Author: B. F. C. Costelloe, M.A.

I have always felt that, difficult and fragmentary as are the indications that remain to us in the ruined catacombs which were the burial-places and at times the meeting places of the early Roman Church, those indications ought to throw considerable light, if they could be carefully studied, upon the faith and practice of the first ages. The circumstance that I have been led of late to consider the History of the Liturgy, brought me, as it were by chance, to reconsider some matters concerning the catacombs which had first been brought to my attention long ago. And when I was asked to lecture here,1 I chose this subject, because I felt myself driven to this conclusion — that the more people know of the evidences which the catacombs contain, the more irresistibly will it be borne in upon their minds, that the Church of those who worshipped there was not merely a Catholic as contrasted with a Protestant Church, but contained even comparatively developed forms of distinctively Catholic thought and doctrine, to a degree one would hardly have thought possible beforehand.

Some will know what the catacombs are. But it is worth while, in order that the nature of the evidence may be understood, to set this forth a little more distinctly. The catacombs are a very extensive series of artificial galleries wrought in the soft stone strata round the city of Rome, containing a maze of passages and chambers, and lined throughout with tombs. The passages and the tombs are hewn in the rock. In the vast majority of cases, the tomb as soon as it was filled was closed, and upon the slab or other plaster covering there was inscribed the monumental inscription of the dead, pious references to our Lord, expressions of hope and assurance of the future life, and, frequently, significant symbols of different kinds by way of adornment. In these galleries there are all manner of chambers — sometimes of considerable size, and constructed with considerable architectural skill. Certain of these are covered — especially the earliest of them — with a fine stucco, and upon this are drawn fresco-paintings which, as it is now clear, were meant to be symbolical. Of some of them, no one who studies them with care can have any doubt that they are in the nature of a standing catechism of the Christian faith.

The name of the "catacombs" has itself a notable significance. It originally referred only to one burial-place, and its use was transferred to all others — much in the same way as the name of the hospital near this spot [Bethlem] was conferred upon all lunatic asylums. The reason was the same. It was because the original local "catacomb" was the most celebrated of all that its name became universal. It was the place where the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul at one time rested, before they were taken to their ultimate destinations; and the resting-place of these Founders of the Roman Church became so famous as a place of pious pilgrimage, that its local name of "The Catacombs" was transferred to all other cemeteries of the like kind, not only in Rome, but in other parts of the world. I mention this in passing: but I ask you to note it as one of the many instances in the early history of the Christian cemeteries of that veneration for the relics of the saints which is (as all Protestants will agree) a sufficiently distinctive Catholic use.

I have spoken of the catacombs as Christian, but I ought to say at once that it was not the Christians who invented catacombs. Underground burial, in crypts of a similar kind, was not unknown even to the Romans; but those who especially constructed catacombs in Rome were the pre-Christian Jews. There are at present existing catacombs which probably date from before the Christian era, and which are clearly and distinctly Jewish. In these almost every inscription refers to "the Synagogue", and upon the slab, in very many cases indeed, there appears as a symbol the seven-branched candlestick of the Temple. The usage, therefore, of placing symbols upon the Christian tombs was not a new invention, but was a continuation of an earlier tradition.

It used to be supposed that the catacombs had been constructed secretly and in the days of persecution. That is not so. They were originally ordinary cemeteries, such as might be constructed by all who preferred underground burial: and, as a rule, until about the year 250, the construction and use of the catacombs went forward in comparative peace, and to a certain extent under the protection of the law. That is the reason of the circumstance that all the catacombs, or almost all, lie within a ring of about two miles and a half outside the walls of the City. This was the area prescribed by law for burial, and within that area anybody who chose to dedicate a piece of ground for the purpose of sepulture was protected by the Roman law.

But although the first two centuries and a half were a time of comparative peace, I must not be supposed to say that there were no disasters to Christianity either above ground or under ground. Within that period there were several fierce spells of persecution, and not a few Christians were even martyred in the catacombs themselves. It is necessary always to remember that the catacombs of Rome were undoubtedly not places of burial only, but also, on occasion, places of religious worship. They were places in which the primitive Church could assemble together for that distinctive religious rite which we now call the Mass, but which in those days of secrecy they called "The Gathering."2 Such celebrations undoubtedly took place at the tombs of those who had suffered for the Faith, and, for that reason, you will find that over the tombs of those who are most distinguished there are altar places — sometimes a square recess cut in the wall, later a recess with a flat slab but an arched top, which is technically called an 'arcosolium.' In both cases, as all the archaeologists admit, this was a preparation made distinctly and specially for the celebration of the Eucharist upon the tomb of a saint.3 Now I do not know how it may present itself to the Protestant mind. It is not easy for me, who have never been a Protestant, to understand how some of these things look to those who are outside. But I confess it seems to me, in the very threshold of the matter, a startling proposition that cemeteries which were deliberately prepared for the celebration of the Eucharist upon the tomb of a martyr, could be anything else but the memorials of a Catholic Church.

I say that there is no question that these places were designed for religious worship, and I go on to say that that proposition is not confined merely to the celebration of the Eucharist upon the tombs of the Saints. There are also in these underground structures larger chambers, in some of which it is said to be possible still to distinguish the very arrangements which were made for the gathering of the congregation, for the placing of the altar and the celebration of the rite. There is one of them — its date is not later than the year 250, and is at least possibly half a century earlier — in which there are to be seen still the four sockets for the pillars which supported an altar, that altar being, according to the use of the time, set out some little space from the back wall, in order that the 'Throne,' or as the Romans called it, 'the Cathedra,' of the Bishop who celebrated the Mass, might be placed behind it.

