached Antioch, Gerasa, Aosta and an infinite number of other centres in the orbis christianus antiquus, brings us back to Rome and to the cubiculum of St Thecla.

On that vault, which imitated a precious coffered ceiling, in addition to the images of Paul and of Peter, two other medallions came to light, depicting two Apostles with strongly characteristic features: one portrays the impetuosity and strength of Andrew and the other the delicacy and youthful expression of John. These last identifications, supported by the comparison with mosaic monuments in Ravenna (Orthodox Baptistery, Baptistery of the Arians, Archiepiscopal Chapel, Basilica of San Vitale, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), as well as in the East (Monastery of St Catherine on Sinai), which often show the captions describing them, enable us to consider these two busts as the oldest portraits of Andrew and John.

In recent months the laser has continued to reveal other images, that experts in the past could barely see. Therefore, in the area outside the cubiculum, modified by creating a large lunette close to the portrayals of Christ the Teacher, the paralytic, Lazarus and Daniel in the lions' den, a masterful representation of the Apostolic College appeared. It is painted on a bright red ground bordered with blue bands and flowery garlands, while at the Apostles' feet, a line of six sheep drinking has been discovered, anticipating a topic often depicted in the great mosaic scenes that decorate Roman apses, ready to receive the theophanies of apocalyptic inspiration.

The cubiculum has a simple square plan with three lateral arcosolia, echoing the arrangement of the mausoleums of nobles that were concentrated around the important Martyrs' Shrines in the Roman suburbs.

Well, in one of the arcosolia the image of a noblewoman appeared, sumptuously dressed and bejewelled, with her daughter who is praying between two saints who introduce the deceased into the next life.

This woman should presumably be identified with one of the noblewomen mentioned initially.

The rest of the cubiculum is adorned with biblical scenes (Jonah, Daniel and Peter who caused a spring to flow in the Tullian prison, Mary with the Magi, Abraham and Isaac), shown against black backgrounds framed by yellow and red bands, as if to emulate the opus sectile that decorated the most prestigious buildings in late antiquity.

The meticulous restoration work has thus recovered one of the most recent and richly decorated sepulchral monuments of the Roman Catacombs at a time when they no longer served for funerary purposes and were giving way to a devotional season when pilgrims from the entire Christian world went to visit the holy tombs.

In this situation, several monumental cubicula served as “underground mausoleums”, in a Catacomb rather close to the Pauline martyrium which, at the time of the three Emperors – Theodius, Valentinian ii and Arcadius – was enlarged and decorated, as Prudentius says ( Peristephanon, XII, 24-25). He pauses to describe precisely the precious ceiling that may have served as a prototype for the vault of the cubiculum of St Thecla.

Furthermore, the four medallions containing the portraits of Peter, Paul and those discovered recently of Andrew and John may be a fragment of a series of Apostles or Popes, of which we know from the Leonian text, but which may have formerly been part of the Theodosian project for the basilica.

The decision to create the cubiculum in a Catacomb close to the Pauline memorial was an important devotional intervention concerning the Apostle to the Gentiles. Since this was to take the name of St Thecla – and a small hypogeum dug out of the rock of St Paul was to take the significant name of St Timothy – they outline a “Pauline map” at about the second mile along the Ostian Way. The Pontificate of Pope Damasus (366-384) was to see Paul's role strengthened in the context of this Pope's political and religious policy. It would revolve, precisely, around the concordia apostolorum and the rehabilitation of Paul, who was to be considered the champion of the conversion of the last pagans, as was said at the beginning.

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