The Blessed Virgin in the Catacombs, by Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, D.D.

cover of the ebook 'The Blessed Virgin in the Catacombs' by Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan


This little work appeared originally as one of the Public Lectures delivered in the Catholic University of America during the term of 1891-92. It was suggested to the author that a wider circulation of its contents would accomplish good. Hence, he has slightly enlarged and modified the original form, and presents it herewith to the reading public. It was not his intention to prepare a work for scholars only, nor to describe all the monumental evidences of the early Christian centuries in favor of the veneration of the Blessed Mother of God. He has had in view the general public, to whom the results of modern scientific research in this direction are not always easily accessible. The illustrations have been borrowed from the works of Lehner and Liell, as well as from the extensive volumes of Garrucci, and the author is glad to acknowledge his obligations to these writers and to the prince of Christian archaeologists, John Baptist De Rossi.

To The Mother of God and Parent of Sweet Clemency, this little work is affectionately dedicated.

Chapter I – The Early Veneration of the Blessed Virgin

The affectionate veneration of the Virgin Mother of Our Lord is a fact which meets us at the very threshold of Christian history. Her own inspired prophecy that all generations should call her blessed, the respectful conduct of her Divine Son, the reverence of the Apostles, the brief but dignified references to her in the gospels, her presence on the occasion of the Pentecostal miracle, point unmistakably to her privileged position in the Infant Church. No doubt, if we possessed all the Christian literature of the three subsequent ages, we would find abundant evidences of the popular veneration and confidence. But they were centuries of persecution and warfare for the Christian people, and we have only such scanty fragments of those primitive times as the torch of the persecutor, the tooth of time and the destroying hand of man have not been able*to remove. Moreover, they were the ages of the Apologists, of the defenders of the very fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and it would of course be unfair to expect them to furnish us with much information concerning the domestic institutions of the Church, or the private devotions of our fathers in the faith.

But as soon as the persecutions cease, as soon as Christian literature is free to choose its own themes, and the Church begins to exercise her influence publicly, and to mould the every-day life of the Empire according to her own views, we are justified in looking about for traces of the public veneration of the Mother of the Saviour. That such a cultus was paid to her since the middle of the fifth century is denied by no one. But many rest here, and claim that this public veneration of the Blessed Virgin dates from the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), in which she was formally declared the Mother of God.

No doubt, since that time the veneration of the Blessed Virgin has steadily increased. Almost immediately after, we find the pictures of the Mother of God in the cells of hermits, on the walls of palaces and cities, in the depths of prisons, and on the masts of ships. Medals, lamps and vases of the fifth and sixth centuries show her venerated features, her churches and feasts multiply and rank after those of Christ Himself. The artists, poets, and theologians of the time vie with one another in celebrating the praises of the Mother of the Redeemer. However, this efflorescence of devotion is not an artificial but an organic growth. Already before the Council of Ephesus pictures of the Blessed Virgin were numerous. In A.D. 374 we meet with them in the porticoes of the churches of Alexandria, and in all the churches of Cappadocia. The numerous tender hymns of Saint Ambrose, Saint Ephrem, Prudentius and Sedulius suggest a similar practice in the circles to which these writers belonged, and the intimate relations of poetry and the fine arts do not permit us to doubt that the churches of Italy, Spain and Syria were at that time decorated with images of the Blessed Virgin.

Of course, such images were not then known for the first time. Art, like poetry, is a slow growth. The apparition, at any epoch, of fixed artistic types, indicates a previous genetic process of considerable length, and this is especially true of religious art, which transforms itself by slow and almost imperceptible changes. The field of its energies is in the Church, and the latter is a school of respect, conservative and jealous in all that pertains to exterior worship.

But the splendid civilization of the fourth and fifth centuries is gone, and with it the numerous monuments that bore witness to their taste and culture. With them have also perished most of the domestic antiquities of the early Church, the prey of time, barbarians, and neglect. If we had no other survivals of the first three centuries than their extant literature, we would be at a loss for a purely scientific demonstration of their sentiments concerning the Mother of God. Fortunately for us, another class of monuments has been spared, in their original and substantially unimpaired form. These are the Roman Catacombs, and in them we will find those early origins of the cultus of the Blessed Virgin which have been long since swept away from the upper earth.

Chapter II – The Catacombs and their Contents

The Catacombs are underground cemeteries, excavated beside or near the great highways that run out from Rome like the spokes of a mighty wheel. Usually they were opened in the hilly spots or on the slopes, and in a few cases ancient sand pits were used as approaches, or even worked into the general plan of the Christian cemetery. In round numbers there are about fifty of them in a radius of three miles from the city walls. Many more are scattered beyond that limit. Similar burial-places have been discovered from time to time in Southern Italy, Sicily, Egypt, Spain, Palestine and Hungary, but their Christian origin is not always certain, and none of them can be compared to the Roman Catacombs, for size, age and archaeological importance. Originally they were private burial-plots, belonging to the rich and noble among the early Roman Christians, but generously opened to the humbler and poorer brethren. In the first two centuries they served occasionally as places of worship, alternating with the modest ‘house-churches’ of the faithful, notably on the feasts of the martyrs. During the third century, for want of heirs, or because their administration was growing burdensome, most of these burial-places passed into the hands of the Church herself, and thus constituted the first elements of her landed possessions. In the latter half of the third century, during the violent persecutions of Deeius and Valerian, and of Diocletian in the early part of the fourth, they served as places of refuge and ordinary houses of worship for the hunted Christians. After the peace of the Church, they continued to be much frequented, and were richly decorated by pious hands. From that time they were one of the chief objects of solicitude of each Pope; the ancient authors of the lives of the Pontiffs of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries are always careful to notice the improvements or restorations made in or about the Catacombs. In the sixth century the struggle for the possession of Rome between Belisarius and the Ostrogoths, was fatal to some of the most important Catacombs. The Ostrogoths encamped along the roads near which they lay, penetrated into them, and wantonly destroyed with their maces and battle-axes whatever they could reach. Lombards and Saracens repeated these scenes in the eighth and ninth centuries. It is owing chiefly to such devastations that the most important monuments have been destroyed, the epitaphs defaced and broken, and the chambers rifled. In the eleventh century they were occasionally pillaged to obtain marbles for the pavements of Roman churches. From that time forward, except for the stray visit of some shepherd, they seem to have been entirely forgotten, until their accidental re-discovery in 1578.