There are still more elaborate structures in other catacombs, but I will not discuss them with you now, because in some cases the identification or the date may be subject to doubt. There are actually monumental inscriptions to be found in the catacombs which relate how the Priests and the Bishops of the earliest Church were martyred in these catacombs in the act of saying Mass. There are two such cases at least preserved amongst the records of the catacombs that remain, and both of them refer to the events of a very early period of Christian history.

The first of them is the case of the epitaph of one Alexander (not the Pope) who died, as his epitaph says, "as he was about to sacrifice to the true God." I do not think anyone, whatever his pre-conceptions may be, will say that the statement that a Roman priest was "about to sacrifice to the true God" can have reference to any other kind of sacrifice than that which has been recognized always in the Roman Church. And in the case of one of the Popes, Sixtus the Second, who was martyred in the catacomb of St. Praetextatus, in the year 258, the records4 also state in graphic language how he was seized sitting upon his bishop's throne, and brought back to be beheaded at the same spot.

I do not wish however to go into this matter at length. It would be impossible to deal with all the collateral branches of the subject, and it is necessary to restrict ourselves to something like a definite course of argument. I desire only at the moment to make it plain that there was an extensive series of structures of this kind which were in common and constant use by the Church down to about the year 250, subject to occasional bursts of persecution. In the year 257, an Imperial edict forbade the use of Christian crypts, and from that time began a worse period which lasted for about 50 years, and ended in the great Diocletian persecution, which may be dated, broadly speaking, after the year 300. During this half century, the then existing catacombs were constantly harried and were to a large extent destroyed. In some cases the galleries were absolutely filled with earth, whether by the enemy, or by friends eager to protect them from sacrilege, it is no longer possible to say. I mention it here merely in order to explain how it is that vast quantities of the monuments of the generations before the year 250 have necessarily been destroyed.

After the triumph of Christianity in the reign of Constantine, not many years subsequent to the Diocletian terror, the catacombs were opened again, and at that time many fresh structures and further decorations, and consequently much destruction of the older monuments, undoubtedly took place. About the year 350 the use of the catacombs began to wane again; and Pope Damasus, whose pontificate extended from 356 to 384, proceeded to gather together the monuments of the ancient martrys. He rebuilt their tombs; he set up new and more elaborate slabs commemorating their deaths and their burials, and, by his own reconstructions, he also helped unfortunately to destroy many of the more ancient monuments which would have been of great interest to us today.

At the same time, there lived a Christian poet, Prudentius, who also devoted much of his enthusiasm to the scenes and to the history of the catacombs, which were then undergoing as it were a revival. After that generation they fell into greater disuse. The sacred, offices of the martyrs were carried on, with ampler room, in churches built above their graves, but sunk down to the old level through the solid rock. In the centuries that followed the catacombs were by degrees closed up, and the bodies of many of the saints and martyrs were taken away for devotional reasons by ecclesiastical authority to churches above ground. The subterranean burials ceased altogether about A.A. 410. In course of time, the barbarian invasions swept away all remembrance of this interesting series of underground monuments, and the knowledge of them was lost completely, until they were gradually re-discovered in modem times.

No one therefore must expect to find in the case of the catacombs anything like an elaborate or continuous series of records. As a matter of fact, there are very few of the sepulchral inscriptions which bear a fixed date.

The Christians of those times considered it of the greatest importance to recollect the day of the death of those for whom they cared, and particularly of the saints of the Church, because they assembled on that day for an anniversary service, as Catholics do to this day. But they did not care to mark the particular year in which they died, and therefore as regards the sepulchral inscriptions, it is not easy to say exactly to what date the great majority of the older series belonged. There are a certain number that are dated by the mention of the Consuls of the year, but these are not many or important. But by the diligence of many Roman archaeologists, and by the researches of many others, both Protestant and Catholic, there has been a progressive re-discovery of the mural decorations of the catacombs, including both the symbols upon the tombs and the paintings upon the walls; and, as the science of archaeology has advanced, it has been possible, to an extraordinary degree, to fix the actual dates of these symbols, either by the style of the painting, by the workmanship of the chambers and the stucco itself, or by other notes. In some cases it is possible to fix a date for passages and chambers in which particular frescoes are found, either from tombs which can be identified (such as those of the Popes), or by the aid of the tiles occasionally used in the construction of the more difficult parts of the galleries, which always bear the regnal stamp of the Imperial brickworks from which they came.

There are, therefore, in spite of the absence of stated years, methods of great delicacy by which the dates of particular designs can be identified; and when I say that a particular painting is of a particular date, it will be understood that it is upon these indications that I am basing myself, although of course in a lecture like the present it is not possible to give in each case the exact train of reasoning by which a given result is found.

This, however, is fortunately true, — that the two brothers De Rossi (who with their master and forerunner, the Padre Marchi, have done more than any others for the science of the catacombs), have been so peculiarly cautious and so scientifically conscientious in their decisions upon these difficult points, that in the vast majority of instances their conclusions have been frankly admitted by competent Protestant critics, without any considerable controversy as regards the facts or dates.

