Interview with Estelle Shohet Brettman on “Judaism and Christianity in the Catacombs of Rome”

On 13 January 1980, right at the time the International Catacomb Society was being formed "to raise funds to preserve the Jewish catacombs of Italy", society co-founder Estelle Shohet Brettman discussed her new exhibition on funerary art in the catacombs, "Judaism and Christianity in the Catacombs of Rome", with journalists Sonya Hamlin and Frank Avruch of the Sunday Open House television program. This was one of three televised appearances by Brettman in 1979-1980 "because of interest generated by the exhibit" (she also was interviewed by Carol Yelverton for a Channel 68 cultural segment on 26 December 1979 and by Carol Collins for the TV series "Show of Faith" on 8 February 1980). The International Catacomb Society has digitized the Sunday Open House segment, which can be viewed at this link, along with footage for the "Show of Faith" program that records the original installation of Brettman's catacombs exhibit at the Boston Public Library between December 1979 and February 1980 (link)

Brettman's exhibit, renamed "Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome," would travel to many different venues in the USA and abroad though the late-1990's (link). In 2003, the show was digitized as a virtual exhibit, complete with a catalogue in pdf originally published by Brettman in 1985 (these images, and thousands of others from Brettman's slide library, also can be viewed in DAPICS). Nearly twenty years after its launch, "Vaults" continued to draw crowds and educate an English-speaking public about the cemeteries used by Jews, Christians, and polytheists in late antique Rome and other parts of the Mediterranean. The main thrust of Brettman's research was, as she put it, on "how symbolism used over 3000 years ago was tied in with that used in Christian, Greco-Roman, and Jewish burials in the Roman empire". Her outlook was ecumenical and dedicated to raising public awareness about the underground burial sites so that there would be better efforts to study and preserve them as "important links" to different societies' shared concerns and beliefs. As a longtime museum educator, Brettman also lectured extensively about ancient art, and at the time of her death in 1991 was completing a monograph on the catacombs, now edited and published in part in open source format on the ICS website (link).

Thanks to this extraordinary legacy, the International Catacomb Society remains on the forefront in developing learning resources and education networks for making ancient cultures more accessible and relevant to our own lives. To expand upon this mission and increase funding for its public programming and scholarships, the society depends on the vital support of individuals like Estelle Brettman, who became a true "star", not only in name ("Estelle"), as a shining example of generosity so many years after her death. 

As the society has honored and perpetuated Estelle's memory since 1991, it welcomes the involvement of others who desire to establish and endow a legacy project or projects in keeping with its focus on public scholarship. Through the Society's Patrons and Partners program, eligible ICS sponsors can obtain naming rights to a scholarship, lecture series, or other project, including but not limited to those ICS currently supports. ICS offers a specialized network of professionals and students on five continents, powerful outreach, and expert staff in program development. Please do not hesitate to reach out to ICS at to discuss your ideas about future collaboration, and new ways to look at the old, as Brettman did in a wonderfully creative and independent way that started as a search for answers, led to her life's work, and, ultimately, gave birth to a legacy. This is the ICS.

(Image: Estelle Shohet Bretmann meeting with close friend, Cardinal Giuseppe Caprio, to discuss Vatican logistical support for showing of "Vaults of Memory" in Rome)

In Memoriam: Fabio Filippello, ICS Collaborator (1942-2017)

The ICS learned only recently that Fabio Filippello, an ICS collaborator in the 1980's, passed away in his native Rome on 12 February 2017. Mr. Filippello was the creator of a number of photographs of catacomb paintings and Early Christian and Jewish artifacts in museums and other collections included in the ICS exhibit "Vaults of Memory - Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome".

In memory of its late president and a life-long car enthusiast, the MG Car Club Italy is organizing "I Sette Colli - La Sabina, Memorial Fabio Filippello", a 3-day tour from 5-7 October 2018. Registration forms are here and further information can be obtained from MG Car Club d’Italia Via Trasversale Marecchia, 5575 – 47822 Santarcangelo (RN) - Cell. 3283297213 Tel. 0541/1792259 E-mail

ICS's last contact with Mr. Filippello was in Rome in 2016, when he was kind enough to share with staff originals of photographs now in DAPICS, the Digitized Archives Program of the ICS. We express sincere condolences and appreciation for his great assistance to the ICS in its formative years. 

