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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 87. Lessons of the Catacombs.


The catacombs represent the subterranean Christianity of the ante-Nicene age. They reveal the Christian life in the face of death and eternity. Their vast extent, their solemn darkness, their labyrinthine mystery, their rude epitaphs, pictures, and sculptures, their relics of handicrafts worship, and martyrdom give us a lively and impressive idea of the social and domestic condition, the poverty and humility, the devotional spirit, the trials and sufferings, the faith and hope of the Christians from the death of the apostles to the conversion of Constantine. A modern visitor descending alive into this region of the dead, receives the same impression as St. Jerome more than fifteen centuries ago: he is overcome by the solemn darkness, the terrible silence, and the sacred associations; only the darkness is deeper, and the tombs are emptied of their treasures. "He who is thoroughly steeped in the imagery of the catacombs," says Dean Stanley, not without rhetorical exaggeration, "will be nearer to the thoughts of the early church than he who has learned by heart the most elaborate treatise even of Tertullian or of Origen."556556    Study of Ecclesiastical History, prefixed to his Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church, p. 59.56

The discovery of this subterranean necropolis has been made unduly subservient to polemical and apologetic purposes both by Roman Catholic and Protestant writers. The former seek and find in it monumental arguments for the worship of saints, images, and relics, for the cultus of the Virgin Mary, the primacy of Peter, the seven sacraments, the real presence, even for transubstantiation, and purgatory; while the latter see there the evidence of apostolic simplicity of life and worship, and an illustration of Paul’s saying that God chose the foolish, the weak, and the despised things of the world to put to shame them that are wise and strong and mighty.557557    The apologetic interest for Romanism is represented by Marchi, De Rossi, Garrucci, Le Blant., D. de Richemond, Armellini, Bertoli, Maurus, Wolter (Die röm. Katakomben und die Sakramente der kath. Kirche, 1866), Martigny (Dictionaire, etc., 1877), A. Kuhn (1877), Northcote and Brownlow (1879), F. X. Kraus (Real=Encykl. der christl. Alterthümer, 1880 sqq.), Diepolder (1882), and among periodicals, by De Rossi’s Bulletino, theCiviltà Cattolica, the Revue de l’art chrétien, and the Revue archéologique. Among the Protestant writers on the catacombs are Piper, Parker, Maitland, Lundy, Withrow, Becker, Stanley, Schultze, Heinrici, and Roller. See among others: Heinrici, Zur Deutung der Bildwerke altchristlicher Grabstätten, in the "Studien und Kritiken" for 1882, p. 720-743, and especially Piper, Monumentale Theologie.57

A full solution of the controversial questions would depend upon the chronology of the monuments and inscriptions, but this is exceedingly uncertain. The most eminent archaeologists hold widely differing opinions. John Baptist de Rossi of Rome, the greatest authority on the Roman Catholic side, traces some paintings and epitaphs in the crypts of St. Lucina and St. Domitilia back even to the close of the first century or the beginning of the second. On the other hand, J. H. Parker, of Oxford, an equally eminent archaeologist, maintains that fully three-fourths of the fresco-paintings belong to the latest restorations of the eighth and ninth centuries, and that "of the remaining fourth a considerable number are of the sixth century." He also asserts that in the catacomb pictures "there are no religious subjects before the time of Constantine," that "during the fourth and fifth centuries they are entirely confined to Scriptural subjects," and that there is "not a figure of a saint or martyr before the sixth century, and very few before the eighth, when they became abundant."558558    Catacombs, Pref. p. xi. The writer of the article Catacombs in the "Encycl. Brit." v. 214 (ninth ed.), is of the same opinion: "It is tolerably certain that the existing frescos are restorations of the eighth, or even a later century, from which the character of the earlier work can only very imperfectly be discovered." He then refers to Parker’s invaluable photographs taken in the catacombs by magnesian light, and condemns, with Milman, the finished drawings in Perret’s costly work as worthless to the historian, who wants truth and fidelity.58 Renan assigns the earliest pictures of the catacombs to the fourth century, very few (in Domitilla) to the third.559559    Marc-Auréle, p. 543.59 Theodore Mommsen deems De Rossi’s argument for the early date of the Coemeterium Domitillae before a.d. 95 inconclusive, and traces it rather to the times of Hadrian and Pius than to those of the Flavian emperors.560560    "Contemp. Rev." for May, 1871, p. 170.60

But in any case it is unreasonable to seek in the catacombs for a complete creed any more than in a modern grave-yard. All we can expect there is the popular elements of eschatology, or the sentiments concerning death and eternity, with incidental traces of the private and social life of those times. Heathen, Jewish, Mohammedan, and Christian cemeteries have their characteristic peculiarities, yet all have many things in common which are inseparable from human nature. Roman Catholic cemeteries are easily recognized by crosses, crucifixes, and reference to purgatory and prayers for the dead; Protestant cemeteries by the frequency of Scripture passages in the epitaphs, and the expressions of hope and joy in prospect of the immediate transition of the pious dead to the presence of Christ. The catacombs have a character of their own, which distinguishes them from Roman Catholic as well as Protestant cemeteries.