Now my present purpose is to set before you, quite shortly and in a popular way, one or two of the broad results of this mass of evidences. I have said that the more one went on to consider the facts concerning the catacombs, the more startlingly Catholic they appeared to be. I confess to you, I was myself surprised by the extent and cogency of the evidence — surprised, because it is so obvious that immense quantities of material have been destroyed, and that the most valuable testimonies to the faith and practice of the ancient Church may still lie hidden under the earth, or may long since have gone to ruin.

I was surprised also for this reason — that as the use of the catacombs was pre-eminently connected with the burial of the dead, and as the representations of all kinds to be found in them are necessarily grouped round that point, there are obviously large sections of religious doctrine for which such a place affords no very natural opportunity. Take, for instance, what an ordinary Protestant would consider the two most salient and distinctive facts about the Catholic Church — the Mass on the one hand, and "Mariolatry" on the other. I do not think any one, if he addressed his mind to it beforehand, would expect to find any large amount of evidence concerning either the one or the other in a series of underground cemeteries for the burial of the Christian dead. Nevertheless, as I shall show in a moment, there is evidence of extraordinary weight and fulness that upon both the one point and upon the other the Church of the catacombs held not merely an essential but a strongly developed Catholic view.

And there are a score of other points. Take, for instance, the question, much more disputed now-a-days than it was in the first centuries of the Church, concerning the special commission and primacy of Saint Peter, and the effect of that commission upon the whole practice and organization of the Church.

It is a curious thing — I certainly should not have expected it, but it is the fact — that the symbolical pictures of the catacombs preserve for us abundant indications of the strong affirmation by the Roman Church in the very first centuries of its existence, of that cardinal fact which it maintains today — that in the organization of the institution He left behind Him on earth, our Lord committed a special prerogative to Peter, and that it was through that prerogative and in connection with that jurisdiction that the ordinary dispensations of the Christian Church were to flow. I cannot go into it at length, but I will tell you in a word, and by way of illustration, what I mean.

Among the various symbolical representations of these chambers, there is one that constantly recurs. It is a representation, upon the face of it, of Moses striking the rock. Now it is clear, from the collocation in which this is placed, that it was to those early Christians a typical representation of the sacrament of baptism; and that the water which flows from the rock, is that spiritual water in which the Christian soul is born unto God; and that it is through that new birth that he becomes capable of the other sacraments, and in particular of the Eucharist, and through these of the great hope of the resurrection of the dead.


Now the astonishing part of the matter is that the figure which is striking the rock can be identified by cogent evidence as being intended, not merely for Moses, but for Peter. That evidence is found in many ways. It is found, for one thing, in the series of gilded glasses, the dates of which are indeed not certain, but which form a chain extending very far back into the early centuries. In some of these you find the figure striking the rock, and you also find a name written over it; and the name is not Moses but Peter. It is a curious fact, that in these cases the figure striking the rock has a distinctive face. It is a significant circumstance — although people who have not studied the matter in detail may doubt it — that the Roman Church can be proved to have preserved from the very commencement two typical representations, one of which was the face and head of Peter, and the other was the face and head of Paul. The sarcophagi of the time of Constantine carry on the same tradition. To those acquainted with the early archaeology of the catacombs it is a proposition beyond question that you can take back that figure striking the rock to a very early date, with such concomitants as make it apparent that the figure in obedience to whose 'rod of power' come the waters of the Divine grace through the channels of the sacraments of the Christian Church, was no other than the Prince of the Apostles.5

That is one side point; I will give you another. If there was one point more discussed than another in the controversies between our friends the reformers and the professors of the orthodox Catholic faith, it was the respective value of faith and works. To listen to the heroes of the German Reformation, there was nothing more deleterious than to suggest that any Christian should lay claim to anything whatever in the nature of 'merits.' Now you may be surprised to hear it, but it is nevertheless true that one note which is constant in a mass of sepulchral inscriptions, even when they contain only half-a-dozen words, is the assertion that the Christian dead had "deserved well." It is quite true that the pagan inscriptions often used the same formula. But if the Christians of the catacombs had held the views of the Lutheran reform, they would hardly have continued to talk, as they did, of the 'merits' which the Christian had acquired in his life, and which he took with him in humble confidence before his God.

I might go on to other like points; but it is desirable, on an occasion like this, to restrict one's self to something clear and definite which a hearer can take away; and therefore I will go back to those two distinctive Catholic doctrines, which are, I suppose, more commonly thrown in our teeth by the world outside than any others — on the one hand, our startling doctrine of the Eucharist, and on the other hand, our veneration for the high place assigned to the Blessed Virgin in God's scheme of the redemption of the world, which Protestants are pleased to call Mariolatry. I will take the second first.

I suppose there are very few persons, even of those that suppose themselves to be extremely tolerant towards the Catholic view, who are not completely convinced that the high position assigned in modern times by Catholics to the Mother of God is a thing invented at the earliest in the 4th or 5th century. You will remember that there were controversies with Nestorius, and that there were Councils, and that there were discussions as to whether the phrase I have just used — 'the Mother of God' — was one which was exactly orthodox or not; into those points I have of course no intention of entering here, for they are written in the tables of ecclesiastical history. But the remarkable thing is, that the catacombs attest that from the very commencement of the Christian ages — I use the term advisedly — the Church at Rome had always assigned a remarkably high, a remarkably honourable, and a remarkably important place to the Mother of our Lord in the scheme of Christian salvation.

