Heaven’s Bright Queen – Shrine of Our Lady of the Catacombs, Rome, Italy

Article

When the Christian pilgrim for the first time enters the Catacombs of Rome he experiences a strange, indefinable emotion. The gloomy darkness of those subterraneous abodes; the long, narrow corridors, the sides of which are lined with tombs, placed one above the other; the thought of the frightful persecutions which during three centuries filled this bloody cradle of Christianity, all are calculated to produce a kind of religious terror. But as he slowly passes from room to room, and attentively fixes his eyes upon the paintings of the vaults, and the numberless inscriptions of the tombs, little by little terror vanishes. There is in all these paintings a youthfulness, a lively freshness almost a gaiety a radiant hope which is as unexpected as it is cheering to the soul. No cry of pain is heard, no sound of lamentation, nor any of those lawful outbursts of holy anger with which the Psalms abound. The soul, gently moved, feels that this is the kingdom of the Lamb, whose sweet image, as it everywhere appears with that of the dove, fills the whole being with peace, hope, love, and mercy.

Some inexact and coarsely made copies of these incomparable paintings have given the world the idea that art was wanting in the Catacombs. This is an error, and the most superficial observation suffices to show, beyond doubt, vestiges of great genius. True it is, often a rapid, and as it were extemporized, sketch is seen; but is this not enough for genius sometimes to make striking effects? How many hours do not artists spend in the Uffizi galleries at Florence, studying some drawings or pen-outlines of Michael Angelo or Leonardo da Vinci? Here and there a connoisseur meets with the figure of a Madonna, sketched by Raphael upon a small sheet of paper, which, unfinished as it is, moves him even to tears. This is often the case in the Catacombs. In paintings which, at first glance, appear rude and unfinished, examination reveals those beauties of art that never fail to fill the observer with admiration.

It frequently happens that, after studying the sculptures of the Antonine column, or the paintings of the mansion of the Caesars at Ostia, a curious traveller descends into one of the Catacombs. There at each step he finds again the same process, the same dash of the pencil; but more vigorous, and as if inspired by a loftier motive. For instance, there is the admirable painting of the Virgin Mother in the Cemetery of Saint Priscilla, where the Child has an expression of divine gracefulness, which reminds us of Raphael’s picture in the museum of the Louvre; there is also the same Virgin Mother in the Cemetery of Saint Domitilla, where the Child, divinely thoughtful, clad in white, and delightfully radiant, recalls to our minds the miniatures of Fra Angelico. Again, there is that inimitable scene of the Annunciation, the style of which is wholly Grecian, and which is found in the crypts of Lucina. Assuredly these are all splendid works of art, or there is no such thing as art. And this is not the language of mere enthusiasm: it is the verdict of the most competent judges men such as De Rossi, the distinguished scientist; Vitet, a critic of most refined taste; Kiigler, Northcote, and Brownlow, in England, and Welcker, in Germany, well-known antiquarians.

What has led to error in these obscure investigations is this, that almost everything is to be found in the Catacombs, and that as every discovery was published, many valuable frescoes of the earliest ages, unfaithfully reproduced, and mixed up with shapeless pencil sketches, could not possibly be remarked; and such a heterogeneous collection gave a wrong bias to public opinion. It was, indeed, high time that De Rossi should appear, and that true science should begin its work. This patient, indefatigable specialist may be called the Columbus of the Catacombs. As a result of his profound inquiries and intelligent criticism, it is now admitted by all that the more antique the crypts, the purer is the style of the paintings, so that the oldest go back to the same epoch as the famous frescoes of Pompeii, and the “Golden House of Nero.” And this verdict is really important, not only from an artistic point of view, but also and especially as a grand expression of Christian faith.

