Ancient Ostia: a Christian crypt (IV century AD?)
with an image of Christ giving a blessing has been found
Rome, center of the world. Rome is more important than any other city in the world because it houses the relics of the Christian martyrs. The Imperial Rome of luxury and spectacle, with its famous monuments, has its counterpart in the underground world of the catacombs, the refuge of the persecuted, martyred Christians and their secret burial ground.
I would like to compare this crypt (my view differs from that of Maria Stella Arena, renowned expert and author of the article “OSTIA, L’Opus sectile di Porta Marina” in Archeologia Viva n. 128 March-April 2008) to one discovered in the 1940s-50s, which bears a panel with a mosaic image containing the Christian symbolism of a lion attacking prey (v. bibliography). This discovery was made at the start of an excavation that revealed a building composed of a room or exedra and a rectangular apse.
The restoration of this mosaic took years of careful, laborious effort. By painstakingly fitting together the pieces of the mosaic, the expert restorers were able to reconstruct, panel by panel, a room that the Romans called an “exedra”, at the end of which was the rectangular crypt mentioned above.
All the evidence would seem to point to a tomb so far impossible to date accurately, and which at first glance would suggest one of the many, extremely elegant tombs of the patrician pagans. But this interpretation is misleading, and in my opinion Dr. Maria Stella Arena’s hypothesis (mentioned above) is incorrect.
The “tomb” would suggest a structure difficult to date precisely (though probably dating from the beginning to the end of the IV century), one very similar to the “Crypt of the Popes” in the Catacombs of San Callisto in Ostia (RM). This tomb is a family tomb built at the end of the II century. Like the Ostia/Porta Marina tomb, it is composed of a room and a rectangular apse. It was donated to the Church and transformed into the Crypt of the Popes in the IV century BC.
During the difficult work of restoration of the Ostia/Porta Marina crypt, the expert restorers were able to reconstruct the inlaid work with its geometric and floral patterns, all formed with costly marble coming from every part of the Empire. The chromatic effects of this inlaid work (opus sectile) are truly surprising. The natural veins in the marble were exploited by the artisans of the time in order to create the realistic effect of rocks, trees, animals, etc.
Even more surprising and truly wonderful is that there are also “human” figures on these panels, among which we find one with a “nimbo” (literally “cloud”), giving a blessing.
One needn’t be an expert in the field to recognize in this figure Christ giving His blessing. There is no need to hazard other interpretations, which I consider absurd. The face of Christ, as always in “opus sectile”, is portrayed in the traditional manner, i.e. with long hair and beard, with eyes wide open, and with black hair, beard, eyebrows and pupils, in the typical mid-eastern fashion.
Around Christ’s head there is a white nimbo. This symbol is not of Christian origin; however, it does appear, beginning probably in the IV century, around Christ’s head in the frescos of the Roman catacombs (San Callisto). Thereafter, the use of the nimbo around Christ’s head became standard.
Significantly in this portrayal, Christ’s right hand, with three lifted fingers denoting the Holy Trinity, is raised in blessing. Is further explanation necessary?
In a lower panel, there is the figure of a boy who, because he lacks the traditional symbols of the Saints, must be the Roman patrician for whom the crypt was built.
There are also various scenes in various panels of lions and tigers in the act of sinking their teeth into deer. Again, these are Christian symbols originating in the First Epistle of St. Peter: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
© Copyright Paolo Campidori
G. Heinz-Mohr – Lessico di Iconografia Cristiana Istituto di Propaganda Libraria, Milano, 1995