There is one catacomb which is perhaps more indisputably ancient than any of the rest. It is that of St. Priscilla. It has preserved to us a large series of mural paintings which are most remarkable in this — that the figure of our Lady constantly recurs in places of high honour, and recurs in such a fashion that, as I shall show you presently, the intention clearly was to make conspicuous her particular share in the Gospel story. I will come back presently to the date of that catacomb, but I will tell you first of some of the remarkable pictures it contains.

When I was thinking over this matter, I discovered that the recent research of a learned German6 had put together all the representations of our Lady which have been discovered in the catacombs, and he had found ninety-six of them. Many of these, being sculptures, are possibly of later date — for most Christian sculpture is later than the commencment of the third century. But I took for my own guidance those which could be dated before the time of Constantine — before the time, that is, when the Church became an established religion, and during the period when according to all admission the early strength of the Apostolic tradition must have remained. It is from that collection and from that collection alone that I shall take the representations which I am about to describe to you. The reproductions have been made with German care and patience, and are perfectly trustworthy.

In the first place, there is a picture in a very early style of art which represents the Mother and Child seated. Above her head is a star. Upon the other side is a figure with a roll in one hand, clad in the philosopher's cloak, which at an early period appears to have been regarded in Rome as a priestly dress. This figure is pointing with its right hand to the group and to the star. There was at first some doubt as to what all this could mean. But practically all archaeologists, including the Protestant ones, are now agreed that this represents the Mother of Christ and the Child, and the Prophet Isaiah prophesying the 'great light' that was to arise on the world in the Incarnation of the Son of God.


In reference, it may be, to that earliest representation — for it is the earliest — in its connection with the Star, we have next certain representations of what we call the Epiphany. There is a sketch in the catacomb of Priscilla, ascribed to the beginning of the second century, but unhappily much obscured in its details by time. But there is another in the catacomb of Domitilla, dating not long after 200 A.D., which is preserved in full detail. Our Lady is seated in gorgeous robes, with a purple edge — a high honour in Rome — upon her chair. That chair is a remarkable feature, because it is the same chair which I have just described as that in which the Bishop sat when he celebrated the Mass. It was, in fact, the distinctive prerogative of the Bishops of the early Church.7

We may fairly say that to seat our Lady in that chair was, for the Church of Rome, to put her at least on a level with the Apostles. Upon either side are seen the Wise Men running to present their gifts; and the curious feature about the picture is this — that the Wise Men are not three, as the universal tradition has always supposed that they were, but four. And why are they four? The reason is patent. The picture fills up the whole of the transverse space between one long tomb above and another long tomb below. The designer of that picture, wishing to put Mary in the very central point of the whole panel, has placed her sitting and facing the spectator in the middle of his space; and so, in order to make his design consistent, he has put two Wise Men running from the East and two Wise Men running from the West. If he had wanted to find the simplest way in which to make it evident to later ages that he conceived the picture with a distinct reference to the veneration of the high office of the Mother of our Lord, I do not think he could have found a better.

It is a further curious fact that the representation of the Epiphany came to be a constant tradition in the Roman Church, and even in those representations of it which later became common — in which (as in the earliest one) the three Magi are running from one side, and our Lady and the Child are seated on the other — there is preserved a distinct indication on the part of the artist that he desires to give her a high place, because in most of them he goes out of his way to represent that while she supports the Child with one hand, she holds out the other to welcome the Wise Men who are coming from the lands of the Gentiles.

Look at the significance of all this, in the place where it is found. The Epiphany was the first presentation of the salvation that came in Christ, to the Gentile world. Rome was the capital and the centre point of the Gentile world. It is curiously rare in the early catacombs to find any scenes of our Lord's life at all. When we find them, they have evidently not an historical, but a special symbolic or dogmatic purpose.8 And when the Church of Rome represented, as a constant symbol in its tombs, the Epiphany, and accorded in that representation a high place to the Mother of our Lord, it was doing precisely what the Catholic Church has done ever since, — only it was doing it in its own pristine form, instead of the more elaborate, or, if you please, the more tawdry fashions, which later devotion has discovered.

Even that is not all. You have only to pass on to another of the catacombs to find another devotional picture of the Madonna, still more like what you might find in a modern Catholic Church. In a fresco dating from about 300 A.D. you find that all the accessories have fallen away, and you have a representation, again with the chair, again with the purple border and all the other circumstances of high honour, but showing not the Epiphany, not any given scene at all, not even any reference to prophecy, but simply the great type of the Mother and the Child, held up, then as now, for the veneration and the honour of the faithful.


Again, as if to make it still more clear, you have, from the early part of the second century, in the catacomb of Priscilla, what is, I suppose, in our own century the distinctive ornament of Catholic churches — with the addition in later times of a few high Anglican copies — you have actually a representation of the Annunciation. It is a curious representation. You see the Blessed Virgin, and again she is seated in the same chair. But this time she is waiting, and there comes in, with every circumstance of haste and importance, a young man. Now you must remember the Christians of the first centuries did not represent the angels with wings any more than the New Testament does. This young man is impressing upon her with outstretched finger some very important message that he has to give. And the archaeologists again are agreed from all the circumstances and details of the painting — and when I say agreed, I mean Protestants as well as Catholics — that this is the earliest picture of that Annunciation, which has been commemorated, I suppose, in a large proportion of all the Catholic Churches that have been built since.