Their most characteristic symbols and pictures are the Good Shepherd, the Fish, and the Vine. These symbols almost wholly disappeared after the fourth century, but to the mind of the early Christians they vividly expressed, in childlike simplicity, what is essential to Christians of all creeds, the idea of Christ and his salvation, as the only comfort in life and in death. The Shepherd, whether from the Sabine or the Galilean hills, suggested the recovery of the lost sheep, the tender care and protection, the green pasture and fresh fountain, the sacrifice of life: in a word, the whole picture of a Saviour.561561    Stanley, 1.c., p. 283: "What was the popular Religion of the first Christians? It was, in one word, the Religion of the Good Shepherd. The kindness, the courage, the grace, the love, the beauty of the Good Shepherd was to them, if we may so say, Prayer Book and Articles, Creeds and Canons, all in one. They looked on that figure, and it conveyed to them all that they wanted. As ages passed on, the Good Shepherd faded away from the mind of the Christian world, and other emblems of the Christian faith have taken his place. Instead of the gracious and gentle Pastor, there came the Omnipotent Judge or the Crucified Sufferer, or the Infant in His Mother’s arms, or the Master in His Parting Supper, or the figures of innumerable saints and angels, or the elaborate expositions of the various forms of theological controversy."61 The popularity of this picture enables us to understand the immense popularity of the Pastor of Hermas, a religious allegory which was written in Rome about the middle of the second century, and read in many churches till the fourth as a part of the New Testament (as in the Sinaitic Codex). The Fish expressed the same idea of salvation, under a different form, but only to those who were familiar with the Greek (the anagrammatic meaning of Ichthys) and associated the fish with daily food and the baptismal water of regeneration. The Vine again sets forth the vital union of the believer with Christ and the vital communion of all believers among themselves.

Another prominent feature of the catacombs is their hopeful and joyful eschatology. They proclaim in symbols and words a certain conviction of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, rooted and grounded in a living union with Christ in this world.562562    See the concluding chapter in the work of Roller, II. 347 sqq. Raoul-Rochette characterizes the art of the Catacombs as "unsystème d’illusions consolantes." Schultze sees in the sepulchral symbols chiefly Auferstehungsgedanken and Auferstehungshoffnungen. Heinrici dissents from him by extending the symbolism to the present life as a life of hope in Christ. "Nicht der Gedanke an die Auferstehung des Fleisches für sich, sondern die christliche Hoffnung überhaupt, wie sie aus der sicheren Lebensgemeinschaft mit Christus erblüht und Leben wie Sterben des Gläubigen beherrscht, bedingt die Wahl der religiös bedeutsamen Bilder. Sie sind nicht Symbole der einstigen Auferstehung, sondern des unverlierbaren Heilsbesitzes in Christus." ("Studien und Krit." 1842, p. 729).62 These glorious hopes comforted and strengthened the early Christians in a time of poverty, trial, and persecution. This character stands in striking contrast with the preceding and contemporary gloom of paganism, for which the future world was a blank, and with the succeeding gloom of the mediaeval eschatology which presented the future world to the most serious Christians as a continuation of penal sufferings. This is the chief, we may say, the only doctrinal, lesson of the catacombs.

On some other points they incidentally shed new light, especially on the spread of Christianity and the origin of Christian art. Their immense extent implies that Christianity was numerically much stronger in heathen Rome than was generally supposed.563563    Theodore Mommsen (in "The Contemp. Rev." for May, 1871, p. 167): The enormous space occupied by the burial vaults of Christian Rome, in their extent not surpassed even by the system of cloacae or sewers of Republican Rome, is certainly the work of that community which St. Paul addressed in his Epistle to the Romans—a living witness of its immense development corresponding to the importance of the capital."63 Their numerous decorations prove conclusively, either that the primitive Christian aversion to pictures and sculptures, inherited from the Jews, was not so general nor so long continued as might be inferred from some passages of ante-Nicene writers, or, what is more likely, that the popular love for art inherited from the Greeks and Romans was little affected by the theologians, and ultimately prevailed over the scruples of theorizers.

The first discovery of the catacombs was a surprise to the Christian world, and gave birth to wild fancies about the incalculable number of martyrs, the terrors of persecution, the subterranean assemblies of the early Christians, as if they lived and died, by necessity or preference, in darkness beneath the earth. A closer investigation has dispelled the romance, and deepened the reality.

There is no contradiction between the religion of the ante-Nicene monuments and the religion of the ante-Nicene literature. They supplement and illustrate each other. Both exhibit to us neither the mediaeval Catholic nor the modern Protestant, but the post-apostolic Christianity of confessors and martyrs, simple, humble, unpretending, unlearned, unworldly, strong in death and in the hope of a blissful resurrection; free from the distinctive dogmas and usages of later times; yet with that strong love for symbolism, mysticism, asceticism, and popular superstitions which we find in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.



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