The whole Catholic Creed, in all its details, is depicted upon the dark walls of its first prison, and day after day rises to life again from the sepulchre which had for more than eighteen centuries buried its significant symbols. Since the publication of “Fabiola,” by Cardinal Wiseman, and “Callista,” by Car dinal Newman, these symbolical characters have become more popular, and their study has revealed new evidences of the principal dogmas and practices of the early Church. We need not say that the First Article is to be read everywhere, and that the belief in one only God and the faith in His Adorable Trinity are particularly conspicuous by various inscriptions in Greek and Latin. Though the pictures representing the Creation are few in number (because the early Christians were too well convinced of this old tenet of the patriarchal tradition ever to have any doubt about it), the fact of the primitive Fall, which destroyed the beautiful work of Creation, is deeply engraved on all the tablets of subterranean Rome. Sometimes Adam and Eve appear before the Fall, standing, and separated by the tree, around which the serpent is coiled; Adam fixing his eyes on Eve, and Eve looking at the fruit. Again they are painted just at the moment when the sin was committed, as in the beautiful representation in the Domitilla Cemetery, where, between the branches of a large tree laden with reddish fruits, can be seen the head of the serpent, holding an apple in its mouth. These great paintings of the Fall are innumerable; some of them can be traced back to the remotest antiquity, perhaps even to the age of the Apostles; and most of them express an exquisite beauty, at once simple and majestic.

But if the early Christians so eagerly covered the walls of the Catacombs with representations of the Fall, they were far from forgetting the mysterious promise which was made soon after, to console and encourage the afflicted souls of our first parents. It is a remarkable circumstance, and one too often disregarded, that beside the painting of the Fall there is some times seen a figure, pure and radiant, in the attitude of prayer, and called by archaeologists “Orante.” Who can this suppliant female be? It is true, the name “Maria” is not written under the picture, but it would be impossible to doubt the identity in this case. The position which she holds in relation to the Fall, the ornaments which surround her (as if the painter had feared and wished to prevent a mistake); her arms not always raised to Heaven, but lowered towards the earth, as in the modern statues of the Immaculate Conception; the two vases of white lilies placed on either side to do her honor; those two venerable-looking personages who point to her respectfully; the dove lying at her feet, all these symbols sufficiently declare that she is indeed the Virgin of whom it was said, after the Fall: “She shall crush thy head.”

Let those who smile at the devotion of the Catholic Church to the Blessed Virgin go to Rome; let those who charge us with paying too much honor to Mary, the Mother of God, read calmly and without prejudice the works published on the Catacombs; let those who accuse us of idolatry, and pretend that this homage is a novelty in the Christian world, descend with us in mind and heart, and visit those mysterious places of burial and worship. Soon will they be convinced that, after the Saviour, whom the inscriptions called Christ-God, no other painting is made with greater care or more loving tenderness than that which represents Mary, “of whom was born Jesus.” When a person has a deep feeling when he earnestly wishes to trace out the image of one dearly beloved, even without the assistance of genius or talent he will paint with respect, delicacy, and enthusiasm. And if he is anxious to inspire others with these noble sentiments, had he nothing but a piece of chalk or charcoal, he will give his work a spark of the flame which burns in his soul. This is the character of the frescoes to be found in the Catacombs, particularly of those which represent our divine Lord and His Blessed Mother.

It has often been stated that the image of Mary is nowhere to be seen in the Catacombs, except, perhaps, in a few historical representations of the Adoration of the Magi. Again it has been said that it was only, after the Council of Ephesus that paintings relative to Mary began to appear. This is a mistake, and originated from the fact that in the beginning only a part a very small part of the Catacombs had been explored, and, moreover, this narrow corner but superficially investigated. The fact is that there is not one of the extraordinary privileges of the Mother of God not one of the marvels of her life, such as her Virginity, the Annunciation, the Visitation, her Divine Maternity, her inviolable purity, her power with God which is not to be read in a thousand shapes and forms on the walls of the Catacombs? And not only did the early painters omit nothing of what concerns the Blessed Virgin, but never, perhaps, were they more happily inspired. Nowhere is it possible to point out in a higher degree that inventive spirit, that originality, that instinctive return to the great traditions of antique art, which are the sweetest delight of the artist, and the irresistible charm of the man of taste. What renders it more wonderful is that the most beautiful among these paintings are of the highest antiquity, dating back even to the Apostolic age.

Let us first enter the Catacomb of Saint Priscilla, to which a most learned critic has appropriately given the name of “Crypt of Mary,” on account of its many frescoes representing her. Let us take our stand before a painting wherein the chaste inspiration of new-born Christianity is harmoniously mingled with the graceful forms of the Grecian style. It is the picture of the Annunciation, the oldest known to us, and contemporaneous with Saint John. The groundwork is carefully prepared and tastefully adorned, and upon it is laid a circlet of five layers of precious stones, within which two personages are depicted the Blessed Virgin, sitting on an antique chair, and a mysterious standing before her at a certain distance, who seems to speak to her. The Virgin listens, her eyes modestly cast down, her right hand leaning on the arm of the seat, her left somewhat thrown forward, as if making an objection. But the mysterious being appears to insist. With one hand he holds the pallium which covers his tunic, and he stretches out the other towards the Virgin, as if wishing to persuade. His eyes are wide open, and full of a heavenly fire. The attitude of both personages, the arrangement of their garments; the modesty of the one, the dignified insistence of the other, all produce the greatest effect.