I join to this, as part of the same series, merely in re-affirmation of what I have already said, that, as you have in one of these representations of the Epiphany the device of placing our Lady in the position of high honour by increasing the number of the Magi to four, and placing two on each side, so, in another not much later — between 250 and 300 — you have precisely the same device repeated, only with the variation that this time the number is reduced to two, so that there is one upon the one side and one upon the other.

Now I have not given you nearly the whole of the series, but I am taking typical cases; and I say that this collection of "Mariolatrous" pictures is a very extraordinary thing to find, on any view, in such early cemeteries of the Christians as those of which I am speaking, But I said I would point out to you why the cemetery of Priscilla, in which some of these and many other representations of our Lady recur, is a witness of special and remarkable moment. No one knows precisely who the foundress of that catacomb was; but there is one thing known about her, and that is that she was a contemporary of the Apostles. It is now perfectly clear that in that cemetery there was the burial place of the family of the Senator Pudens, in whose house, as all the world knows,9 Peter stayed. In that cemetery the daughters of Pudens were buried. In that cemetery there occur family and other names which connect you directly with that stock and with that time: and it is a fact practically as certain as anything in archaeology can be, that the persons who erected and the persons who decorated that cemetery — the persons, by consequence, who put up these testimonies to the veneration in which they held the Mother of God — were if not the contemporaries of Peter and Paul themselves, certainly the contemporaries of those who had heard their teaching from their own lips.

But now, lest I should be led away by the interest of the subject, I must pass to the other branch of which I said I would speak, that is, the doctrine of the Mass. And again I venture to say that one thing of which the mural decorations of the catacombs are full is the doctrine of the Eucharist.

There is another remarkable chamber in the subterranean city. It is called now the catacomb of Callisto. Callistus, as some of you may know, was a very early Pope who, before he rose to the Papal chair, had been the first deacon of Rome under Pope Zephyrinus.

One of the early Christian documents, the discoveries of which have been so plentiful within the last generation, and which have wrought so much confusion in the camp of German scepticism, is a fierce attack upon Callistus himself, and some of his contemporaries in the Roman Church — an attack written obviously by a partisan, and probably by a schismatic, who particularly detested the then occupant of the See of Rome. But like other attacks it has rendered considerable service to the cause that it impugned, because it has preserved this remarkable statement, that Pope Zephyrinus, who lived before the end of the second century, "appointed his deacon Callistus over *the cemetery*" and set him to organize it. From this we know that there existed10 in the last quarter of the second century a public cemetery belonging to the Christians of Rome, and already of sufficient extent and importance to make it worth while that the first deacon, practically the business chief of the whole community, should be placed in special control of it by the Pope. That cemetery is undoubtedly the one which was re-discovered and described by De Rossi a few years ago. How long it had existed before the time of Zephyrinus, it is not possible exactly to say; but certain of the dated tiles of which I spoke carry the date of the foundation of it certainly much further back, beyond the time in fact of the Emperor Commodus, whose accession was in 180 A.D.

In one of the entrances to that cemetery there are a series of chambers of peculiarly beautiful construction. They are overlaid with exceedingly fine stucco. They are painted by a person with considerable originality and some pretension, in his rough way, to expressive style. They are not as early as the great picture of our Lady and the prophet Isaiah, which, according to its style, is dated by most of the authorities actually within the first century. The present series of pictures is clearly not in the first century, but it belongs to somewhere in the second century, possibly in the middle, possibly in the later half. They date in any case, from the first beginnings of the catacomb; and that, as we have seen, may be put on a moderate estimate about 160 A.D.

Now what did these pictures represent? There are a series of chambers, one after the other, which repeat with variations the same theme. It is what I called, a short while ago, a kind of pictorial catechism of the Christian Faith, as they thought of it in the second century. You have at the commencement the figure striking the rock. You have the waters of Baptism flowing from the rock. You have a Christian soul represented curiously as a little fish which is being found in the waters of Baptism by one of the "fishers of men." A little further on you have the actual ceremony of Baptism, as the door by which the catechumens were received into the fellowship of the Church, and were admitted for the first time to the celebration of the Eucharist itself.

Immediately after this Baptism, accordingly, there follows a Eucharistic representation. I will tell you simply what it is. A man, clad in that same philosophic or priestly cloak which characterized the figure of Isaiah, is standing by a table with three legs — which, as we otherwise know, was a form of portable altar used by the early Church. On the other side of the altar is to be seen a female figure veiled, with her hands raised in prayer. Upon the altar-table is a fish, and beside the fish a number of breads. Each of these, in this and in every other case in which I shall mention them, seems to be marked with a cross. And the Priest — for it is no other — standing opposite the altar, is quite obviously represented as extending his hand over these breads, as in the act of consecration. In one of the parallel series the import of this is again made clearer by the fact that you have the faithful sitting down to the heavenly banquet, and that banquet, be it noted, is *not* the love-feast, which is represented in other parts of the catacombs — while in front of those who sit at the banquet, there are again (as in various other pictures which I have not time to refer you to) a row of baskets filled with these same breads. These, I take it, are evidently a reminiscence of the 'seven baskets' that remained after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.

