Wednesday, August 4, 2010

St. Paul stares back

Beneath an ugly office building (photo here) lies a Roman time capsule. The catacombs of St. Tecla contain a tiny basilica where early Christians would celebrate Mass, corridors lined with niches for simple burials, and cubicles where the families of the wealthy were interred. One of these last is the frescoed tomb of a noblewoman now known as the "Cubicle of the Apostles," which has just been restored and represents some of the earliest evidence of devotion to the Apostles in early Christianity.

Outside, not far from the catacombs, is the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls, where the bones of the apostle are entombed. Inside the catacombs are the earliest known images of Saints Paul, Peter, Andrew, and John - icons 50cm in diameter dating to the 4th c. St Paul's wrinkled and elongated forehead, balding head, and pointy beard (1st image), indicate that these portraits may have set the standard for later artists' depictions.

During the 2-year restoration, technicians used a laser as an "optical scalpel" to detach a thick patina of powdery calcium carbonate caused by extreme humidity and lack of air circulation (3rd image). The images that were blurry and opaque were revealed with stunning clarity. "As far as paintings inside catacombs go, we are used to very faint paintings, usually white, with few colors. In the case of the St Tecla catacombs, the great surprise was the extraordinary colors. The more we went forward, the more surprises we found," said Barbara Mazzei, who headed the project. She explains that the white crust of the calcium carbonate was in some places 4-5cm thick when they began their work in 2008, but they knew from 19th c. watercolors and diary entries that there were paintings underneath.

The restored paintings were shown off to journalists in June by Fabrizio Bisconti (2nd image), who says they show "the genesis, the seeds of Christian iconography." Bisconti is the superintendent of the catacombs for the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, and notes that the Vatican has no plans to open up these catacombs to the public.

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