The Catacombs have preserved for us about eighty representations of the Blessed Virgin, dating from the end of the first to the sixth century, and we do not doubt that the number will be increased, since the exploration of this great necropolis is by no means finished. Originally, they contained many more, but they have perished by the same causes which have destroyed so many other valuable reliques of Christian art in these subterraneous cities of the dead. However, we yet possess sufficient monumental evidence to permit us to assert, with that certitude peculiar to the science of archaeology, that the primitive Roman Christians entertained a profound sentiment of respect and veneration for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and gave public expression to that feeling on their tombs and in their places of worship. The survivals of early Christian art in which the Blessed Virgin is portrayed, fall naturally under three headings:

I. The Sarcophagi.
II. The Gilded Glasses.
III. The Frescoes, or mural paintings.

The Sarcophagi are large tombs hewn in marble, or made of terra-cotta, in which the ancients were often wont to depose their dead. Such tombs were in use among the Christians from the beginning, as can be seen from the numerous fragments found in the earliest Christian cemeteries, e.g., those of Priscilla, Domitilla, Praetextatus, and the Crypt of Lucina in Saint Callixtus. Frequently a wooden coffin was placed inside. When in A.D. 821, Pope Paschal I. opened the sarcophagus of Saint Caecilia the body of the Saint was found enclosed in a casket of cypress wood. The earlier sarcophagi are generally without other ornament than simple spiral channelings or flutiugs. During the ages of persecution they were rather an exceptional mode of burial. Such artistic work had to be executed in large ateliers, in the light of day, and curious pagan inquirers might thus easily surprise the secret of the Christian meeting-places. Sometimes they were purchased from heathen dealers in marble-work, in which case the more offensive mythological subjects were covered with plaster, or the objectionable front turned to the wall. The sarcophagi were usually set in deep niches, on either side of the subterraneous corridors, thus leaving the passage-way free. They very probably furnished the model for the large arcosolia or arched graves familiar to every visitor of the Catacombs. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the numerous conversions of the rich and noble to Christianity naturally increased the demand for these splendid receptacles; hence it is that nearly all we possess date from that time. Some six hundred, whole or in fragments, have survived the rage of the Goths, the avaricious search of collectors, and the neglect of centuries. Of these fully one-half are preserved at Rome, the others are scattered throughout Italy, Spain and Southern France. Between A.D. 648-848, the Popes transferred to the churches of Rome a very large number of the bodies in the Catacombs, and this accounts in great measure for the absence of relics, ornaments, etc., in the sarcophagi afterwards found there. Many more of these.interesting monuments eventually found their way into the church-porticoes and the palatial courtyards of Rome, where they can yet be seen.

The Gilded Glasses. These are (fragmentary) glass vessels, within whose flat bases designs have been executed in gold leaf, in such a manner that they may be seen from the inside. They are protected by a plate of glass welded by fire so as to form one solid mass with the cup. There are between three and four hundred of these curious remains of Christian antiquity. Nearly all were found in the Roman Catacombs, and the larger part of them is yet preserved at the Vatican. We may even be surprised that so many have been saved, when we remember their fragile nature. The gold-leaf was a temptation to the pillagers of the Catacombs, and we may believe that in the early centuries many a one passed into the hands of the Jewish glass-peddlers of the Trastevere. They are evidently the bottoms of drinking cups, though some few are the fragments of plates. In nearly every case the subject of the design is taken from the Old or New Testament, thus leaving no doubt as to their Christian origin. As a rule, thev were found either inside the graves, or fixed on the outside as a means of recognition. Every visitor to the Catacombs will remember that various objects, rings, bits of marble, and the like, were fastened in the fresh mortar, to enable the friends of the defunct to recognize his place among the thousands of similar niches. After the year A.D. 410 there were no burials in the Catacombs; the exhaustive critical study of some fifteen thousand epitaphs of the Catacombs has made that a scientific certainty. Hence all such glasses found in the graves, or fixed in the mortar are no later than about A.D. 400. On the other hand these gilded glasses have been found on graves of the last half of the third century, and mixed up with broken epitaphs of the same period, in galleries that date from A.D. 250-350. Moreover, the lettering of the inscriptions is quite similar to that of medals and coins of this period. In addition, it must be remembered that these gilded glasses are not the work of superior artists, but of a lower grade of dexterous craftsmen. Their use has caused some discussion, and it is not easy to tell whether they served originally as glass chalices, or as drinking cups at the love-feasts of the Christians. Perhaps they may have served for the blood of the Martyrs, or for holy water, or for the sweet perfumes and precious unguents that the Christians were wont to bury with their beloved dead. Frequent attempts have been made in the past to reproduce these glasses. Heraclius in the tenth and Kunkel in the seventeenth century had no greater success than Cardinal Wiseman in our own time. But the secret has at last been discovered by Salviati of Venice, the famous discoverer of the lost art of making Murano glass.

The Frescoes or wall-paintings of the sepulchral chambers in the Catacombs are surely the most interesting and instructive of their contents. They are, after the niches and epitaphs, the most numerous of the Christian monuments of the Catacombs, and are found on the sides and ceilings of the sepulchral chambers and crypts, on the backs and arches of the arcosolia, on the walls of the corridors, and on those of the broad shafts that let into the Catacombs the upper air and the light of day. The series of these venerable paintings-the embryo of Christian art-begins with the apostolic times, and the devoted and learned men who spend their lives in studying these ancient remains can lead us from the primitive cemeteries of Priscilla and Domitilla, through that of Saint Agnes and the marvellous labyrinth of Saint Callixtus, out to the cemetery of Saint Valentine, showing us at every step the chronological sequence of their numerous frescoes.