Finally, on the following wall, there are the symbols of that resurrection of the dead, for which the Christians looked, as the result through Baptism of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

What I want, then, to point out to you is, first of all, that you have here a remarkable indication of the actual celebration of a primitive Mass. It is roughly and figuratively represented, it is true, but then you must remember that the actual doctrine of the Eucharist was a mystery to which not even the catechumens themselves were admitted till their baptism; and, therefore, it could not be with greater distinctness pourtrayed upon an almost public wall.

But there is something still more startling. A very curious detail is testified to by these pictures, in which the Hosts of the primitive Church are shown. I have told you that they are constantly marked with a cross. What is that cross? It is not merely the Cross of Calvary, although it is that too. The representation, as every Catholic here will realise before I say it — the representation upon the Host of the Cross of Calvary, has always been meant to be a symbol in the Church of its tremendous doctrine, that, the sacrifice of the Mass as our Lord instituted it, is in fact a real, though a strange and inscrutable renewal of His own sacrifice at His death. Yet the cross-mark of the catacombs is not merely that, though that itself would be sufficiently startling. I feel no hesitation in saying that the presence of that Cross upon a series of the representations of the Eucharistic bread in the catecombs goes further, and testifies actually to the antiquity of a minute incident of the ritual of the Mass, as we have it today, and as every other rite throughout the Catholic world has it too.

You are aware, of course, that there are many ways of celebrating the Mass, which, in the judgment of the Roman Communion, are quite equally valid and proper; and that some half-a-dozen of the great chains of liturgical tradition go back by different lines to the earliest, perhaps to Apostolic times. Now in every one of these usages there is a detail which is called the 'fraction of the Host'; that is to say, at a certain point of the liturgy, after the consecration, it becomes the duty of the Priest to take the sacred Host in his hands and to break it into a certain number of parts. That usage is constant in every liturgy; and in every liturgy it has a singular importance — so much so, that in some of them, as in the ancient liturgy of Spain, it has been expanded into almost fanciful elaboration. In all, the fraction of the Host is an essential part of the symbolical ceremonial, and it is so because it is intended and has always been intended to have reference to the 'Body which was broken' for us, and because this very action, by our Lord, is commemorated in the words of institution themselves.

Now the most primitive usage of the fraction of the Host, as not only the Western but the Eastern Church bears testimony, was that in preparing the Hosts for the sacred service, they were marked with a cross, and in that form they were broken. And those who are most familiar with the catacomb pictures will be the first to agree that I am stating to you the sober truth when I say that there is good reason to believe that these representations bear witness to the fact that the Priest who was consecrating the sacred bread upon that portable table in the catacomb of San Callisto was in the habit of using a rite which, even in such a detail as this, corresponded with the ceremonial which is followed every Sunday now. You will not misunderstand me. I do not mean, of course, that in every detail it was the same. But that in a variety even of small details it was the same,11 is an extraordinary and a startling fact.


It is impossible for a moment to attempt to do justice to the detail which crowds upon one's memory when one talks of these things; but, before I close I must explain to you what I meant when I said that upon that altar of the catacombs there was laid beside the bread a fish. The collocation of the fish and the bread in these Eucharistic representations is constant. In one of the rough inscriptions upon a grave-stone there are two fishes on either side, and each of them bears in his mouth a bread; there is a chain, making seven in all, of these breads passing from one to the other, and on every one of those breads there is also marked that very same cross of which I have spoken. Now what means this collocation of the fish with the bread?

Before I explain this to you I will describe yet one more of these Eucharistic symbols. Twice, in one of the most ancient crypts, they represent a river of flowing water. It is the same water as fell from the rock of Baptism. Upon the water there is seen the fish swimming. The back is bent hollow, and borne upon it there is a basket, made, apparently — because the whole thing is coloured and done in minute detail, — of osier twigs. Upon the top of that basket, there are a number of the same marked breads; and, in the centre of the basket there is a kind of window or transparent space, filled in with a patch of red colour, which you may interpret, if you please, as red wine or as blood.

Now that symbol by itself might have seemed unintelligible, but a passage of St. Jerome, who himself was familiar with these catacombs, and who lived not too long after that sign was painted, explains it to the letter. He is talking of a Bishop of his time, who had had large means but who had made himself a pauper by his charity to the poor; and St. Jerome, suddenly digressing, says "But I for my part know of nothing that can be called more rich than a man who carries the Body of the Lord in a basket of twigs and His Blood in a chalice of glass." It was this apparatus which was used by the poorer parishes in Rome and elsewhere to send the Eucharistic elements from the parent parish church, either to other minor churches, or to those of the faithful who might be sick. That fish, therefore, which is passing over the waters of Baptism, simply means, in the language of the catacombs, our Lord Himself carrying, through the channels of the sacrament, His Body and Blood to the faithful.

Do you ask why I say that the fish is our Lord? Some of you, no doubt, will know the reason why. For those who do not, I will explain. The fish is one of those semicryptic symbols which the Church then used, to hide the mysteries it cared for so dearly, from the eyes of those who would only blaspheme. They chose the fish as a kind of acrostic, because the Greek word which signifies a fish contains five Greek letters, and each of those five letters is the initial of a word, and those five words read thus: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour." Therefore, whenever you find the fish in that collocation in the catacombs, it was this idea that the Christians read; and when they put the fish upon that altar-table or elsewhere along with the sacramental bread, they meant to say exactly what we say — that in the Mass the two things become the same.

