A Lesson From the Catacombs

IN the so-called “chamber of the sacraments," in the catacomb of St. Calixtus, on the famous Appian Road leading into Rome, is to be found a series of mural paintings, which are evidently of the earliest period of Christian art. They are of the greatest interest, and as they are consecutive in their design, they possess considerable archeological and doctrinal importance. The, series mark the time when symbolism was fully developed, which in all probability was not earlier than the latter part of the second century, or the beginning of the third. This symbolism could hardly have commenced before the reign of the cruel Emperor Nero, and thus a period of one hundred and fifty years would be allowed for its development; and this period of a century and a half corresponds with the period of the decline of its purity.
The point of maturity is indicated by the purity of the artistic ideas, by the continuity of Scriptural thought running through the series, by the importance given to fundamental Christian facts, and by the absence of any signs of the commencement of error. In time, decay set in; the artist had not the spiritual capacity to represent Scriptural truths, and confused ideas sprang up like tares to suffocate the good grain of divine teaching.
The catacomb art which is at present before us, is full of real Christian thought rendered in consecutive symbols. The place given to our Lord is solely symbolical—that is, there is no notion of presenting a likeness of Him, even of a conventional kind. In the illustrations before us, He is the Well, the Roll, the Rock, the Book, the Stream, the Healer, the Fish, the Loaf, and the central Figure amongst the seven guests at the love-feast. In other catacombs there are single symbols, or individual scenes, which, so far as regards power of representation, and excellence of form and treatment, far surpass those before us; but, taken as a whole, this chamber must be pronounced to be the point pre-eminent for combination of ideas of early Christian catacomb art.
Roman archaeologists acknowledge the consecutiveness of idea which marks this series, and have sought to interpret the series on that principle. The best and ablest of these men, De Rossi and Garrucci, possessing no spiritual experience beyond that pertaining to the Church of Rome, have professed to find in these symbols the seven sacraments, and have therefore found it necessary to dismember, and even to practically mutilate, the pictures. Now, I believe it will become evident that there is a real spiritual Christian progress designed in the symbols, and that, such being the case, an experience formed by the truth of Scripture is necessary to discern their meaning. Hence the sectarian and arbitrary dogmatism of non-Christian archaeologists is destroyed. The first step of Roman Catholic interpretation is fatal to the understanding of the paintings. For it makes the last picture the first of the series.
We will now examine them.
No. 1.— it is described as the woman of Samaria. The figure represents a person who has come to a well, and is holding a bucket over its mouth, with the water gushing up and running away in streams. The well is the reservoir of knowledge, which can be drawn by a cord, toil; but in this well the nether spring has been opened, and the well has become a gushing fountain, Now we know that when the woman knew Christ as the Messiah, her heart was filled with living water, so that she left the cord and bucket, and not only received for herself, but sent living streams of knowledge through the city of Samaria. This interpretation is not only rendered in the overflow of the well, but also by a figure just above it, which we now give—namely, a man on an exalted level seated on a rock, with a scroll in both hands, fully unrolled, from which he is earnestly reading. This, probably the oldest pictorial representation in the world of a primitive Gospel roll, is the Teacher seated in the high place, giving knowledge, the knowledge of Himself, which is eternal life. The so-called woman of Samaria is in the attitude of asking. The woman listens to the Teacher's voice, and receives eternal life. Behind that scroll there is the living, heavenly Teacher, who through it, as His own chosen channel, reveals Himself. This is the genesis of Christian life. Christ, the Word, makes known Himself through the Word.
No. 2.—The second design represents a rock being struck by one who holds a rod in his right hand. A river of water is rushing down.
The Rock is Christ, the Preacher is Christ revealing Himself, the river is the knowledge of Christ. "Jesus cried with a loud voice, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink." Every true preacher touching the divine in Christ, as Peter did on the day of Pentecost, brings out a stream of living power. There is life in the Rock, eternal life, against which Hades cannot prevail. This water represents not the immediate knowledge of Christ, which wells up in the individual alone with Christ, hut that knowledge which reaches him through the hearing of the Word, by means of those who preach Christ.
No. 3.—The next picture is a fisherman who has hooked and nearly drawn to shore a fish. The line is straight, and the fish rises without a struggle. The idea here is obedience to the precept of Christ. The stream comes from the rock; the fisherman and the fish meet at the river. Wherever knowledge of Christ is flowing there are fish to be taken, and fishermen who know how to find and how to take them. The fisherman is sitting on a rock. He is seated, established on Christ, and draws all his skill, office, and authority from Him. Indeed, Christ Himself is the great fisher, and others are such only in proportion as they learn of Him. Catholic archeology makes baptism out of this scene!
No. 4.—The next picture is thus described by Garrucci: “A man, bound about the waist with a narrow cloth, but otherwise naked, has placed his hand on the head of a naked boy, who is immersed entirely in a cloud of water. This is indicated by great dashes of green coloring all about the person, and even above the head. Thus baptism is represented." It is remarkable that the dove is not found in this scene. This is a proof that it does not represent the baptism of our Lord, and also that the author of this picture did not suppose that the Holy Spirit was given by the person who baptized, or that the Holy Spirit was necessarily received in baptism.
It is remarkable that the first occasion on which we hear of the chair in St. Peter's Church is when it was placed in the Baptistery of the Vatican by Pope Damasus, where it remained until the eighth century. On that seat the bishop sat during the baptism, and immediately anointed the neophyte on his rising from beneath the waters, in imitation of the dove descending on our Lord as He arose from the waters of Jordan. The picture in St. Calixtus of the believer in baptism is of too early a date to have attached to it the symbol of the Spirit. That was limited to Christ in the Jordan. Confirmation, in the modern sense, did not exist at this period. The person in the act of being baptized is a youth, to represent the new nature. The mode was immersion, not pouring or sprinkling. The water is only up to the knees of the youth, but would cover him if he laid himself in it. The baptisteries in use at that time, and especially the one in St. Ponziano, were deep and wide enough to immerse the largest person in Rome. Baptism was an external act, which found its place after, and not before, the beginning of inner and spiritual life, was legitimate if one believed with all his heart, and was becoming in the disciple as it was in the Master, who regarded it as a fulfilling or completing of an internal righteousness.