We don’t improvise an art. The Christian art of the Catacombs was not extemporized. It borrowed its subjects, it is true, from a purer faith and a more sublime morality, but it accepted the rules of taste and technique, as they were current in the time of its formation. Hence, in the earliest frescoes of the Catacombs, the outward form scarcely differs from that of contemporary pagan productions. Bright-plumaged birds are perched on gracefully trellised vines; painted butterflies hover about the heads of winged genii; smiling landscapes, rich fruitage, and gorgeous foliage are among the usual details. In the Cemetery of Praetextatus is a scene of classic elegance representing the reapers cutting corn and binding the sheaves. In that of Domitilla is another in which the four seasons are charmingly personified as winged female figures. It would be easy to multiply the examples. Only, in the midst of all these embellishments the central figure is always a Christian conception: Daniel in the lions’ den, Jonah beneath his ivy, the Good Shepherd, the Madonna and Child, the Adoration of the Magi, and the like. Rarely does an echo of the heathen mythology penetrate these holy precincts, and then it is some pure and elevated conception, like Orpheus subduing with his lyre the savage beasts – a type of Christ, who subdues with the melody of His gospel the stubborn hearts of men. The Christian art of the Catacombs remained always on a level with the best contemporaneous art in Gentile circles, and though it yielded to the same laws of decline and decay in the third and fourth centuries, it ever preserved a certain nobility of technique, a certain grandeur of arrangement and a peculiar solemnity and dignity of style. The pagan art was dependent for its charm upon the happy union of faultless proportions and the grace and variety of composition, attitude, and drapery. It was a creature of man, and addressed itself chiefly to the senses. But in the Christian art these were accidents, and subordinate to a dominant spiritual principle – the continuous and practical manifestation of the revealed truth. In the humble Catacombs, as in the most splendid basilicas, art is ever the handmaid of religion, the offspring of theology and devotion. Its spirit is essentially reverent, its temper one of adoration. As the ancient civilization declined, the sense of the beautiful in art was clouded, proportions grew more rude and clumsy, a rigidity fell upon the human members. The antique correctness and excellence of drawing, and freedom and vigor of execution, were forgotten; the age of fixed types had set in, yet the creations of the Christian artist never lost entirely their imposing and awe-inspiring character. It was because the religious ideal continued to radiate through them, as some rich jewel through an unworthy setting.

Chapter III – The Blessed Virgin on the Sarcophagi

One of the most beloved subjects of the early Christian artists was the Adoration of the Magi. Over sixty representations of it are known in the first four centuries. The scenes reproduced here are taken from the sculptured covers of three sarcophagi, preserved in the Lateran Museum at Rome, in the section devoted to the remnants of these splendid tombs.

The first of these sculptures was originally found beneath the floor of the old Saint Peter’s, and represents the Blessed Virgin, in tunic, cloak, and veil, seated upon a rock, between two palm trees. Near by is a shepherd with his pastoral crook. The ox and the ass adore the Infant Jesus, and the Magi hasten toward Him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the second, the first of the Magi points to the Star of Bethlehem, and the head of a camel fills in the background. In the third the large arm-chair of the Blessed Virgin seems to be richly upholstered, and the Child Jesus is seen seated on her knees, awaiting the advent of the Magi. In another section of the same sculpture He is seen wrapped in swaddling clothes and receiving the adoration of the ox and the ass, while two stout shepherds stand reverently by. Like the most of the Christian sarcophagi, these date from the fourth century and show us that already the traditional story of the ox and the ass at the Crib of Bethlehem was become a commonplace for the church-artists. These are by no means the only fourth-century examples of such compositions. And as they are then met with at points so far apart as Syracuse, Ancona, Arles, and Rome, it is clear that the original type was borrowed from much earlier generations, i.e., from the Church of the Catacombs.

The sarcophagus-cover, from which the following group is taken, was found in the ancient basilica of Saint Paul. It contains a double row of scriptural subjects, taken from the Old and New Testaments, the Creation of Eve, the Expulsion from Paradise, the Miracle of Cana, the Multiplication of the Loaves, the Resurrection of Lazarus, Daniel in the Lion’s den, the Healing of the man born blind, Saint Peter led off to prison, Moses striking the rock. The chair of the Blessed Virgin seems made of basket-work, and her feet rest upon a foot-stool. Among the ancients the addition of the foot-stool distinguished the thronus or throne from the cathedra or chair, itself a seat of distinction. In nearly all the early representations of the Blessed Virgin in painting and sculpture, she is seen seated in the high-backed episcopal arm-chair, usually reserved, in primitive Christian art, for Christ, the Apostles, and the Saints. Sometimes the foot-stool is omitted or has disappeared, but no one can fail to notice in these compositions the deep spirit of veneration with which the artist approaches his task, and the halo of majestic purity and matronly dignity which he has cast about the central figure of these compositions, rude and stiff as the execution may occasionally be.

The next sarcophagus, like the preceding, is preserved in the Lateran Museum. The Blessed Virgin is seated on a throne, and the Divine Infant offers a tender welcome to the approaching Magi.

The following sculpture, which exists in the Cathedral of Tolentino (Italy), is particularly noticeable for the fald-stool on which the Blessed Virgin is seated, and the. good technical execution. On the same sarcophagus are scenes of the Good Shepherd and of the Three Youths in the fiery furnace, indications that it is a work of the fourth century, since it draws its inspiration from favorite catacomb-subjects. The crenellated walls and the gates represent the city of Bethlehem.

Chapter IV – The Blessed Virgin on the Gilded Glasses

This fragment of an ancient Christian drinking glass was found in the Cemetery of Saint Agnes and long preserved at the Vatican. It represents the Blessed Virgin in close fitting tunic, with arms outstretched as though interceding for her clients. This was the attitude usually observed by the early Christians when praying. The name Maria at once distinguishes this from the ordinary praying figures or Orantes of the catacombs. The trees and the birds on either side of the Virgin represent the gardens of Paradise.

The same cemetery of Saint Agnes furnishes us with another curious and instructive fragment of gilded glass, the Blessed Virgin between the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. She is clad in an ample, broad-sleeved tunic. The oval face is unveiled and the hair seems closely cut. A string of pearl encircles her neck. Her hands are outstretched as in prayer, while the Apostles lift each the right hand as though about to speak. We may imagine that the whole group is reciting the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin, the inspired paean of the Magnificat. The scripture-rolls on either side of the Blessed Virgin tend to strengthen this impression. The names, Maria, Petrus, Paulus, preclude any mistake as to the persons. We notice that the hands are out of proportion, and all three of the figures executed with considerable stiffness. A similar fragment is kept in the Borgian Museum at the Propaganda.

It is from the same museum that we borrow the following group of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Agnes. It is much less artistic than the preceding ones, but is of considerable importance for the history of Christian virginity. The early fathers were wont to propose the Mother of God as the Model of Virgins, and this fragment of a drinking glass is a welcome commentary on the practice. The peculiar head-dress is one frequently noticed in the Catacombs. Both figures are dressed in the usual tunic and large pallium or cloak, and both are depicted as praying and in the enjoyment of the celestial paradise.