One can never grow tired in looking at that image of the Virgin, exhibiting such a calm, angelic majesty, such a pure expression on her sweet countenance, such amazement and emotion, as she gently reclines on a simple but well-carved chair. Certainly all this is the most refined art. The four doves placed at the four angles of the little room seem to speak the words of the Archangel, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee.”

This painting, according to the best critics, dates from the end of the first century or the beginning of the second.

In the same Cemetery of Saint Priscilla, so remarkable for its antiquity, is to be found another image still more beautiful the incomparable picture of the Virgin Mother and the Prophet Isaias. The Virgin is seated, with the Infant God in her arms. Beside her stands the Prophet, wearing the Greek Pallium; in one hand he holds a scroll of parchment, and with the other points to a star in the heavens. There is an artistic power displayed in this painting which even the ancients seldom attained. The Child is truly worthy of Raphael, as He gently leans upon the breast of His Mother, and at the same time turns His head towards the Prophet with an admirable motion of grace and liveliness. The manner of turning His head, His deep, beautiful eyes, His little hand laid with so much grace on Mary’s bosom, all the details reveal an art so consummate that, if in Raphael’s time these frescos had not been buried in the ground, you would believe that he saw them, and derived his inspirations therefrom.

In this instance, the countenance of the Virgin fairly rivals that of the Child, with her pure, broad forehead, her eyes wide-open and yet so modest, her small mouth, and her whole air of profound astonishment. Though she holds the divine Babe in her arms, she appears still to doubt of her happiness, and seems to believe that the “Quomodo fiet istud” of the Annunciation has not been answered. How is it that such a picture, so remarkably beautiful, so truly antique, has not been reproduced by the pencil of great artists, and is not to be seen as a precious ornament in Christian homes? It may certainly be classed with the Virgins of Raphael, being a child of the same inspiration. It must have been made during the lifetime of Saint John. Rossi, who published accounts of several pictures of the Blessed Virgin taken from the Catacombs, was right in giving this one the first place, as it is both the oldest and the most beautiful of his selection.

In the Cemetery of Saint Domitilla there is another painting of the Virgin Mother which may well be compared with the one we have just considered. The Blessed Virgin is represented sitting in a curule chair, and wearing a dalmatic adorned with purple bands; her head is covered with a short veil wrapped around the shoulders; her right hand is raised, and her head, slightly turned, seems, as it were, to sink under feelings of astonishment, admiration, and thanksgiving a perfect expression of the Magnificat. The Child, sitting on her knees, seems to look at you. He is clad in a robe of dazzling whiteness, and makes one think of the miniatures of the Beata.

To these three paintings we must add that of the Virgin Mother in the Cemetery of Saints Peter and Marcellinus. Not that it equals the others in antiquity or beauty, but on account of a curious peculiarity, which commends it to the attentive consideration of all Christians. Mary appears clothed in a tunic with a purple border, seated in a chair, and holding the Infant Jesus in her arms. But, while all the other pictures represent her with her head covered with a veil, in this one she has no veil. This led Rossi to conjecture that, as it was the custom for married women only to wear a veil, taken on the day of their betrothal, the design of the artist was to typify the virginal integrity of Mary. However this may be, the idea of the immaculate purity of the Blessed Virgin, blended with her glorious maternity, we find expressed in a mysterious and striking manner in another page taken from the book of the Catacombs, in the Cemetery of Saint Valentine on the Flaminian Way. There may be found a remarkable painting which has, so to speak, three subjects, or divisions. On the right side is depicted the Visitation, in which Mary and Elizabeth are charmingly represented embracing each other, the one older, the other younger, both with the nimbus. In the center-piece the Virgin Mother is portrayed holding the Child-God on her knees, with this inscription, Sancta Dei Genitrix. On the left side is a representation of the apocryphal legend of the woman who, doubting Mary’s virginity, was punished by the loss of her right arm, and, having addressed a fervent prayer to the divine Infant, recovered it. It is strikingly evident that the early Christians in this picture intended to profess their faith in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In an arcosolium of the Cemetery of Saint Agnes may be seen the first picture of the Blessed Virgin discovered in the Cata combs, and owing to this circumstance it soon became famous all over the world. It was for a long time believed that no other was extant, an opinion actually expressed in the “Early Christian Symbolism” of Palmer. Archaeologists have shown that this painting is not older than the fourth century, and it is consequently far inferior, in point of antiquity and beauty, to all the others that have been previously sketched, and which must undoubtedly be referred to the second, and even the first century. Its importance and dogmatic value, though greatly lessened, are still considerable. The Virgin is enveloped in a long veil; she wears a necklace of pearls, and her attitude is that of an Orante, or praying female, with hands and eyes raised to Heaven. The Child is seated before her. There is in all these details a degree of stiffness and conventionalism, which places the picture at a great distance from those recently found in the Cemeteries of Saints Priscilla and Domitilla.