No 5.—Our Lord was immersed when about thirty years of age, and the boy descending I in baptism in' the fourth picture, becomes in the fifth the mature man who has risen to his feet, is dressed, girded, and walking in the way of obedience. After full and complete pardon a believer has need only of the forgiveness of those things 'which hinder or weaken communion with Christ. "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet." The paralytic here represented has not been raised from a tomb but only from his couch, and therefore is a symbol, not of conversion but of restoration to normal Christian life and power: Christ has restored him, and Christ is the only restorer of the stumbling soul.
No. 6.—In this picture there stands a woman with uplifted hands before a tripod table on which there are two plates, one of which holds a loaf and the other a fish. On the other side of the table is a man who seems to be partaking of the viands. According to Papal interpretation the tripod is an altar, the man a priest, the woman the Church—the whole thing, the sacrifice of the Mass.
Now the principle of continuity in the series requires that the youth, who has become an able-bodied man, should be fed with suitable food, "strong meat," by which the life received should be sustained. The uplifted hands—the sign of adoration in the catacombs—signify the blessedness of the departed, and always bring before us the spiritual state. The man is the one we have followed through the river and up the bank with his bed on his shoulder. The woman, coming from the part of the tomb where the most spiritual facts are represented, is spiritual; she belongs to the higher sphere of symbols. Nothing seems to me to explain the meaning of this picture so fully as the epitaph of Albesius, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, which he composed for his own tomb. He died A.D. 160. "Faith brought to us and set before us food, a fish from a holy or divine fount, great and clean, which the holy maiden took in her hand and gave to her friends that they should alway eat thereof, holding goodly wine, given with bread a mingled drink."1
Here the holy 'maiden is Faith, and the fish which she has taken from the sacred or divine fountain is the ΙΧΘϒΣ, or the epitome of Christian teaching—the truth, which, corning from Christ, is His mind, His nature, Himself—the spiritual Christ which the Holy Spirit takes from the stream of Scripture, the stream of the Spirit, and offers to us. Sanctification of the Spirit through faith. The Holy Spirit in the engraving, from an ancient seal, which is here reproduced, is figured under the symbol of the dove carrying the fish— that is, bearing Christ to the soul. This is individual and not ecclesiastical.
No. 7.—The next picture is generally called the Agape—the Love Feast. Seven persons are seated at what appears to be a semicircular table. On the table there are two large fishes, and before it there are eight large baskets, filled with loaves. The prominent place given to this picture shows it to be the most important in the series.
We here have before us a community of Christians commemorating and testifying to the Lord's death until He come. The person occupying the middle seat is pointing with his right hand to the fish lying on the dish before him. The left hand and arm are covered, as is the case with all the other guests. The right arm of all is uncovered, as if to show that all support and join in the testimony being given by the central figure, who is pointing to the only object on the table—the fish—the Lord's death.
On the pavement before the table there are eight large baskets filled with bread; they form a kind of balustrade and enclose the semicircle of the Agape. Now, while the meaning of the one fish and the one loaf is clearly Christ as the slain but life-giving One in Scripture for the individual, the two fishes and the eight baskets of bread signify life and the sustaining of life for any number of individuals, or for any Church-for instance, for the Church of Rome as it existed at the time when these designs were made, and as it is represented in the seven sitting round the IXΘϒΣ. That the early Catacomb Church understood the loaves to represent the divine Word in. its spiritual reality is evident from the fact that the baskets were often filled with the books, scrolls of Scripture. That the meaning of the two symbols is life, and the sustenance of life, is clear from the following design, where the fish is seen bearing the basket of bread on his back along the surface of the sea; and if this is put with the scene of the IXΘϒΣ borne by the dove it will be seen how the Word is represented as spirit and life.
At the commencement of this series, we have seen in the figure with a scroll, represented above "the woman of Samaria," the Holy Scriptures, and what has followed has all been evolved from the same source. Christ and the believer appear in increasing spiritual light, until Christ appears upon the table in the humiliation of death as the central and divine source of life. At this point the letter is left behind, as is the bucket when the fountain wells up, as are the baskets when the bread is taken out, as is the plate when the ΙΧΘϒΣ is eaten; but the substance, the virtue, the spirit of the Word abides, and that Word is felt and known to be nutriment, whether from the fish, or the bread from the basket, or the water from the rock—that Word issues from the mouth of God; it is a voicing of that eternal Word who was, and is, and who was in the beginning with God, and who is God.
No. 8.—The last picture in the series contains three figures which represent Abraham and Isaac in the attitude of adoration, and on their left hand a lamb standing near a tree, behind which there is a bundle of wood. The lamb is looking on from a slight elevation; it has no horns. There is no thicket. The tree and the fagot seem rather to recall than to anticipate sacrifice.
The lamb seems to be standing on Mount Zion, having near to it the memorials of Calvary. While the Agape represents the believer in communion with his brethren in their relation to the world without, showing forth the Lord's death until He come, this picture seems to set forth believers in their sacerdotal standing before God, as children of the resurrection, met together in the name, with Christ as their head, as the Lamb that leads the flock. Abraham is in the fullness of his manhood, Isaac in the freshness of his youth, the Lamb—the last and the highest figure in the series—in the vigor of His power.
The remainder of this article will be given in our next issue.