A quick look at: the early Christian catacombs of Rome.

Christianity began in Rome as a prohibited, and therefore underground religion -which is why most of our earliest examples of christian art appear in the catacombs and on sarcophagi. 

Literally an underground religion, Christianity had to hide in the corners of the Roman Empire to escape harsh persecutions. Under the city of Rome rests a hundred miles of catacombs, sometimes five stories deep, with millions of interred bodied. Finding the Roman practice of cremation repugnant, Christians preferred burial because it symbolized Jesus’s, as well as their own, rising from the dead -body and soul. (Nici 2008)

The famous Christian catacombs along the roads extending from Rome became steadily extensive into immense networks that bear witness to the burgeoning Christian community there. The Christian catacombs provided for modest but dignified burials in rectangular niches (loculi) dug into the walls of long corridors in horizontal rows, though wealthier families used small connecting chambers (cubicula) for their burials. (Dunstan 2010)

The catacombs were extensively decorated with frescos, rather poor in quality. In the earliest times the subjects of frescos and sculpture were very vague, and could easily be interpreted in a pagan sense, doubtless as a measure of self protection. (Jones et al. 2013)

The image of the shepherd [see photo 2] is a particularly popular one in early Christian art, occurring over 100 times in the catacombs as a whole. The shepherd symbolizes care and protection, as prefigured in the 23rd Psalm. Pagan imagery of Hermes in this aspect was adapted by Christians to form the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. (Williamson 2004)

The example shown is the Catacomb of San Callisto, built after AD 150. Shown in the centre of the final photo is one of the earliest forms of christogram -the Chi Rho, which represents Christ. Also, note the fish to the right of the final photo. The image of the fish was used as a secret symbol for early Christians to identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. Again, like most of the early Christian catacomb art, the average non-Christian Roman would not have recognized the image’s association to Christianity.


-Barron’s AP Art History, John Nici, 2008

-Ancient Rome, William Dunstan, 2010

-The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture, Tom Jones, Linda Murray, Peter Murray, 2013

-Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction, Beth Williamson, 2004

Photos courtesy & taken by Jim Forest.

Studio Spoutnik