The Recupero Museum in Catania (Sicily), is the possessor of an ancient Christian glass plate, from which we take the group seen next. In the centre of the plate are the busts of Saints Peter and Paul. Around the rim are the Three Youths in the fiery furnace, Moses striking the rock, Daniel and the dragon, the Martyrdom of Isaias, and the subjects under discussion. To the left a prophet points to the bust of a male figure whose head is crowned with an aureola. Before him is seen a large orb representing the Earth, and beneath a roll of the Scriptures resting edge-ways on the scrinium or case, in which it was usually kept. To the right is seen a female Orante dressed in tunic, pallium and flowing veil, and according to the symbolic language of the Catacombs, supposed to be in paradise. De Rossi, Garrucci, and other archaeologists of note interpret this group as follows. The prophet is Isaias who foretells the birth of a wonderful Light, no other than the Sun of Justice. “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem! for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen on thee …. the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 9:1-3) And the female Orante is the Virgin Mary, in whose chaste womb was conceived “the true Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.” (John 1:9) “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

The following unique figure does not properly belong to the gilded glasses, but is inserted here as the most appropriate place for so instructive a relique of early Christian art. It is a graffito, or rough outline sketch incised on a slab of marble. It belongs to the latter half of the fifth century, and is now kept in the Church of Saint Maximin at Tarascon in Provence. The letters at the top read: “The Virgin Mary minister of the Temple of Jerusalem.”

The gospels are silent about the childhood of Mary and about the names of her parents. But at a very early date we meet with traditions concerning her Presentation in the Temple in which there is much that is credible. It is to one of these traditions that the humble sculptor of this figure owes his inspiration. In a very early apocryphal book called the Proto-Evangelium of Saint James, we read how Joachim and Anna brought their little daughter Mary to the Temple when she was three years old. “And the priest received the little maiden, and, kissed her and, blessed her, and said: may the Lord magnify thy name among all peoples. In thee will the Lord reveal His Covenant with the sons of Israel. And he placed her on the third step of the Altar, and the Lord poured out His grace upon her, and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel welcomed her. She was brought up like a dove in the Temple of the Lord, and received her nourishment at the hands of the Angels.” Many readers will recall with pleasure the glorious masterpiece of Titian in the Accademia delle Belle Arti at Venice, representing the Presentation in the Temple. Yet, with all the majesty of its architecture, the warmth and gorgeousness of the coloring, the multitude and varied action of the figures, and a hundred other charms of dress, attitude, and gesture, it does not awaken so much reverence and love as this stray marble come down to us from long-forgotten ages-old waif from the last days of the matchless culture of the Graeco-Roman world.

Chapter V – The Blessed Virgin in the Frescoes

The following group was copied by Bosio in the sixteenth century in the Catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, and very probably belongs to the latter half of the third century. Since the time of Bosio the gallery in which it was found has been choked up with rubbish, thus preventing a closer examination. The Blessed Virgin sits in majestic fashion upon the Cathedra, while the Magi dressed in short tunics hasten to offer their gifts. The first holds in his hand a crown or chaplet. The figures are lively and original, and the drawing is good.

To the same period belong three other scenes of the Adoration of the Magi. The first of these is a graffito on the famous Epitaph of Severa, now kept in the Lateran Museum. It represents the Magi, three in number before the Blessed Virgin and Child. Behind the chair of the Virgin stands Saint Joseph pointing to the star visible over the heads of the Magi. This rude scratching on the marble is of great value as being the earliest known representation of Saint Joseph in Christian art. The next was found in the cemetery of Saints Thraso and Saturninus, and the third in that of Saints Peter and Marcellinus.

Few of the Roman cemeteries are more ancient or better-known than that of Priscilla, on the Via Salaria Nova. Among other treasures it contains a very valuable liturgical fresco, of the middle of the third century, representing scenes from the history of a consecrated virgin. The painting is executed in an arcosolium, over her grave. To the extreme right is a venerable man seated in a chair. Before him a maiden stands holding a veil, while behind her is seen a youth who holds in his hands a band or ribbon of some kind. The extreme left of the picture is occupied by the figure of the Blessed Virgin and Child as given above. The venerable man already mentioned points toward her with outstretched right, as though to offer her as a model to the young maiden whom he is about to consecrate to God. The centre of the composition is taken up by a large praying figure, or Orante, symbolical of the soul of the same consecrated virgin, who now enjoys the reward due her faithful imitation of the virtues of Mary. The aged man in the chair is the contemporary Roman bishop, and the youth standing near him is his assistant deacon. For a fuller description of this interesting and valuable monument of Christian art, I must refer the reader to the work of my friend, Dr. Wilpert, a young Roman archaeologist of growing fame.

Quite different in arrangement from the ordinary scenes of the Adoration of the Magi is the group in Saint Domitilla, which De Rossi assigns to the beginning of the third century. It is far superior to the frescoes of the fourth, with their stiff formalism, and yet it is wanting in the classic simplicity and easy majesty of similar works in the second century. The group is painted on a long and narrow bit of wall between two niches. On either side are two Magi, a rare departure from the traditional number of three, suggested by the love of symmetry. The decorations consists of garlands rather coarsely done, certainly in much poorer taste than the graceful arabesques of the preceding epoch. We exhibit the figure of the Madonna and Child. The painting is covered by great black and grey blotches, and blackened by the smoke of lamps. Damp and neglect have also caused it some damage. When De Rossi publishes the long-expected fourth volume of his Roma Sotterranea, we will know more about this venerable relic of Christian antiquity.

The following Adoration of the Magi is taken from the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus. It represents the Blessed Virgin without the usual veil. The Magi are only two in number, as the rear wall of the arcosolium on which this fresco is executed, did not furnish room for the traditional three. The fresco is somewhat damaged, but sufficiently well preserved to enable us to attribute it approximately to the latter half of the third century. De Rossi, and others, are of opinion that it is surely a work of the pre-Constantinian period.

