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What a crowd in the tombs of Onesimus, Papirius and Prima

· New discoveries in the hypogeum of the Aurelians, a funeral monument astride two worlds ·

Prometheus and Heracles are portrayed beside the creation of Adam in a sort of "visual encyclopedia" that sums up the topics most current in the 60s of the third century

There are some monuments that “speak too much” and become a tangle of ideas, thoughts and interpretations which require archeologists and art historians to sharpen their weapons in order to sort out the stories behind their construction or decoration.

Such is the case with the Hypogeum of the Aureli in Viale Manzoni in the south-eastern corner of Rome, a burial crypt discovered during excavations for the building of a garage, which subsequently became the property of FIAT. When it was first discovered, Rome’s Superintendence conducted excavations and Inspector Goffredo Bendinelli, prepared a first critical edition of the decorations found there, work that was furthered by the great iconographer, Joseph Wilpert and archeologist Orazio Marucchi. From that moment, the hypogeum became a true “work-out” for all students of the history of religions of late-antiquity who attributed pagan, Christian and Gnostic influences to it.

The decorations in the three funeral rooms, in fact, suggest complex themes which are not easily traced to one type of iconography, but show the typical eclectic nature of a multi-religious climate from the time of Severus between the second and third centuries, through the Empire of Gallienus in 260. This was a time of a thousand political, social, economic and military problems which were reflected in philosophic and religious thought combining  currents of Roman ideology with the new beliefs and faiths coming from the East.

The cult of Mitra, Jewish thought, Neo-Platonic philosophy, Orphism, Christianity and Gnosticism co-existed in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Rome, creating a form of syncretism and complex layering of religious expression. The hypogeum of the Aureli expresses this complexity as the burial place of a family of high and ambitious social class, perhaps members of the entourage of freed slaves who became part of the Emperor’s court, and who emulated the practice of important and wealthy families of the time of creating monumental displays.

The tendency towards self-representation caused high-profile families like the Aureli, to decorate their funeral monuments with motifs that contained new iconographic images suspended between daily life and the tranquil, blessed world of the here-after, while maintaining elements of Greek culture and Roman tradition.

This happy locus amoenus , (“pleasant place”) of Virgilian memory, is expressed by many diverse icons which are found on the walls of the three funeral rooms. Two great themes are incorporated into the frescoes: philosophy, which depicts a group of intellectuals with virgae and scrolls of wisdom, and bucolic scenes, represented by a shepherd with his sheep and a curious iconographic hybrid, the figure of an shepherd-intellectual, which seems to allude to the combination of the two basic motifs and refers to one of the Aureli buried in the hypogeum.

A mosaic inscription from a certain Aurelius Felicissimus , names three siblings buried there: Aurelius Onesimus, Aurelius Papirius and Aurelia Prima . These three are represented by a long series of different frescoed scenes: in one place, as mentioned, as a wise shepherd; another on horseback entering a fabulous city which suggests a sort of other-world; another as a rhetorician in the middle of a forum; another as a diner at a heavenly banquet. The cycle is inserted into a larger Homeric theme which, according to the first editors, represents an episode of the Odyssey when Odysseus returns to Ithaca and finds Penelope at the loom amongst the Proci. The recent restoration using a revolutionary laser technique – the same used last year at the catacombs of St. Tecla in Rome which uncovered the cells of some of the Apostles – has offered a closer reading of this unique megalography. In the upper part, where previously iconographers had discovered the home and the sheep of Laertes, a fresco of Aurelia Prima depicts her letting down her hair in grief, at the loss of her two brothers who are lying on the funeral bed within the chamber. In the lower part, again following past interpretations, we see the moment in which Odysseus obtains from Circe the transformation of his companions, who had been turned into swine, back into men. The story, from the tenth book of the Odyssey, is inserted into the funeral motif of the time because it was Circe who indicated to a curious Odysseus, the way to Hades. The new scenes are perfectly in line with the multi-religious system of the time and the elaborate syncretism of the Aureli, and include two enigmatic scenes of Prometheus creating man and Heracles in the garden of the Hesperides; as well as the creation of Adam and the expulsion from the garden of Eden.

These uncertainties and co-mingling speak to us of an atmosphere rich in ideological tensions. They aim, however, to create an other-worldly time, suspended in the cosmos, balancing an earthy place and a supernatural one, which prepares the idea of another world ready to represent Christian paradise, reserved in this case to a private group, to a family of high-society. Not long afterwards, in the first half of the third century, community catacombs began to be used for the burial of all those who adhered to the new faith. The hypogeum of the Aureli, in this context, represents a unique antecedent, strongly self-representational, of a genre which, though it did not embrace Christian thought, contemplates it on the multi-religious horizon of the time.

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