But it was not under this form only that the painters of the Catacombs took pleasure in representing Mary: they very often painted the “Mother,” but with no less tenderness did they frequently portray the “Virgin” in her ideal purity, dressed in a robe of dazzling whiteness, her eyes and hands raised to Heaven, or at times lovingly turned towards earth. It is true that all the suppliant figures called Orante which are to be found at each step in the Catacombs cannot be said to represent the Blessed Virgin, but it would be a very grave error to hold that her ideal portrait is not found in any of them. How, for instance, can one fail to recognize Mary in that grand and graceful Orante, of almost Grecian design, wrapped in the floating folds of her tunic, covered with the peplum? The same may be said of the Orante on a tombstone in the Cemetery of Saint Callixtus, where the kneeling figure appears like the Good Shepherd, with two sheep at her feet, which look at her with eyes expressive of ardent prayer; while by her side are two precious vases, from which arise the smoke of spices.

In many rooms the Queen of Patriarchs and Prophets occupies the very center of the ceiling, in company with the greatest Saints of the Old Law. Oftentimes she is seen wearing a diadem; often, too, her arms, instead of being raised to Heaven, are outstretched towards the earth. Sometimes two personages are seen bowing before her, and respectfully pointing to her, in the same attitude as they are noticed in the presence of Christ; while more than one painting represents her placed between Saints Peter and Paul. But we need not insist any further; it suffices to say that above many of these beautiful Orantes, the painter, wishing to prevent any mistake as to the identity of the figure, has written the sweet name of the Blessed Virgin Maria.

Thus it is that there is no novelty in our divine religion. The two great classes of images representing Mary which we venerate in our modern churches had adorned the primitive sanctuaries of the Catacombs more than eighteen centuries ago. On the one hand, Mary contemplated in her spotless virginity, covered with a veil, clothed in a long white robe her arms or eyes either majestically raised to Heaven, or lovingly lowered towards the earth, as in our representations of the Immaculate Conception; and, on the other hand, Mary contemplated in her most glorious maternity, holding her Son in her arms, and presenting Him to the adoration of the world. And that which during eighteen centuries has been vainly attempted by Chris tian genius, that which the grandest efforts of human art have never been able to realize that incomparable union between virginity and maternity, was first the inspiring motive of Christian painters, imprisoned for religion’s sake in the dark, subterranean caverns of pagan Rome. But those hands which on the morrow were to be loaded with chains; those hearts which neither rack, nor fire, nor the lions of the Amphitheatre could terrify; those souls filled with the Holy Spirit of God, were not more successful than were those sublime geniuses, the blessed Angelico, the divine Raphael, who, at a later period, raised Christian Art to such a lofty plane.

One who has passed hours and days before the mystical paintings of the Catacombs, lost in contemplation till his eyes were bathed in tears of admiration and piety, has left those sacred places, carrying deep in his soul an image of the Blessed Virgin more expressive than any picture. The beauty of Mary, like that of her divine Son, is never understood but by the heart that loves her.

MLA Citation

  • William J Walsh. “Shrine of Our Lady of the Catacombs, Rome, Italy”. The Apparitions and Shrines of Heaven’s Bright Queen, 1905. CatholicSaints.Info. 9 July 2014. Web. 20 August 2017. <>