Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Virtual Visit to the Catacombs (And a Lot of Bad Reportage About It)

Rome Reports has the following story about a conference held yesterday at the Catacomb of Priscilla to announce the inauguration of a new museum display at the catacomb, and also the addition of its galleries to the Street View feature of Google Maps.

I would hazard to point out that there is a slight error at the beginning of this piece, which opens with the words, “For years, these Roman catacombs were closed off... ”. It is true that many of the Roman Catacombs have been inaccessible to the public for a long time, and are likely to remain so. This particular catacomb, on the other hand, has been open to the public for decades, along with four others, those of Saints Callixtus, Domitilla, Sebastian and Agnes.

The inaccessibility of the Catacombs has a lot to do with the fact that some of them are enormous places where people might easily get lost. Priscilla, which is small by comparison, had about 50,000 burials; the nearby Cemeterium Majus had 750,000. One of the original explorers of the catacombs in the 19th century, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, nearly died after being lost for three days in complete darkness, three stories underground in the Catacomb of Callixtus. Many of them would require major interventions to bring them up to modern safety standards; for example, parts of the Majus are also now under water. The Pontifical Commission for Christian Archeology does hold special openings of the closed catacombs from time to time, and also makes them available to scholars. I have personally been present for an extraordinary opening of one of the catacombs on behalf of a writer for the magazine “Archeology”.
Part of the reserve about simply throwing open the doors of the catacombs is perhaps also due to the overwhelming volume of nonsense written about them. And indeed, the inauguration mentioned above was accompanied by some extremely silly articles, e.g. one from AP and another from Reuters, giving credibility to the fantasy that some of the pictures in them are of women priests. At the moment, a Google search for “Catacombs of Priscilla” leads to more such silliness at the always-reliable Daily Mail and MSN, among others. The first picture in question is this one, of a deceased woman praying with her hands extended.
The Reuters reporter writes that it “shows a woman whose arms are outstretched like those of a priest saying Mass.” He does not mention that this gesture of thanksgiving was used by everyone in the early Church, not just the priests. He bases his mistake in part on an error of the Italian version of the catacomb’s website, which calls the woman’s garment “liturgical”. The picture was made in the later part of the 3rd century, when there were no such things as liturgical garments. This portrait of the deceased woman shows her on the left getting married, and on the right, sitting on a birthing-chair, just after she has given birth to a child.

The second image is described as a group of women celebrating Mass together.
When this image was first uncovered in 1893, by the removal of a crust of dirt and calcium deposits, a disciple of de Rossi, Msgr. Joseph Wilpert, described it as an image of the “fractio panis - the breaking of the bread” during the Mass. This interpretation is given in a special article dedicated to the image in the original Catholic Encyclopedia. Real scholars are nowadays quite convinced that the depiction of an actual Mass this early in Christian art (3rd century) is simply unimaginable, and that it is actually shows a funeral banquet taking place in the very space where it is painted. Due to Wilpert’s original interpretation, and the two Greek inscriptions at the back of the space, it was originally called, and is still referred to as, “the Greek Chapel.” In point of fact, it is not a chapel, but a burial chamber. And by the way, only the veiled figure third from the right is a woman. I have seen a watercolor of this image made by Wilpert just after it was first uncovered; it has faded a great deal since then, but it was formerly very much clearer that the “womanpriest” on the far left had a rather full beard.

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