Another excellent group of the Adoration of the Magi has been lately restored by Liell for his valuable work on the Blessed Virgin in the Catacombs. It exists in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in the famous Capella Greca of that ancient cemetery, one of the most tasteful chambers in all this subterraneous city of the dead, and recognized by competent judges to belong to the first half of the second century. The fine masonry, the great arched spaces for the sarcophagi, the absence of the little, narrow, shelf-like niches, the classic taste of the ornaments, the superior quality of the stucco-work – all the surroundings show that our fresco reaches back to the period previous to the decline of art, that is to the first half of the second century. Thus it is the oldest representation of the Magi that we possess, and confirms the common tradition according to which they were three in number.

The classic charm of these early religious paintings increases with the remoteness of their origin. As we approach the Augustan age we meet with a simple elegance, an absence of effort, an unconscious ease and freedom of execution which are refreshing after the sad contemplation of a declining art. The earliest Christian frescoes are akin to the earliest masterpieces of Christian literature. The Epistle to Diognetus, for instance, and the Octavius of Minucius Felix will bear comparison with any contemporary heathen work, and the products of a Christian brush in the second century are inferior to nothing of the same kind in heathen circles. The following beautiful group of the Annunciation – the earliest known – is found on the roof of a Cubiculum or sepulchral chamber in the cemetery of Priscilla. Like so many other of these ancient frescoes, it is considerably damaged by damp and the smoke of candles. The ornamentation of the roof is in excellent taste, and the walls are covered with trees and flowers of superior workmanship. The Blessed Virgin is seated, with eyes modestly cast down, and the left hand uplifted as though to make an objection, while the angel seems to answer her scruples in the words of Luke 1:35 – “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.” The dramatic vigor of the composition, the technical excellence of the surroundings, its location in a spot that was not used for burial purposes after the second century, force us to assign a very remote date to this painting. It is much superior to the artistic work of the third century, and we will not err greatly if we assign it, with De Rossi, Martigny, Kraus, and other art-critics of note, to the first half of the second century. Its position alone, in the most ancient part of the cemetery of Priscilla, would be a sufficient reason for doing so.

A similar group of the Annunciation, belonging to the middle of the third century, was discovered last year in the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus. Every such find, that can be dated before the peace of the Church (312 A.D.), has a peculiar value. It increases the cycle of monumental evidences, and throws new and welcome light on the most obscure part of our Christian history.

We close the series of cemeterial frescoes of the Blessed Virgin with the earliest and most important. It represents a female figure seated, and nursing a little child. She is dressed as a matron, with pallium and veil. Before her stands a youthful figure holding in his left hand a scroll, and pointing with the right to a star.

It is at once clear to every beholder that we are before a painting of the Virgin Mother and Divine Infant; but, if this be self-evident, two other points are not so clear at first sight. Who is the male figure? When was this fresco executed?

It is not unnatural to think at once of Saint Joseph, and some writers have done so. He is represented more than once on the early Christian monuments, on the epitaph of Severa (p. 41) on the sarcophagi, and in the mosaics of Saint Mary Major’s at Rome. However, he is never clothed in this manner; he is always represented as fully dressed, and never with a scroll in his hand. In antiquity, the loose pallium, or tunica exomis, was always distinctive of the philosopher. On the other hand, it is well known that in the ancient times philosophy was a generic term, including not only human but also sacred science. When we take into consideration the dress of the figure before us, the volume in his hand, and the star to which he points, the conclusion is irresistible that we have before us Isaias, the sacred writer, theologian and prophet. He points to the Star of Balaam (Numbers 24:17), “A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel,” and seems to repeat the words of his own prophecy (Isaiah 9:6): “For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder;” and that other most sublime and inspiriting of the sacred paeans: “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. . . . The Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee, and the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the brightness of thy rising, . . . and thou shalt suck the milk of the Gentiles, and thou shalt be nursed with the breast of kings. . . . Thou shalt no more have the sun for thy light by day, neither shall the brightness of the moon enlighten thee, but the Lord shall be unto thee for an everlasting Light, and thy God for thy glory.” (Isaiah 40)

This admirable fresco was found in the oft-mentioned cemetery of Priscilla, on the Salarian Way, about three miles from the city walls. This quarter of the city is intimately connected with the earliest history of the Roman Church. Close by was the Pretorian Camp, where Saint Paul, the glorious prisoner of Christ, preached the Gospel in his chains. In the immediate neighborhood was the Ostrian cemetery where Saint Peter first preached and baptized, “the cemetery ad Nymphas, ubi Petrus prius baptizabat.” This very cemetery of Priscilla once held the bodies of Aquila and Prisca, those devoted and generous friends of Saint Paul. (Romans 16:3-5)

The painting is of the highest antiquity, and, by common consent, not later than the age of the Antonines (A.D. 150-180), while there is every reason to believe that it belongs to the latter half of the first century (A.D. 50-100). Its artistic conception, the bold and free execution, the accurate drawing, the anatomical skill, the large and ample treatment of the details, strike the transient observer. Then, too, we are attracted by the simple but meaningful symbolism, the unconstrained pose, and graceful dignity of the prophet, the gentle, thoughtful attitude of the Virgin Mother, the tender, almost arch regard of the Divine Infant. Even after eighteen centuries of exposure to all the enemies of early Christian art, this fresco yet fascinates the beholder. It has been compared by art-critics, both domestic and foreign, both Catholic and Protestant, with the best of the ancient Christian frescoes in the cemeteries of Callixtus and Praetextatus, and found superior to them. It is equalled only by the work in Saint Domitilla, which is confessedly of the first century, being the original sepulchre of the Flavian family, to which belonged the Emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, the Christian consul and martyr Flavius Clemens, his wife and niece, both of them called Flavia Domitilla, and both Christians and martyrs.

It is well known that after the time of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) art began to decline at Rome. The rapid and bloody succession of emperors, most of them un-Roman or barbarian in taste, the increasing inroads of Goth and Persian, the plague, famine, and earthquake, the gradual disappearance of Hellenic influence from the political and social stage, the impoverishment of the public and private purse, made the third century a kind of iron age for the inhabitants of the Empire. The advancing decay made itself felt first in the more susceptible and delicate regions of social culture, the artistic tastes and senses. Hence, we cannot well place the date of such an excellent painting below the year A.D. 180. We know, too, that as the glorious art of Greece declined, the technical methods suffered, and already in the fourth century were crude and imperfect. But in this painting we find well observed the rules of ancient art, both as to the preparation of the surface, the number of coats of mortar, their quality, composition and the like, and as to the execution, or use of chiaroscuro, instead of outline-drawing, such as later artists employed.