Indeed, I do not hesitate to say that the true symbolism of these same acrostic pictures — frankly and simply read, say by some sceptic who believes nothing of Christianity at all — imports not only that these Christians celebrated the Mass; not only that they believed in the Sacraments; not only that they believed in the Real Presence of our Lord; but that they held a body of doctrine so minutely and particularly identical with that which is the orthodox doctrine of Catholicism today, that we may well claim that the preservation of these long buried records was a special Providence of God. Certainly none of those who saw the martyrdom of Peter and of Paul and prayed before their tombs in this same city of the dead, could ever in their wildest imaginations have supposed that the eyes of our latter day would find upon these mouldering walls so accurate, and to the candid student so unimpeachable a record of the faith once delivered to the Apostles, and by them to the Church of Rome.

There are, as all students know, two remarkable early Christian epitaphs — that of the much-travelled Bishop Abercius, and that of a Christian lad at Autun — in which this symbol of the fish is explained in full, and in an undoubtedly Eucharistic sense. The date of the visit of Abercius to Rome was about A.D. 200. The other epitaph is somewhat later; but it is interesting also because of its reference to prayers for the dead, and, indeed, to the 'memento of the dead' at Mass. But it is unnecessary to urge these collateral proofs. The memorials of the catacombs, fairly interpreted, tell their own story, and it is clearly the story of a Catholic Faith.

I will take only the three salient points that I have dealt with. We have the frequent recurrence of the Eucharist in various forms, and particularly as the Bread marked with the cross for breaking; and we have this carried back at least to 175 A.D. How much further the lost evidences might take us, we know not, but even the date given is early enough for most people.

We have the constant recurrence in some of the earliest of all the catacombs of representations giving high and significant honour to our Lady. Some of these pictures, as it happens, are among the oldest of those extant, and must have been seen, if not designed, by the converts of Peter and Paul.

And we have, as the settled 'hieroglyph' for Baptism, the symbol of the Patriarch striking the rock, in which the designers frequently go out of their way to indicate that the Patriarch was to be understood as Peter. The symbol we can trace also to A.D. 175, and there is no reason to suppose the personal identification a later idea.

Finally, we have the palpable and omnipresent fact that from the first the catacombs implied a reverent communion with the saintly dead, and that their tombs were used as the altars of an anniversary celebration of the Christian rite. If these things be true, or anything like the truth, is it not obvious that those who followed close on the Apostles and their pupils, and who lived in the early days of the Martyrs, before either the Diocletian storms or the Constantinian peace, professed, in a very well-developed form, what we now rejoice to call the Catholic and Apostolic Faith ?

1. The lecture was originally delivered St. George's, Southwark, in 1893, as one of a series of lectures to Protestants organized by the local branch of the Catholic Truth Society. return

2. Latin or Greek synonyms of various kinds, framed so as not to convey to the outer world the full meaning of the rite which they regarded as a mystery, but all carrying the same reference, hand on for us the tradition of that distincive observance which is called in the acts "the gathering together of the faithful for the breaking of the (Eucharistic) bread."


3. St. Jerome mentions in detail how he when a boy at Rome (about A.D. 365) used to go with his companions on Sundays "to visit die tombs of the Apostles and martyrs ... excavated in the bowels of the earth." And Prudentius, writing in the same generation, tells us in terms how "the same table of stone feeds us with the holy food of the Sacraments, and is also the safe keeper of the martyr's bones." There is every reason to believe that the custom which was then so well-known, had existed ever since there were martyrs to commemorate. There is direct evidence of such an event in A.D. 283-4, when a band of Christians, entering the catacomb with 'the sacred vessels' for this purpose, were walled up and buried alive. The Mass and martyrdom of Pope Sixtus in 258 is referred to later. As to the veneration of martyrs' relics, this is attested not only by the undoubted honours paid to the 'body of blessed Peter' ever since the end (at least) of the first century in his crypt on the Vatican, but equally, to cite another church, by the well-known case of the relics of St. Ignatius, from 116 A.D. return