[Photo: Fabio Filippello, Abigail Gillespie, Alberto Marcocci, and Estelle Brettman in the atrium of the Jewish Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, ca. 1980]

Open Source Access to ICS Research on Jewish Catacombs of Rome

The International Catacomb Society is pleased to announce open source access to research on the Jewish catacombs of Rome conducted on site over many years by society founder, Estelle S. Brettman. Brettman, who died in 1991, left unfinished her lengthy monograph, "Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and Their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World," but ICS directors Florence Z. Wolsky and Amy K. Hirschfeld continued the project after her death, and parts of the collective work have now been edited, annotated, and digitized by the ICS's current executive director, Jessica Dello Russo, who explains in a preface what seem to have been Brettman's key concerns in the study of Roman catacombs, and why her work, carried out over fifteen years with what a critic called "dramatic intensity", still matters to current scholarship on these sites. As an early supporter of Brettman put it: "the story of Mrs. Brettman and how her project came into being is in itself fascinating, aside from the substantive aspects of the material that came out of the mythic descent into the depths of the earth beneath Rome."

"Vaults of Memory" as a monograph was long a priority of the ICS, and calls for its completion have resumed in recent years, after a long hiatus. One current ICS board member even believes Estelle Brettman appeared to her in a dream, asking that her book finally be complete. The possibility of completion at first seemed remote: much of the manuscript was lost, or in fragmentary form, and that which remained existed in multiple versions, undated and marked throughout in red ink. Co-creator, Florence Wolsky, in her early 90's, still spirited but fading, was no longer in a condition to assist with the project, and the other author, Amy K. Hirschfeld, had already published revisions of the material under her own name, realizing Brettman's worst fears of "being copied in many places". Dello Russo's familiarity with the source material for Brettman's text, however, provided direction as to how to shape the work in digital form. With a great amount of current information on the catacombs already on line at, as well as operational research databases like DAPICS and BiblioSelect, the Brettman study could be contextualized chronologically and even conceptually, testifying to the vivid "shock of recognition" that modern Jews and Christians were experiencing in the last decades of the twentieth century as new publications of textual and archaeological evidence were challenging traditional notions of the development of these "adjacent communities" in Imperial Rome. Brettman's "visual odyssey" rode a high wave of ecumenism, but broke, too soon, against the hard barriers set up by various political and religious factions, forces with power to turn good intentions into failed results.

It has been challenging, today, to enter into the mindset of another era, as well as that of individuals with different agendas and experiences in the study of the catacombs of Rome. Like Giovanni Severano's cutting up Antonio Bosio's text of the Roma Sotterranea, the result of course will not meet the original author's expectations. Brettman herself seems to have dreaded not doing so - as a self-described "relative newcomer to the field" - comparing her "life's work" to the elephant in the closet, looming over all other aspects of her existence. Nonetheless, she strongly believed that she had a place in catacomb studies, in the words of art historian Richard Brilliant, "opening the field, so that everyone seems to be jumping in". ICS has adopted the phrase as its guide to the digital text of "Vaults", an open invitation, like that always so warmly extended by Brettman herself, to experience the "communality of religion", indeed, dramatically. Please let us know how you do.

- Jessica Dello Russo 3 July 2018

ICS at 17th International Congress of Christian Archaeology (July 1-7, 2018)

The 17th International Congress of Christian Archaeology on "Frontiers - the transformation and Christianization of the Roman Empire between Center and Periphery" starts in Utrecht on Sunday, 1 July, 2018, and moves to Nijmegen for the second half of the week, ending with an excursion to the Catacombs at  Valkenburg on Saturday, 7 July 2018. The full program of events, including a public session on "The Destruction of Christian Heritage in the Near East" is posted at:
International Catacomb Society Vice President, Prof. Annewies van den Hoek (Harvard University, emerita), a member of the congress' Dutch National Steering Committee, is chairing the Persia, Armenia, and Georgia session on Monday, 2 July, from 17:30-18:15, and presenting the following day in the Roman North Africa session on "The Reaper, a wandering therapeutic image". Her husband, ICS advisor John J. Herrmann, Jr., curator emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will also deliver a paper on "Coptic influence in Mediterranean painted pottery" in the session "Center and Periphery II", on Tuesday, 3 July, from 14:30-15:30.
The Congress is co-organized by current ICS advisor, Prof. Sible L. de Blaauw and ICS past director Prof. Leonard V. Rutgers, who served on the society's board in the late 1990's.
The International Catacomb Society warmly congratulates Professors de Blaauw, Herrmann, van den Hoek, Rutgers, and colleagues on the organization and planning of this quinquennial event.

