Vaults of Memory Manuscript

Vigna Randanini

The Manuscript

Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and Their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World was written by Estelle Shohet Brettman and edited after her death by Amy K. Hirschfeld and Florence Z. Wolsky.

In writing this book, Brettman wished to make a unique contribution to the field of catacombs studies. She envisioned a comprehensive volume on the history and iconography of the Roman Jewish catacombs and how they relate to contemporary Christian catacombs and the Mediterranean world in which they developed.

The first part of Vaults of Memory focuses on the historical and archaeological background of the catacombs. The second part of the book is an interpretive synthesis of the religious iconography found in catacomb paintings. The similarities and common antecedents of Jewish, Christian and Pagan imagery are explored with a focus on ecumenism.

Brettman’s work was intended to appeal to general audiences because of its historical interest and readability as a synthesis in English of primary and secondary literature from a variety of fields (history, archaeology, religion, art) with comprehensive footnotes and bibliography.

The International Catacomb Society is pleased to make available to the public the full-length manuscript of this long-lost work, plus sample illustrations and information about the International Catacomb Society and the authors of the book.

Background Information and Authors’ Biographies

The International Catacomb Society was founded in 1980 by Estelle Shohet Brettman. The Society is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of the Roman Catacombs – those rare vestiges of history that illustrate the common influence on Jewish, Christian and Pagan iconography and funerary practices during the time of the Roman Empire. The Society also strives to increase knowledge of the catacombs and understanding among faiths by circulating exhibits, sponsoring lectures, and disseminating information and publications. The exhibition “Vaults of Memory,” created by Estelle Brettman and owned by ICS, consists of photographs, inscriptions and objects that present a visual essay of shared symbols of Jewish, Christian and Pagan funerary art in the Roman catacombs. The exhibition has been met with enthusiastic response at the Boston Public Library, the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, and the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, among other venues.

Estelle Shohet Brettman was the daughter of a doctor who inspired in her a love for Judaic Studies and the ideals of ecumenism. Although she majored in sciences at Radcliffe, from which she was graduated in 1945, and began her career as a marine biologist, an interest in antiquity led her to become an expert on the iconography of ancient gems and seals, and a docent and lecturer on the subject 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 in the Roman catacombs about the people buried there. Not only was a great deal to be learned about the life of that time through the study of the funerary inscriptions, but she was struck, as well, by her observation that the decoration of early imperial Roman burial sites, whether Pagan, Jewish or Christian, apparently shared the same artistic sources and influences. 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 her book, which presents the study of the catacombs, especially the little-known Jewish catacombs, from an art historical and ecumenical point of view.

Amy K. Hirschfeld holds a B.A. in Classical Archaeology from Tufts University and a M.A. in Archaeology from Harvard University. She has been a staff member of archaeological excavations in Roman sites in Israel and excavations in the Sultanate of Oman focusing on the pre-Islamic frankincense trade. She has worked in professional publishing and editorial services since 1985 at Little, Brown and Company, the International Catacomb Society, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, among other institutions. Ms. Hirschfeld first became involved with the International Catacomb Society in 1989, and worked closely with Estelle Brettman on the research and editing of the present publication, Vaults of Memory, before Mrs. Brettman’s death. Mrs. Brettman specifically selected Ms. Hirschfeld, along with Florence Wolsky, to complete the work on the publication. Ms. Hirschfeld also initiated and oversaw such ICS projects as an internship program and the digitization and cataloging of the Society’s extensive photographic and reference archives before her resignation as ICS Executive Director in 2014.

Florence Z. Wolsky received a B.A. and M.A. in Art History, with a concentration in Classical Art, from Boston University. She 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 the co-editor, with Amy Hirschfeld, of the unfinished publication, Vaults of Memory. With Prof. Emily Vermeule, Ms. Wolsky is the co-author of Toumba tou Skouron, the publication of the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston archaeological excavation in northwest Cyprus. Ms. Wolsky has been a board member of the International Catacomb Society since its inception and its secretary until 2002.

Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and Their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Click here for PDF of the contents of the ms.

Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome: An Exhibition, by Estelle Shohet Brettman, Boston, 1985. Paperback.

This catalogue records a remarkable research project which traveled from Boston's Beacon Hill to the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome.  For approximately ten years, Estelle Shohet Brettman, Executive Director of the International Catacomb Society, repeatedly explored the catacombs of Rome with a gas lamp and camera.  In the vestigial imagery and epigraphy of Subterranean Rome, she noted parallel symbolism among Jewish, Christian, and pagan burials.  The exhibit it records is now digitized and available to view on the site,

Considerably more than just a listing of exhibit items, the catalogue takes the reader back in time and answers questions about ancient beliefs, art and customs.  Some twenty photographs, many in color, show such views of catacomb art as "A Rousing Funerary Banquet," a "Biblical Superman," and a "Lesson in Anatomy,"  The book adds important dimensions to research on the catacombs and surely suggests future work in the field.

To order a paperback copy of the exhibition catalogue, please send a check for $10.00 (processing and shipping costs) payable to the International Catacomb Society to the following address:

International Catacomb Society
71 Prince Street, Suite 21
Boston, MA 02113 (USA)