Portraits of Four Apostles Discovered in the Catacombs

Source: FSSPX News

Four portraits of the holy apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and John, dating from the end of the 4th century, were discovered in the Santa Tecla catacombs, near St. Paul Outside the Walls south of Rome, a press release announced on June 22.  The circular icons, the earliest known to date, were revealed after several months of work overseen by the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.

During the press conference, Mgr Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Commission, reported the team of archaeologists’ discovery of a cubiculum, a burial chamber with the walls ornamented by frescoes in red, ochre, and black.  On the ceiling of the chamber, which is believed to be the tomb of a Roman noble woman, is a fresco of the Good Shepherd in the center with the four portraits in the four corners of the ceiling.  Experts have identified them as Saints Peter, Paul, Andrew and John: Peter by his beard and white hair; Andrew by his impulsive, forceful character; John by his youthful appearance; and Paul by his brown beard and the numerous symbols representing his conversion.

These are “the first representations of the apostles,” said Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of archaeology for the catacombs.  These portraits “are absolutely the most antique testimonies we have” and represent the first known icons, added Barbara Mazzei, in charge of the work.

The archaeologists explained that they were able accomplish the precision job thanks to the use of lasers in the second phase of the work, which lasted two years. Using the laser technique, restorers were able to remove all the calcium carbonate deposits without damage to the painted surface, and to identify several Biblical images on the walls of the cubiculum, including Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, Daniel in the lions’ den, a Christ in majesty, and the college of Apostles.

The Santa Tecla catacombs are today located beneath an office building of the Ostiense Quarter of Rome’s south side. A discreet door at the base of the building, constructed by an Italian insurance company in the 1970’s, leads to the catacombs as well as to a small pagan necropolis. As for the majority of Roman catacombs, administered by the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology, the public is granted access only on request.  The Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 for the conservation of the Christian catacombs, restoration work, and digs. For nearly twenty years it has been overseeing a project to recuperate the pictorial patrimony conserved in the catacombs. (Sources: Apic / I.Media / VIS – DICI, No. 219, 24 July 2010)