4. See the Damascene inscription in Northcote and Brownlow's *Roma Sotteranea*, vol i., p. 151, cf. p. 302. return

5. Dr Cutts, in the recently issued S.P.C.K. volume on *Early Christian Art*, singularly obscures the importance and early prevalence of this symbol. He speaks (p. 222-3) as if it were very difficult to see any meaning in it at all, and as if it were quite doubtful whether it referred to baptism. But he gives no reason for this curious dubiety, except that "that in all the baptisteries, including that in the Catacomb of Pontianus, the baptism of our Lord is always adopted as the appropriate symbol." He omits to add that such a scene of baptism is expressly bracketed with this symbol in the great sacramental series in San Callisto. The matter, in fact, is too plain for argument. He admits the indentification of the figure striking the rock with Peter: but he sets this aside by ascribing it airily to "some later examples," and by hinting that the reason for it was because Peter in the Acts is said to have bidden the Jewish converts to 'repent and be baptized,' and to have admitted the Gentile centurion to baptism. Mr. Cutts does not refer to the obvious Roman interpretation of the series of Rock symbols which is strongly pressed by De Rossi. He does not suggest how an Anglican might meet it, except by a discreet silence. As to the alleged "lateness" of the examples which identify St. Peter, there is no proof of it whatever. The examples of it which are found in the gilded glasses are to be dated somewhere in the third century! The portrait heads by which SS. Peter and Paul are there identified, are much more likely to be early than late, for the archetype, as seen in the beautiful medal found by Boldetti in the Catacomb of Domitilla, must be of second century work. The well-known portrait head of Pope Callistus, with his name which corresponds in style to these Petrine glasses, cannot well be placed much later than his death (in A.D. 222), since there is no reason to suppose that his portraiture would have been handed down through any interval of time. The identity of the figure at the Rock with Peter is so well settled with the sculptors of Christian sarcophagi, that they bring in the rock incident into a series of scenes from the life of the Apostle. This example is Constantinian, but it indicates that the tradition was then well-rooted. How old it really is, no one can pretend to say; but it is safe to say that it is certainly older than the Diocletian, and probably older than the Decian persecution. The fact is, that the whole body of the Petrine Tradition at Rome, as evidenced by the discoveries relating to the catacombs, is (to say the least) a singularly string confirmation of this side of the teaching of the CathoUc Church. return

6. Liell, *Darstellungen d. Heiligen Jungfrau Maria i.d. Katakomben* — Freiburg 1887. return

7. The tradition that that Lady should be so represented in a chair of the distinctive episcopal form, is not only constant in the catacombs from the earliest to the latest examples, but passed on into Byzantine and and Italian art with little change, even when its significance was, no doubt, forgotten. return

8. E.g., the raising of Lazarus is evidently not a record of the miracle, but a sign of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. The references to the marriage of Cana, or the multiplication of the loaves and fishes are adimttedly Eucharistic. But the whole number of such Gospel scenes is very small. return

9. It is hardly necessary now to refute the monstrous Protestant theory that Peter never was at Rome. The very argument on which Calvin originally based this perversion of history — the reference in 1 Peter 5:13 to "the church which is in Babylon," is now admitted by all critics of any repute, Protestants and Agnostics included, to be itself the proof of the tradition. For 'Babylon,' in the Neronian days, was the Christian synonym for Rome, as the ultra-Protestants are quick to remember when they wish to make abusive use of the Apocalypse. return

10. Dr. Cutts in the volume referred to, makes the misleading assertion (at p. 120), that "the first public cemetery which belonged to the Roman Church as a corporate body was a considerable area on the Appian Way *obtained by the Pope Zephyrinus at the beginning of the third century.*" The passage of the Philosophumena, on which alone this assertion can be based, implies, on the contrary, that this catacomb was in existence and was 'the cemetery' of the Roman Church, before that Pope specially appointed his deacon Callistus as its administrator; and the dated bricks leave no doubt that a certain trial passage was built in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (A.A. 161-180). The dedication of the area to the purposes of Christian burial must have been long prior to the attempt to enlarge it by the trial gallery in question, which may be naturally referred to the persecution that began in A.D. 161. All this any one may see by a careful perusal of Northcote and Brownlow's excellent summary of De Rossi's most scientific demonstration (in Bk. v. ch. ii. 2nd ed. v. i. p. 397-404). The date of the appointment of Callistus over it is said to be A.D. 127. Since St. Zephyrinus and the succeeding Popes (excepting by chance Callistus himself) were buried here in a special crypt, it is probable that the appointment mentioned in the Philosophumena was connected with a decision to transfer the official 'memoria' of the "Popes from the Vatican to this spot, which had apparently already become by that date the most important of the Christian cemetries. Some of the texts of the 'Liber Pontificalis,' which preserves (as is well known) items of very important evidence in such matters, state of Pope Anicetus (A. D. 150-162) and Pope Soter (162-171), that each was *'sepultes in caemeterio Callixti Via Appia.'* Other texts say *'in Vatticano.'* The latter is preferred by De Rossi; but it is very possible that the variant reading is merely a confusion, and that the original text was *'fecit caemeterium Callixti Via Appia sepultus est in Vaticano.'* A later editor, who did not know that the cemetery was really older than the man whose name was connected with the most splendid part of it, would suppose this to be a blunder; though to us it is, in view of the brick dates, almost mathematically demonstrable that, whether Anicetus began them or not, the earlier structures of the area, including the Chapels of the Sacraments referred to in the lecture, were in existence in his time. It may be added that, in any case, this was not the first cemetery which belonged to the Church in its corporate capacity; for it is abundantly clear that the 'memoria' of St. Peter in the Vatican crypt had been from the first an official place of underground burial for the Popes. There is no reason to doubt the express statement of the Liber Pontificalis that the successor of Clement 'constructed' there a burial chamber; and a tombstone bearing the name of 'Linus' was found on the spot. (Roma Sotteranea, vol. I., p. 113-4) The common formula of the Liber Pontificalis for the fourteen successors of St. Peter, down to Zephyrinus, is a notable testimony to the strong Petrine tradition of the Roman Church. It states, apparently from ancient and authentic records, in each case the mode of burial, and the common form is 'sepultus juxta corpus Beati Petri in Vaticano.' return

11. A number of the older catacomb tombstones preserve the well-known words "Pax Tecum," probably also in remembrance of the formula of the Kiss of Peace. return

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