Recap of “New Lives of Ancient Arts”: Evening to Honor ICS Founding Directors Estelle S. Brettman and Florence Z. Wolsky

On May 24, 2018, International Catacomb Society members and friends came together on the premises of Grogan and Company on Charles Street in Boston to honor two of the organization's founders and longtime directors, Estelle S. Brettman and Florence Z. Wolsky. The joint commemoration was made to celebrate the deep friendship between the two and shared interest in the Classical world, which led to collaboration on exhibits and events for the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America before the birth of a new non-profit foundation in 1980 to promote research on Jews in the Greco-Roman world. This new entity, the International Catacomb Society (ICS), originally the International Committee for the Conservation of Catacombs in Italy (ICCI), in time widened the scope of its mission, but never lost the dedicated, focused presence of these two women, who believed in the visionary enterprise not only at its start, but as long as they were able, Wolsky even retiring from the MFA's Classical Arts department to take over the public operations of the ICS after Brettman's death in June of 1991, and remaining on the board until her own death in 2018, just as her final, posthumous collaboration with Brettman, the catacomb study, "Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs in Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World," was being released in digital form. The May 24 event was, in fact, one of the very few to date at which Wolsky was lacking, though her presence was as strong as ever, thanks to the showing of a documentary by artist Karen Audette, "The Nike Chariot Earring" (2015), narrating Wolsky's involvement in the recovery of a priceless artifact in the MFA's collection, and personal tributes to her spirit and character movingly delivered by her son, Alfred Wolsky, current president of ICS, and John J. Herrmann, Jr, Wolsky's longtime colleague and supervisor at the MFA from 1976-2004. The Audettes have graciously given ICS permission to share the film here (link)

Florence Wolsky with Prof. Leonard V. Rutgers at ICS event in 1997

In addition to the presentations, the evening was made especially pleasurable by the generous hospitality of the Grogan family; the delicious Mediterranean refreshments from Boston Kebab House provided by ICS financial advisor David Basile; an abundant displays of flowers from ICS president Alfred Wolsky, son of one of the honorees; and donations to the Shohet Scholars Fund by many ICS supporters and friends. Their kindness helped make this event not one of nostalgia for the past, but hope for the future of ICS.

From Stone to Light with Janet Shapero

Of Estelle Brettman, much has been said and recorded on the ICS website, including an eulogy by Wolsky at an early tribute held in 1992. "New Lives of Ancient Arts," however, brought a new voice into the act, that of artist Janet Shapero, who as a young girl developed a special bond with Brettman during a trip to Sicily in the mid-1970's, an experience which Brettman later said was the impetus for her creation of the ICS. The "lightning-flash" moment, as recounted by Shapero, happened during a visit to the necropolis of Palazzolo Acreide in Eastern Sicily. Close to the entrance to one of the burial caves cut into the hillside, one of the women hit her foot against a small boulder and dislodged it. Rolled over, it revealed a scratched design that resembled a straight-branched candlestick, similar to some ancient depictions of the Jewish ritual object known as the menorah. An extra detail that Shapero added to the story during her May 24 lecture is that right before the Sicily trip, she and the Brettmans had seen the exhibit "Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured several artifacts with Jewish emblems or other documentation that linked the material to a Jewish context. The show's ground-breaking approach for the time was to look back at the Late Roman era not as a period of decadence and destruction but as an Empire-wide passage to Christian rulership under many ancient norms. Brettman and Shapero were thus "primed" to consider Jewish artifacts in mixed settings, as the burial grounds had been used over many centuries for pagans, Christians, and, apparently, also by Jews. 

Janet Shapero at Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily.

Shapero also recalled Brettman's faith in visionary thinking and individual goals, those seemingly impossible but important to achieve for the soul's sake, beyond any promise of material rewards. With evident gratitude, she described how Brettman had helped her through the early stages of her career as a multimedia artist in sculpture and film to get out of dead ends and take risks with her work. Later, in her exploration of the effects of light and color layering in her signature "Rete-Chrome" series, Shapero thought back to Brettman's interest in ancient Jewish motifs, and integrated a variation on the menorah they had found in the piece "Menorah-In Memory of Estelle" (2013), and the Hebrew letter "Shin" in another (2012). In this way, she felt connected to Brettman once again over the use of art to express one's own inclusion in the whole, "owning what is my own, my Jewish experience," as she put it.