If we pass from the study of the painting itself to the surroundings, our conviction of the venerable antiquity of this fresco will be greatly confirmed. The Cemetery of Saint Priscilla is one of the oldest of the Christian burial places. The nucleus of it was originally the burial-plot of a noble Roman family. At a very early date, however, the galleries of a neighboring sand-pit were worked into the plan of Saint Priscilla, the broad passages and road-ways were lined with brick walls, and the roof braced by pillars and supports of the same material. At the same time, great arched spaces, or niches, were left free for the insertion of marble sarcophagi. A similar arrangement is noticeable in the Cemetery of Domitilla, only here the sarcophagi were more numerous. All this argues a very early period before the system of little niche-graves or loculi became necessary on account of the multitude of interments.

Then there are the peculiar epitaphs, so different from those of the other cemeteries, brief, laconic mention of the name of the deceased, Peter, Claudius, Urbica, Julia, Calpurnia, Arsinoe, Lucretia, Crescens, etc. The very names have the flavor of high antiquity. Only the anchor and the palm of victory are found incised on the marbles. The symbolic fish and the term IX PACE, so distinctive of the third century, are seldom met with here. But the apostolic greeting Pax Tecum, Pax Tibi, occurs. The lettering of most of the epitaphs is exquisitely done, the lines are bold, regular, clear-cut; altogether these epitaphs are excellent specimens of the lapidary’s art. Many are painted in vermilion on the slabs, a rare sight in the catacombs. Even the chiselled letters are sometimes picked out in red.

When we enter these galleries with their long series of arched receptacles for the large marble tombs, and behold the traces of the original decoration, we are at once struck by the archaic tone of the art. The arabesques ai’e rich and graceful, the tracery runs in free and elegant lines ; we see everywhere the impress of an original creative hand. The ornamental stucco-work compares with some of the best products of purely pagan art.

The names of the deceased have an ancient flavor. The tria nomina or ‘triple name’ occur frequently, e.g., Titus Flavius Felicissimus, and are an index of second-century manners, at the latest. There are also such primitive names as Julia, Octavia, Lucretia, and the like. Then, too, we meet with the sepulchres of Claudii, Julii, Octavii, Flavii, Ulpii, Aelii, Aurelii, and any one conversant with the first and second centuries of the imperial epoch, will recognize at once what a powerful proof of antiquity this collection of gentilicia, or family names, affords. It has been noticed, too, that only in this part of the cemetery of Priscilla do we meet with the apostolic names of Phoebe, Aquila, and Petrus. The latter occurs some six times, and the stones on which it occurs are worthy of being added to the monumental evidences of Saint Peter’s coming to Rome. The tiles that close the graves bear the pottery marks, the signa doliaria, of the period between A.D. 50-180. Finally there are traces which show that in the second century the floor of the gallery was lowered in the neighborhood of our fresco for purposes of interment. It was therefore much older than the graves built at that time, since from the new level it was scarcely visible. The old graves which were thus elevated must have been quite ancient, else there would naturally be a protest against an act which put them out of handy reach.

Thus De Rossi has put together-for it is his genius which has accomplished it-all the data that can serve to convince a frank and candid mind of the venerable age of this painting,-the classic art, the superiority to all else of the kind in the Catacombs, the correct technique, the judgment of expert critics. The study of the premises shows that we are in the heart of one of Rome’s most ancient Christian cemeteries. The laconic epitaphs, the apostolic greeting, the absence of the third-century symbols, the elegant lettering, the vermilion characters, the grave-tiles, the archaic names, the primitive repairs, the long series of large arches for splendid marble tombs, leave no room for reasonable doubt. It is all so unique, so persuasive; every detail of proof dovetails in so nicely; every step brings such fresh confirmation that we feel by instinct that we must be dealing with the truth.

And yet De Rossi was never quite satisfied. Always convinced of the great age of this painting, and basing his conviction as much on the chronology of the surrounding premises as on the exquisite art, he wanted to find a positive date, or names that would allow him to work out such a date. For forty years he has kept that in view, and at last has torn from the unwilling soil the chronological proof needed, and made at the same time one of the most important discoveries in Christian archaeology. Close by our picture he unearthed, within the last three years, a series of epitaphs in broken fragments. When put together, they proved to be the epitaphs of Christian members of the great Roman family of the Acilii Glabriones, a family that surpassed in nobility, wealth and influence the proudest of imperial Rome. The oldest of these epitaphs belongs undoubtedly to the first quarter of the second century (A.D. 100-125) and the missing part of it contains in all probability the name of Manius Acilius Glabrio, Consul in A.D. 91, and put to death by Domitian for his Christian faith.

When the Goths and Lombards smashed with their battle-axes the sarcophagi of a long line of Acilii Glabriones, they little thought with what holy reverence we would one day collect their minutest fragments, and what light they would throw on such a specifically Catholic doctrine as the veneration of the Blessed Virgin. These fragments are a boundary which no man w T ill remove, and they prove, en passant, the rapid spread of Christianity and its conquest of the noblest and purest at Rome within a few years of its first appearance. We may recall here the names of Pomponia Graecina the wife of the conqueror of Britain, Flavius Clemens the consul, and nephew of Vespasian, his wife and niece, both called Flavia Domitilla, and both holy martyrs, and now a long line of the Acilii Glabriones. We rejoice that the earth has given up to us these illustrious names, and we feel a strange thrill of sympathy that the progeny of Dardanus and the children of a world unknown to them should meet in one common Christian faith, adore one God and His Christ, to whom we pray through the same sweet intercessor, the Mother of grace and the Parent of sweet clemency.

In conclusion, therefore, we have here a fresco of the Mother of God and the Divine Infant, executed very probably at the expense of the great Roman house of M. Acilius Glabrio, in their family burial-place. It is certainly not later than about the middle of the second century, and every index of antiquity points to a much earlier date.

It is not impossible that Saints Peter and Paul saw it. Prisca and Aquila may have seen it, for their bodies were once deposited here. Pudens, too, and Praxedes and Pudentiana, for they were once buried here with their holy ancestress Priscilla, from whom the cemetery has its name. Linus, and Anacletus, and Clement, the first successors of the Fisherman, may have beheld it, as well as the Christian consuls and martyrs, Flavius Clemens and Manius Acilius Glabrio. Surely the Roman Church comes honestly by her veneration of the Madonna. Surely she is in goodly company, and they are undoubtedly wrong who are moved by prejudice or ignorance to assign its origin to a later date. It is part of the original framework of our religion, rooted in the Catholic historical idea of Christ, intimately intertwined with the development of Christian doctrine and practice, a precious vital element of strength and sweetness in the life of God’s people.

