The main part of the discussion concerned two significant instances of "underground" art, one from the center of empire, the outskirts of Rome; the other from a frontier town in the Middle East.
Over the years a number of myths have grown up about the Roman catacombs. Although martyrs were buring there these underground cemeteries never served as places of refuge. The paintings--major evidence for the emergence of early Christian iconography--do not date from the Apostolic period, but only from the time after ca. 200 CE.
The ceiling painting at the catacomb of SS. Peter and Marcellinus shows two types of imagery--symbolic and narrative. The central figure of the Good Shepherd represents an appropriation of an old personification of Philanthropia--compassion for humanity--reinterpreted in accord with New Testament references. The orans (praying) figures at t he corners suggest contemporary worshippers, and more generally the love of God. The narrative scenes of the life of Jonah were understood typologically, with Jonah as a precursor of Jesus--but also in terms of the aspirations for resurrection of the ordinary believer.
Much of the imagery stems from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament for Christians, suggesting dependence on earlier Jewish imagery.
The catacombs also contain images of Hercules, Orpheus and other classical themes. These figures were also understood typologically--and in terms of the preparatio evangelica, the aspects of truth that the Creator vouchsafed to worthy pagans. These appropriations constitute the first stage of the Christian adoption of classical mythology, a trend that was to last through the Middle Ages, becoming most prominent in the Italian Renaissance. The mosica of Christ as the solar principle reflects the "compromise" principle of the Sol Invictus, honored on December 23.
On the west bank of the Euphrates River, the city of Dura Europos was founded in 303 BCE and destroyed by the Persians in 256/7. The remained undisturbed until its 1920 rediscovery and subsequent excavation. The shrines of Dura show a "delicious confusion" of religions. In addition to the official cult of Zeus, one could visit the Mithraeum, the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, and others.
While not unique, the paintings of the Synagogue are the most extsnsive and impressive ensemble to have survived. They are kept in the National Museum of Damascus. Most of the scenes are narratives stemming from various books of the Hebrew Bible. Attempts to find a single, overarching theme have not (to my knowledge) proved successful. It is probably best to regard them as reminders of the history of the Jewish people, as recorded in Scriptures.
As flat objects, the paintings did not--at this time--come under special scrutiny as idolatry. The frescoes show a number of "anticlassical" devices, including flatness, stacking to indicate depth, reverse perspective, and attenuation of cast shadows. The combination of Greco-Roman and Persian costume illustrates the principle of hybridity.
The Christian Building at Dura is modest. It is simply a typical courtyard house, retrofitted for a new purpose. The main rooms are the assembly hall and the baptistery. The latter contained some paintings, since removed to Yale University. The Good Shepherd backs the font area in the baptistery. In this composition we noted a typological "footnote" in the little figures of Adam and Eve at the lower left (Jesus was regarded as the New Adam.)
Examples of sculpture from Palmyra, Coptic Egypt, Carthage, and Adamklisse (Bulgaria) illustrate Middle Eastern principles in the broad sense. It is probably these principles that came to the fore in the new reliefs of the Arch of Constantine--rather than any metropolitan development.
READING. To learn more about this material, the instructor recommends the following books:
R. Bianchi-Bandinelli, Rome: The Late Empire, NY, 1970.
A. Grabar, Early Christian Art, NY 1968.
R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, rev. ed., Harmondsworth, 1987.
L. J. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First 1000 Years, second ed., New Haven, 2005.
T. F. Mathews, The Clash of Gods, rev. ed., Princeton, 1999.
W. F. Volbach, Early Christian Art, NY, 1962 [excellent photos; text negligeable]
K. Weitxmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, NY, 1977.