In her talk, Shapero also elaborated upon her artistic development with memories of her apprenticeship to a public sculptor in Italy and realization of installations in sites throughout the United States and abroad. She works today in a studio near Boston, which can be visited upon request and on occasion holds "open studios". A digital catalogue of her work is on view at

The second part of the evening was a very personal and immediate commemoration of Florence Wolsky, who died this past winter at the age of 95. In addition to the film showing and remarks by MFA curator emeritus, John J. Herrmann, Jr., on Wolsky's resolve of the Nike Earring Caper, a vivid sense of Wolsky's personality was evoked by her son, ICS President, Alfred Wolsky, who described his mother as a formidable scholar, writer, artist, and matriarch. It was impossible not to imagine Wolsky in the room, sitting near the front, listening with pleasure and pride to her son's lively but also deeply heartfelt narrative of her achievements and character. With permission, Alfred Wolsky's talk is reproduced below.

Florence Wolsky: Wife, Mother, Scholar, Artist: Tribute by Alfred Wolsky

"I thought originally that it would be easy for me to write and say a few words about my extraordinary mother, Florence Wolsky. After all, I thought, there are so many things to talk about.
But it has proven difficult for me, very difficult; and for the exact same reason. There are so many things to talk about.

She had a distinguished and successful life by any standard, jammed, it seems in hindsight, into a mere 95 years: a life made all the richer both for herself and for the many many people who knew her - and loved her; by the wonderful animus, energy, kindness, and remarkable initiative she brought to living it.

She was born in the last days of 1922 in Fall River. Her father, Max Zundell (Zundell is an Ellis Island pronouncement "Sonny boy" given to his father, Isaac Juvantischi). Max, born in the US in July of 1884, was a professional and talented violinist, and I am certain that Florence inherited her considerable musical talents and artistic temperament from him. Her mother, Helen, was a dressmaker who had immigrated to the United States in 1913 to avoid the pogroms in Eastern Europe. She was an unassuming, very smart lady who, when I came onto the scene many years later, was fluent in at least 5 languages: Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German and English*. (*My mother was also a champion speller, and could complete Henry Hook crosswords in the Globe -no matter how unreasonable the clues were- almost always without any assistance). Helen & Max were caring, dedicated, loving parents to my mother, and I knew them as kind, extremely gentle and loving grandparents. My mother certainly inherited these qualities and did her best to pass them on to my sister, Liza, and to me.

After some moving around during the Depression years which hit her and her family very hard, indeed, Florence finished her high school at Girls' Latin School in Boston and then studied at Cambridge Junior College, where she made lasting friendships which endured and guided her as long as life allowed; and perhaps beyond that, depending upon perspectives...

She met my Father, Leonard Wolsky, during the war, probably during the period she worked as a drafts-person at MIT on the first digital computer prototype, WHIRLWIND 1 -as her contribution to the war effort. During their courtship, she told me, she would go on walking dates with Lenny, because neither of them had any money, and Florence had no problem going out for a date on the super cheap!

They were married in 1944. I must say a few words about my Father, and it is no digression, because my parents were happily and inseparably married for more than 50 years until he passed away in 1996. In many ways they were, or over time, became- serious reflections of each other's backgrounds and leanings; so that in commenting on the one, the other had to be included for clarification or essential reference! Leonard had gone to Boston Latin School and hated it, but graduated first in his class of 1940; he then attended Harvard on a full scholarship, and, in his junior year was first in his class at the College, but never graduated (his was the Class of '44). He proceeded, instead - under wartime considerations - with a full scholarship to the Medical School from his junior year. My Mother complained - if that is the word to use - self-deprecatingly, that after my father met her, he stopped studying, took her out for dates on nights preceding exams--- and only graduated 5th in his medical school class. She also would state - a little wistfully - that she might have had a professional career in music had she not married him and settled down…and had children…. She was an accomplished singer and skilled performer on piano, zither and guitar, and wrote numerous funny songs, skits and even a whole kosherized spoof on Madama Butterfly (Butterfly Finklestein, Queen of the Ginza, I dip all mein bagels in Sake). She even snuck into the back stage of the Boston Opera, one evening, threw on a costume and majestically waved a huge fan in the AIDA Triumphal scene! For those who knew her, close your eyes: can't you just see it?

My Father, Dr. Wolsky, was, first and foremost and by his personal mission statement, a healer -but, in addition, he was a self-disciplined and accomplished scholar. To give just one example, he was asked to deliver a series of lectures on biblical history to students at Regis College, a Roman Catholic institution - very well received by students and faculty alike! - this certainly encouraged Florence's aspirations to study the subjects which interested her, and during the early 60's she returned to college, studying at Boston University and eventually obtaining a masters degree. It was there, as a mature undergraduate, that she became acquainted with Emily Vermuele, first as her professor, and later (after she recovered the Nike Earring for the MFA)--more about that later- as a mentor and friend; all leading to Florence's 40+ year stint (overall) in the Classical Department (later Arts of the Ancient World) at the MFA.