Chapter VI – The Blessed Virgin in Saint Mary Major’s

In the early part of the fifth century Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, maintained that the Blessed Virgin was not the Mother of God, but of Christ. According to him there were two persons in Jesus Christ, the one human and finite, the Son of Mary, properly called Christ, and the other divine and infinite, the Son of God. These two persons he claimed, were united only by an accidental union, that is, the Son of God dwelt in the man Christ merely as in His temple. He put on our humanity as a garment, but not only did each nature remain distinct, but each personality likewise. As Mary, therefore, had borne only a perfect man, and the union of the Son of God with that man happened only after the birth of the latter, and that union was merely accidental, a moral concord between both persons,-it was clear, according to Nestorius, that Mary might be called the Mother of the man Christ, but not the Mother of God.

The Catholic doctrine has always been that there are indeed two distinct and separate natures in Christ, the divine and the human, but that there is only one person, one agent to whom the acts proper to each nature are justly ascribed. This is the divine person which has taken the place of the human person, and thus become in truth the head of our common humanity, the new Adam, with equal power to suffer and propitiate, to pardon and redeem.

The whole Christian world was shocked by the utterances of Nestorius, and his teachings were at once condemned at Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, that is, in all the great intellectual centres of Christendom. A Council was held (a. d. 431) at Ephesus in the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin. It condemned the errors of Nestorius and formulated the orthodox doctrine. As it was the people at Constantinople who first called attention to the errors of their bishop, so it was the people of Ephesus who manifested the greatest joy at the decision of the Council. The city was illuminated, a vast procession formed, and the fathers conducted with pomp and rejoicing to their homes. It was only natural that an increase of devotion toward the Blessed Virgin should take place. It grew all the more intensely as Nestorianism gathered strength from day to day, and eventually developed into a most dangerous enemy of the peace and unity of the Empire. It was natural, too, that a cultured people should give an artistic expression to their feelings, and so it was. Churches in honor of the Mother of God were built in greater numbers, and representations of the Divine Maternity were everywhere multiplied.

The most complete and remarkable of such undertakings is the series of mosaics executed in the apse of the Church of Saint Mary Major at Rome, by order of Pope Sixtus III (A.D. 432-440). With exception of a few mutilations and restorations, they have come down to us substantially as they left the artist’s hands. On either side of the great apsidal arch are large triangular spaces, in each of which are four scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. In the centre above the arch is a richly-jewelled throne on which lie a cross and a crown, the sceptre and diadem of Christ. Between the windows, on each side of the nave, was formerly a long procession of martyrs, advancing towards their Queen, each with the instruments of suffering at his or her feet. This Church, which has been always considered as the chief Christian monument to the Divine Maternity, was solemnly opened on the fifth of August, the day on which the universal Church yet celebrates its dedication. The scenes in the apse, from the life of the Blessed Virgin, are eight in number:

1. The Annunciation;
2. The Angel appearing to Joseph in a dream;
3. The Adoration of the Magi;
4. The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple;
5. The Flight into Egypt;
6. The Magi before Herod;
7. The Massacre of the Innocents;
8. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the midst of the Doctors.

We reproduce here the scene of the Annunciation, and the central group of the Adoration of the Magi. In the first, the Blessed Virgin is richly clad, after the style of noble matrons of the fifth century. She is represented as seated before her house (not visible in this copy), busy with her spinning, when the Angel Gabriel appears. The divine mission of the angel is represented by his rapid descent from heaven. One would think that Milton had this bright winged figure in view when he described the embassy of the Angel Raphael to Adam and Eve. (Paradise Lost, v.146):

“So spake the Eternal Father, and fulfill’d
All justice; nor delayed the winged saint
After his charge received; but from among
Thousand celestial ardors, where he stood
Veiled with his gorgeous wings, up springing light
Flew through the midst of heaven; the angelic guides
On each hand parting, to his speed gave way
Through all th’ empyreal road.
. . . . . . Prone in flight
He speeds, and through the vast etheral sky
Sails between worlds and worlds with steady wing.
. . . . . . Like Maia’s son he stood
And shook his plumes, that heavenly fragrance fill’d
The circuit wide. Straight knew him all the bands
Of angels under watch; and to his state,
And to his message high in honor rise,
For on some message high they guessed him bent.”

The divine message is delivered by the angel standing. The dove with folded wings, in the act of cleaving the air, represents the happy accomplishment of the divine promise in the moment of the Virgin’s consent.

Other angels are added for reasons of symmetry, and to express the joy which filled the angelic hosts at the success of Gabriel’s mission.

This is a transition-picture. The tunic and pallium, the broad strips of purple, the sandals and the gesture belong yet to the antique. They are the classic echoes in Christian art. But the rich dress of gold brocade, the jewels, earrings and diadem, the angel’s wings, the half-finished web, are new elements, perfectly in keeping with what we otherwise know of the artistic and literary history of the fifth century. There are tones of triumph and exultation in this mosaic, and the Christian art is already attempting its divorce from the classic. It will one day complete it, and create for itself a new ideal, based, indeed, on Christian teachings, and never at variance with them, but welcoming all fresh, poetic, creative elements, whether found in daily life or in those charming legends which are the outcome of the popular consciousness, and therefore true with that larger truth inherent in the popular convictions.

In the following scene, the Divine Infant is seated on a great throne, piled high with cushions and encrusted with gems. At his right is His Mother, seated on a low ottoman, in the gorgeous raiment of the fifth century. To the left His nurse is seated. Behind Him stand adoring angels, and on either side of the group (not visible in the copy at my disposition) the figures of the Magi. Above the Divine Child is the Star of Bethlehem, “which came and stood over where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9)

In the original of this mosaic we behold a triumph of Christian art, not alone in the splendor of the decoration and the simple but effective distribution of the figures, nor in the easy grace and glorious exultant youth of the angels, nor yet in the sweet reverence of the mother and the modest affection of the nurse. There is a secret winsomeness, an indefinable charm welling out of the composition. It is the powerful and hitherto unequalled conception of the Divine Child. This is the Jesus of the Hidden Life, and the theologian-poet who composed this group read in his own soul secrets not confided to books nor to the noisy curiosity of men. There is in the eyes a calm and holy inspiration, the bright effluence of the mighty internal fires of the Beatific Light. The hand uplifted to bless, the sweet gravity of the features, the recollection, express most perfectly the sorrowing love of Jesus, misereor super turbam. In the charm of immortal youth, in the calm consciousness of infinite power, in the sweet and dignified repose the artist has delicately shadowed out the divinity, while the tender frame, its disproportion to the earthly throne, and the cruel cross above, recall only too readily the humanity of Jesus. The Virgin Mother close by, contemplating and adoring, is certainly murmuring the Magnificat. The whole composition, in fact, is a monumental commentary on that canticle, since it is one of the noblest efforts of Christian art to glorify the Mother of the Redeemer.