And as it may be said, whilst all this was going on, Florence also maintained her active interest in music by becoming the assistant director (working with her close friend Anita Kurland) of the Youth Concerts at Symphony Hall program, and she was an expert on the concert hall itself (I became and expert in making paper airplanes form the program brochures at concerts), and on the somewhat risqué (for Boston) statuary adorning the place, giving talks on the subject, and publishing articles which I understand are still quoted in Symphony Hall program pamphlets!

She was active in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, giving gallery talks, and she composed The Isabella Gardner Rag ("though she really was a bossy old bag!"); a song which will live forever, I am certain, among the cognoscenti…

And, she became a close friend of Estelle Brettman, the founder of the ICS, and, as the original Secretary of the new organization, was one of the principals involved in setting up the outfit and in carrying on Ms. Brettman's original research and vision which, as you can all attest, right now, is a legacy in progress!

Of course, my interface with Florence was as my mother. I forgive her for trying to educate me (as should those of you who know me). After all, she tried very hard. If you agree with that astute sage -whose name I can't recall just now- that education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he was able to learn in school then maybe her efforts were not in vain...

Florence Wolsky was one of the kindest, most compassionate, diplomatic, polite, tolerant and generous people who ever lived; except that she was much tougher with herself and her children, upon whom she attempted to impose her standards---which were exceedingly high- to be honest, at the level of absolute perfection! These standards, however, led to her painstaking thoroughness and undeniable attainment of excellence in her career of scholarship and research at the MFA (and in the ICS); leading her to be published and co-cast as an author with Professor Emily Vermuele of that WEIGHTY bestseller, Toumba Tou Skouru , and to be of vital assistance in many MFA departmental projects such as: the Pompeii AD 79 show; the Romans & Barbarians exhibition; The Search for Alexander; and numerous gallery talks over the years.

She had scores of friends - many close friends - and admirers. Her social calendar was jammed! My mother smuggled me into lectures, semi-private receptions at the MFA- and elsewhere; and I met many people through her good offices who inspired me and enriched my life. To name a random few of the many: I became well acquainted with the Vermueles; Cornelius and Emily, met Zahi Hawas, Mme. Deroches Noblecourt, Mark Lehner, Peter Lacovara, Lawrence Berman, Tim Kendall, John Herrmann and Annewies (whom I am still on speaking terms with); Jessica Dello Russo… even Malcolm Rogers---and one Sunday afternoon I almost knocked over, by mistake, Michael Dukakis at one of the gallery exhibitions (we both apologized); I listened to ancient musical instruments from the Museum Collection, visited the basement "exhibits" -some of the best stuff there… and got to know many of the guards and other folks whose lives revolved around the place.

There were many unique and unforgettable memories, but my favorite one (and you will please forgive me for relating an anecdote) is when we took Prince Ank-Haf home.

You must understand that my Mum was close friends with everyone at MFA. Everybody. I wonder if one minor reason was that she, out of genuine solicitude for all her many, many personal friends - kept her purse full of dark chocolate - especially almond mini Hershey bars, which she freely gave out to everyone whether they needed a chocolate fix or not. Florence's attitude was that they always did. Chocolate- particularly the dark, concentrated kind- was a mood elevator, she said, and had anti-oxidants in it ….among other ingredients…. It is not that far-fetched of a concept to consider that the whole ambience - mood if you will - of the MFA may have been influenced - elevated - to some small degree - by my mother's daily and widespread circulation of these beneficent and healthful treats to curators, staff, guards, security, maintenance people, administration - bewildered visitors - in fact, everybody.

Anyway, Florence was able to arrange with the Egyptian Department to - if the word is right - de-accession one of the three or four exact plaster castings made (from the original) statue of Prince Ank-Haf, which is one of the greatest treasures of the MFA, and arguably, though suffering slight damage over 4-1/2 millennia, the finest individual portrait sculpture yet discovered from any period of Egyptian history. Found in George Reisner's Harvard Expedition, it was given to the MFA in gratitude for his discovery and excavation of G7000x, the tomb of Hetep-Heres of which exact reproductions of the art-deco furnishings and some original equipment (silver butterfly bracelets) may be seen on exhibit at MFA, while the original artifacts, now restored, are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Well, Florence surprised me - blew my mind, I should say - when one afternoon she invited me to the museum and took me down to the basement where two of the Ank-Haf castings were stored on top of a filing cabinet. Which one did I want? she suddenly asked. We examined these twin statues, shockingly alike and more shockingly similar in minute details to the original. Even the damage was faithfully transferred. After we painstakingly chose one (the slightly better one, of course!), which I carried very carefully in my arms, we went to the back basement exit where we were 'greeted' by security, who had absolutely no warning at all that this major sculpture -recognizable to everyone there - was coming through. The guards' shock was much more profound than even my own. They were nearly apoplectic since they knew to a moral certainty that we both had to be arrested, but how could they arrest Florence…. and she had brought Hershey chocolate bars with her… Me, on the other hand? No problem at all, but I have never seen such heartrending conflict of emotion in anyone's face before or since that day!

So this evening we pay a well-deserved tribute to my mother, Florence Wolsky, a genuinely outstanding, amazing lady - not just in the lengthy catalogue of achievements reached by her, but also in her unique and precious personal qualities; especially her warmth, her benevolent nature. I am being redundant. To those of you here who know her well, everything I am saying is redundant and - as as she used to say about much of what I had in mind - not necessary.

To those of you here who might not have known her as well, you will have a clear glimpse into the persona of my Mother, Florence Wolsky, in a few minutes, due to the creative virtuosity and sensitive artistry of Karen Audette, who created a movie - a documentary - of the recovery of the Nike Earring, starring my mother, which, apart from telling the story very well. is a lasting legacy of Florence; allowing us to virtually meet her, and enjoy her outside of the constraints of time.

Thank you Karen, so very much for this priceless gift.

And I know there are others patiently waiting with their words of praise and remembrance. I thank them, and I thank you all for coming here, for your kind attention to what I had to say, and for your patience in view of what is ahead."

Photogallery of Florence Wolsky (1922-2018), International Catacomb Society Director (1980-2018):

Complete Program for “New Lives of Ancient Arts – An Evening with the International Catacomb Society” 24 May 2018

New Lives of Ancient Arts: An Evening with the International Catacomb Society
Thursday 24 May 2018 6:30-9:30 p.m.
Grogan & Company, Auctioneers
20 Charles Street, Boston, MA

Honoring the remarkable work and vision of International Catacomb Society founding directors, Estelle Shohet Brettman & Florence Zundell Wolsky

Program of Events

6:30 - Social hour with wine and Mediterranean buffet generously provided by David Basile of Janney Montgomery Scott Financial Planners and the Grogan Family of Grogan and Company, Auctioneers

7:30 - Opening remarks and guest speaker introduction by Prof. Annewies van den Hoek, Vice President, International Catacomb Society

7:35 - Multi-media artist Janet Shapero on “Recollections and Interconnections – from Catacombs to the Cosmos”

8:00 - Short intermission

8:10 - A Calling to Classical Arts: Remembering Florence Z. Wolsky with Alfred Wolsky, Esq., President, International Catacomb Society, and Dr. John J. Herrmann, Jr., Curator of Classical Art (emeritus), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

8:30 - Karen Audette, filmmaker, introducing the showing of her documentary film, “The Nike Chariot Earring,” (2016)

9:00 - Concluding remarks by Jessica Dello Russo, Executive Director, International Catacomb Society

Special thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Ted D’Amato, Susan & Larry Weiner, and Benjamin and Beverly Weiner for generous contributions to the ICS Scholarship Program in Florence Wolsky’s honor.

ICS also is most grateful to event sponsors and providers, the Grogan family of Grogan & Company Auctioneers, David Basile of Janney Montgomery Scott Financial Planners, Alfred Wolsky and family, and Annewies van den Hoek for invaluable assistance with planning and program design.

About the International Catacomb Society:

The International Catacomb Society was founded in 1980 by Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925-1991). The society strives to increase knowledge about the interconnections between Judaism, Christianity, and the surrounding ancient world by issuing grants, sponsoring lectures, and disseminating information and publications. More about ICS's unique mission and global outreach can be found at:

About Grogan & Company:

Grogan & Company is a family-run business located in Boston's historic Beacon Hill neighborhood and currently holds four major auctions annually, attracting buyers from around the world. In addition to scheduled auctions, Grogan provides a full line of estate services including complimentary in-home consultations, appraisals, and estate liquidation. Grogan's schedule and services are detailed at:

Our Evening Honorees:

Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925-1991) was a scholar of iconography of ancient gems and seals, and docent and lecturer on these subjects at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Becoming a dealer in antique jewelry, she made frequent trips to Italy, where she was impressed by the wealth of information about the Roman catacombs and the people buried there. Disturbed by the fragility of the remains, and the losses effected by time and nature, she set about trying to draw attention to the catacombs and their valuable remnants of the past, founding the International Catacomb Society, developing the exhibition "Vaults of Memory", and researching and writing a study of the catacombs, especially the little-known Jewish catacombs, from an art historical and ecumenical point of view.