Chapter VII – Conclusion

The Virgin Mother of Jesus is no pagan ideal, no Christian Demeter or Astarte. From the earliest days of Christianity, in the Scriptures, in the first essays of scientific theology, in the maiden efforts of Christian art and poetry, we trace the affectionate veneration of the Christian world for the sweet Mother of the Redeemer. It is a spontaneous growth. When we emerge from the obscurity of the apostolic times we find its earliest origins, not among the imaginative peoples of the Orient, but in the upper circles of the Christian nobility of Rome. When in the course of the third century many of the family burial-places passed into the hands of the Church, the ecclesiastical authorities gladly choose for their decoration scenes in which she occupies the most prominent place. The furniture of the catacombs bears her venerated image. It is sculptured on the most imposing tombs, and when Christian piety forbade further interments in the catacombs, it gathered carefully all the art-traditions concerning the Mother of God, and enshrined them lovingly in enduring mosaic on the walls of her favorite temple.

Far from being an idolatrous outgrowth, the early Christian art clings most timidly to the cycle of Gospel subjects, scarcely daring to introduce a detail foreign to the letter of Scripture. Its canons were formed at an early date, and have held their own, East and West, in all the subsequent centuries. The fury of the Iconoclast and the fanaticism of Islam did not avail to destroy or modify the sweet and dignified artistic type of the Virgin in Byzantine art. In spite of the pagan trend of the Renaissance, the same type has preserved in the West all the sweet grace and tender wistful love with which the mediaeval artists endowed it. The Blessed Virgin in the catacombs, the mediaeval Mater Dei of Saint Luke, and the Madonnas of Raphael are the products of epochs wide apart, of different stages of culture and intellectual development. Yet they only differ in details of pose and execution, and Raphael himself would have been proud to take up and perfect the conception of the unknown artist of the Madonna and the Prophet Isaiah in the Catacomb of Priscilla.

Who can calculate the benign influence of pure and spiritual art? It is the hand-maiden of God, to invite and lead men from height to height, almost unconsciously, to the knowledge of Him who is at once supremely beautiful and ineffably good. It purges the soul of all grosser elements, clarifies the interior eye, and fixes it upon those moral ideals which are alone capable of transforming our weak and vicious instincts. It clothes virtue with irresistible charms, and draws men mightily and sweetly, as with ropes of silk, to realize in their own persons that which they have learned to admire and love. This has been ab antiquo the holy mission of Christian art. And none of its types has done more to win the souls of men, to moderate and repress the unruly passions, to extirpate selfishness, and further the purest culture of mind and heart, than the Madonna. The literary annals of every age abound with the most charming tributes to this power Tor good, and many large volumes might be filled with these outpourings of praise and gratitude. The following page is taken from Mr. Lecky’s History of Rationalism (i, 226), and is as remarkable for its delicacy of feeling as for its pure and elevated sympathy : “The world is governed by its ideals, and seldom or never has there been one which has exercised a more profound, and, on the whole, a more salutary influence than the mediaeval conception of the Blessed Virgin. For the first time woman was elevated to her rightful position, and the sanctity of weakness was recognized as well as the sanctity of sorrow. No longer the slave or toy of man, no longer associated only with ideas of degradation and sensuality, woman rose, in the person of the Virgin Mother, into a new sphere and became the object of a reverential homage of which antiquity had no conception. Love was realized. The moral charm and beauty of female excellence were for the first time felt. A new type of character teas called into being, a new kind of admiration was fostered. Into a harsh and ignorant and benighted age this ideal type infused a conception of gentleness and purity unknown to the proudest civilizations of the past. In the pages of living tenderness which many a monkish writer has left in honor of his celestial patron, in the millions who in many lands and many ages have sought, with no barren desire to mould their characters into her image, in those holy maidens who, for the love of Mary, have separated themselves from all the glories and the pleasures of the world, to seek in fastings, and vigils, and humble charity, to render themselves worthy of her benediction; in the chivalrous respect, in the softening of manners, in the refinement of tastes displayed in all the walks of society, in these and in many others we detect its influence. All that teas best in Europe clustered around it, and it is the origin of many of the purest elements of our civilization.”

The mediaeval conception of the Blessed Virgin is in all essential points identical with that of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, of Prudentius and of Saint Ephrem. And the survivals of early Christian art show us that the fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries did no more than translate into moving prose and ardent verse the common sentiment of the faithful, a sentiment inherited from the ages of persecution. The beliefs and ideals of all peoples of culture find a large and accurate expression in their art and poetry, and measured by this standard, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin is certainly coeval with the first centuries of the Christian religion. Its development is not a late and artificial, but an early, natural and organic outgrowth. The religious motives of it were perhaps never more graphically expressed than in the exquisite prayer of Beatrice for Dante (Paradiso, 33:1-21) with which we close these brief and imperfect considerations.

Thou Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son,
Humble and high beyond all other creature,
The limit fixed of the eternal counsel,
Thou art the one who such nobility
To human nature gave, that its Creator
Did not disdain to make Himself its creature.
Within thy womb rekindled was the love
By heat of which in the eternal peace
After such wise this flower has germinated.
Here unto us thou art a noonday-torch
Of charity, and below there among mortals
Thou art the living fountain head of hope.
Lady, thou art so great, and so prevailing,
That he who wishes grace, nor runs to thee,
His aspirations without wings would fly.
Not only thy benignity gives succor
To him who asketh it, but oftentimes
Forerunneth of its own accord the asking.
In thee compassion is, in thee is pity,
In thee magnificence; in thee unites
Whate’er of goodness is in any creature.