Florence Z. Wolsky (1923-2018) joined the Department of Classical Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1974, and was a member of the Department until 1991, when, at Estelle Brettman's request, she became a co-author with Amy Hirschfeld, of Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World. With Prof. Emily Vermeule of Harvard University, Ms. Wolsky was the co-author of Toumba tou Skourou, the publication of the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston archaeological excavation in northwest Cyprus. Ms. Wolsky was a founding board member of the International Catacomb Society, and, for over two decades, served on its executive board as Secretary.

Photogallery of images from Estelle and Florence's ICS 

New Lives of Ancient Arts: An evening with the International Catacomb Society (24 May 2018)

New Lives of Ancient Arts: An evening with the International Catacomb Society
Please join us on Thursday, May 24, 2018, 6:30- 9:00 pm, to celebrate Boston women who have enhanced our experience of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Roman Art. (Invitation May 24 pdf)
The event will take place on Boston's historic Beacon Hill at Grogan & Company Auctioneers, 20 Charles Street, Boston, MA

Janet Shapero, a Boston-based artist and close friend of Estelle Brettman (International Catacomb Society founder) will be our guest speaker. She will talk about the impact of their friendship and shared Italian experiences. While showing images of her celebrate Rete-Chromes she will discuss sources of inspiration from catacombs to cathedrals – from stone to light itself.

There will also be a screening of Boston-based film director Karen Audette's award-winning short documentary, "The Nike Chariot Earring" (2016), starring Florence Z. Wolsky (1923- 2018), whose incredible drive and remarkable sleuthing skills led to the recovery of the priceless Greek earring, which had been stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1963.

In between the presentation and screening, several friends and family members will speak about Florence as a scholar, a mentor, a mother, and dear friend.

A social hour with refreshments will precede the program and allow people to meet and mingle with others from Florence's many circles of friendship in Boston and beyond and especially at the Museum of Fine Arts and the International Catacomb Society.

We hope to see you at this special event honoring the remarkable work and vision of women with deep roots in the Boston community. It is requested that RSVPs be sent no later than Friday, May 18, 2018 to:

If you are unable to attend, but would like to contribute in Florence’s name to the scholarship program of the International Catacomb Society that she was instrumental in founding to support research on the Ancient Mediterranean, please use this donation form ICSPledgeForm2018 or make a charitable contribution online at All donations are tax-deductible, and will be named in the event program.

Pictured: Janet Shapero, “Menorah: In Memory of Estelle” (2013)

2018-2019 Shohet Scholars Awards

10 April 2018
For immediate release (SSGP 2018-2019)

2018-2019 Shohet Scholars Awards

The officers and directors of the International Catacomb Society are pleased to announce the Shohet Scholars of 2018-2019:

Michael Flexsenhar (Rhodes College, Religious Studies)
Jewish Imperial Life in Ancient Rome: The Agrippesioi and Augustesioi Synagogues

Flexsenhar’s project investigates the Agrippesioi and Augustesioi synagogues, which on the basis of their names are usually dated to the first-century CE and connected with slaves of Marcus Agrippa and the emperor Augustus. A collection of epigraphic and topographic evidence for the other synagogues of ancient Rome and for cult buildings of other ancient minority groups, including Christians and followers of Isis, tends to show that cult buildings were named on the basis of topography rather than of founders’ names. A broad collection of data will place the development of these two synagogues in the third- and fourth-century and locate them in the local Roman topography. It will also articulate more precisely the history of Jews in Rome and elucidate more critically the intersections of slavery, ethnicity, and religion in the imperial capital.

Justin Leidwanger (Stanford University, Classics)
The Marzamemi “Church Wreck” Project

Investigations of the Marzamemi “church wreck” off the coast of Sicily seek to explore the religious, economic, and political context of this famous 6th-century cargo of prefabricated church architecture. Building on fieldwork since 2013, we aim now 1) to excavate a new sector of the site that can reveal clues to the ship, crew, and cultural context, and 2) to undertake 3D recording and analysis of the monumental architectural elements. These efforts will offer a rare window into the roles of high commerce, mundane exchange, local religious patronage, and imperial ideology in tying together the Mediterranean during the twilight of ancient maritime connectivity.

Lindsey Mazurek (Bucknell University, Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies)
Mapping Religious Communities Across the Ancient Mediterranean - The Ostia Connectivity Project

This project examines the social ties that defined religious associations at Roman Ostia through a digital humanities approach. The Ostia Connectivity Project (OCP) uses data analysis and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping technology to consider how religious communities embedded themselves in the social networks of ancient Rome’s port complex at Ostia. Utilizing an archive of over 6,500 inscriptions and newly published graffiti, OCP charts the complex layers of relations that facilitated connectivity between religious groups, and sites. Through this approach, OCP can visualize the different scales of complexity that connect the local with the global, allowing us to account for the work that each relation does in making religious connectivity possible across the ancient Mediterranean.

We congratulate these scholars on the quality and impact of their work.


Annewies van den Hoek
Chair of the Shohet Scholar Program Committee, Vice President, International Catacomb Society

Jessica Dello Russo
Program Administrator, Executive Director, International Catacomb Society

About the Shohet Scholars Grant Program:

The Shohet Scholars Grant Program funds research on the Ancient Mediterranean from the Hellenistic Era to the Early Middle Ages. Shohet Scholars may do their research in the fields of archeology, art history, classical studies, history, comparative religions, or related subjects. Of special interest are interdisciplinary projects that approach traditional topics from new perspectives. For more information about the Shohet Scholars Program and other activities of the International Catacomb Society, please visit: or contact:

International Catacomb Society
217 Hanover Street, Suite 130413
Boston, MA 02113

In Memoriam: Florence Zundell Wolsky, Founding Member of the ICS (1923-2018)

It is with great sadness that we communicate to International Catacomb Society directors, sponsors, and friends news of the death of ICS founding member and longtime executive officer, Florence Z. Wolsky, on 28 February 2018, in Woburn, MA (link to obituary).

Our thoughts and prayers are with ICS president, Alfred Wolsky, Esq. and other members of Florence's family at this time. 

Information about services is not currently available, but ICS hopes to arrange a tribute to Florence's legacy and dedication to the society as soon as it is possible to do so.

At this time, we think only of the Kel Maleh Rachamim (For the Soul of the Departed): "O G-d, full of mercy, Who dwells above, give rest on the wings of the Divine Presence , amongst the holy, pure and glorious who shine like the sky, to the soul of Florence, for whom prayer was offered in the memory of her soul. Therefore, the Merciful One will protect her soul forever, and will merge her soul with eternal life. The Everlasting is her heritage, and she shall rest peacefully at her lying place, and let us say: Amen."

May her memory be for a blessing. Florence, we miss you so much.

Pictured - Florence with her husband, Dr. Leonard Wolsky, MD, at an International Catacomb Society event in 1994.



Daily Life in Ancient Athens: A View from the Agora: 2018 Brettman Memorial Lecture at Boston’s MFA on March 7

Daily Life in Ancient Athens: A View from the Agora
2018 Brettman Memorial Lecture by John Mck. Camp II
Free and open to the public (museum admission by voluntary contribution after 3 p.m.).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm.
Harry and Mildred Remis Auditorium (Auditorium 161)
Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA

Join John Mck. Camp II, director of the Agora Excavations, Athens; and Niarchos Foundation Professor of Classics, Randolph-Macon College for this year’s Estelle Shohet Brettman Memorial lecture. Entitled Daily Life in Ancient Athens: A View from the Agora, his talk explores recent excavations, inscriptions, and ancient sources that illustrate the varied daily activities in the Athenian agora, the center of the city.

Event notice:
This event is part of the annual lecture series at the MFA that the ICS permanently endowed in 2005. Admission is free, but space is limited in the auditorium. Please RSVP to:
617-369-3259 or here for tickets.

In November 1999, the International Catacomb Society announced their sponsorship of the Estelle Shohet Brettman Memorial Lecture Series at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the Department of Art of the Ancient World. In 2005 the lecture series was permanently endowed. The series presents lectures and other programs dealing with the cultural, artistic, and religious history, and related archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean world, primarily the Roman Empire and its provinces during the period of the 5th century B.C.E. through the 7th century C.E. All Brettman Memorial Lectures are free and open to the public.