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

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

by Estelle Shohet Brettman, Amy Hirschfeld & Florence Wolsky (with Liza Wolsky)

Web edition revision and preface by Jessica Dello Russo

© 1991-2017 (rev. 2024), International Catacomb Society
All rights reserved.

Click here for Table of Contents and Text.

Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and Their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, a monograph by International Catacomb Society founder Estelle Shohet Brettman on "the catacombs and the people who built them",[i] was left unfinished in manuscript form when she died after a brief but agonizing cancer spread in June of 1991. Shortly before her death, Brettman made provisions in her will "for the future of the International Catacomb Society, and that her book would be finished". Society co-founder Florence Z. Wolsky, together with Estelle Brettman's project assistant, Amy K. Hirschfeld, the society's new executive director, were contracted by the board of directors, "heartbroken, but committed to the completion of this important publication," to "finish the book and see it through publication... as a living tribute to Estelle's dedication, vision, and love of the catacombs".[ii]

The "sudden onset and swift course of Estelle Brettman's acute illness" complicated the settling of her affairs. The International Catacomb Society continued to exist as an autonomous organization, but many of its projects went into limbo, including the publication of Brettman's book. Posthumous drafts indicate that at least half of the original 500-page manuscript (part 1) had been worked over by November of 1999, and catacomb expert Leonard V. Rutgers, then a society director, agreed to write a forward. At this stage, the two editors issued publicity packets that included a plan to print the work, as a "scholarly coffee-table book," in multiple languages, Italian, French, and German.[iii] Yet for all the expressed interest, academic and trade publishers hesitated to take on the title, citing the problems of a target audience, the expense of reproducing hundreds photographs in color, and the extensive editing still required to bring the book up to date and distinguish it from other recent volumes on Ancient Jews in Rome.[iv] Even the society's pledge of $50.000 to defray publishing costs for a printing run of 8,000-10,000 copies was not enough to alleviate all concerns.[v] Ultimately becoming a source of contention between members of the board due to the lingering uncertainties about marketability and possible sacrifice of "scholarly integrity", around the year 2000 it was quietly put on the shelf until the Society could take a new and determined course.[vi]

Better late than never, that time is now. With long-time society directors courageously introducing new directors and staff in 2015, the International Catacomb Society has become a leading source of information and insight into the material culture of the Ancient Mediterranean, while always keeping a special focus on the catacombs of Italy and the presence of Jews within the Greco-Roman World. A welcome surprise with all of these positive changes has been new public interest in the life and legacy of Estelle Brettman. In response to the desire to know more about Brettman's advocacy work for the preservation of Jewish historical sites, it seems appropriate to make widely available many parts of her book manuscript that discuss these sites. Shaping the narration in her voice, rather than re-writing the work from scratch, effectively contextualizes the book's own history within a larger story of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, transforming it into an eloquent primary source on the development of a global awareness of Jewish archaeological remains in Italy between 1960 and 1990, at the time the country's modern Jews were re-negotiating and strengthening their status within secular legal frameworks and Roman Catholic teachings and new discoveries of ancient Jewish buildings and other artifacts broadened the range of Jewish activity in the Roman Diaspora, signaling both a transmission and transformation of Jewish rites and traditions in the early centuries of the Post-Temple Era.

What Estelle Brettman left behind were hundreds of pages of a study of the "history and iconography of the Jewish catacombs of Rome and how these sites related to the Christian catacombs and other burial sites for Jews and Christians throughout the Mediterranean".[vii] Accompanying the discussion were thousands of photographs, many taken by Brettman herself, some in sites no longer accessible or now altered in appearance. As the 1999 press packet describes it, the first part of the book focuses on the historical and archaeological background of the catacombs. After detailing their structural qualities and distribution throughout the suburbs of Rome, the discussion is given over to Brettman's "interpretive synthesis of the religious iconography found in catacomb paintings."[viii]

This inclusive approach presented Judaism as formative to "the history, religions, philosophies, and artistic expressions of Western Civilization", not alien but normative to the culture that had sought to annihilate it but a few decades before during the Nazi era. It was a deeply personal response by Brettman to her urban upbringing in Boston and the social integration of Jews of her generation into mainstream society in many areas of the United States. The steady flow of new archaeological documentation on Jewish visual culture in Antiquity emerging from Israel, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and other Mediterranean sites, lends diverse voices to her focus on ecumenism." The message of "the similarities and common antecedents of Jewish, Christian and Pagan imagery" was meant to reach Jews living in cultural hubs of the United States like Brettman's Boston. With multiple communities and even branches of Judaism to choose from (Brettman frequented both Conservative and Orthodox shuls), and the experience of living and working in a secular, and increasingly materialistic United States, Brettman and her colleagues at the International Catacomb Society, with significant funding from organizations such as the Kress, Littauer, and Naylor Foundations as well as generous individuals of their acquaintance, were able to promote the image of an Ancient Judaism that was as cognizant and observant of Jewish traditions as it was strong and savvy in its means to establish a physical and spiritual presence in cosmopolitan areas like Rome. Through the lens of an Ivy-educated, professional-class American Judaism, Brettman "found" this Ancient Judaism, much as she "found" the brick and mortar immigrant-era shul on the north slope of her neighborhood of Beacon Hill, which in the late 1980's she lobbied to save from possible demolition.[ix]

After reading for the first time as a graduate student the chapters edited by Florence Z. Wolsky and her daughter, Liza Wolsky, on "The Jews in Italy," "Burials in Ancient Rome," "Antecedents for the Roman Catacombs," "Burial Types," and "The Synagogue and Early Church in Rome," I commented that I "liked the style, as it doesn't seek to shake any foundations, but rather to instruct and make accessible authentic material about Jews in Ancient Rome."[x] More or less, this is also how I would justify the book's existence in electronic form today, while making clear that, by now, Brettman's work is a "child of its times," especially as regards to bibliography. Happily, much progress has been made since 1991.[xi]

My own hand in the editing of "Vaults" is limited to supplying the "bridging preface" and removing passages containing theories no longer widely accepted - a censorship, if you like, of what I hold to be overstatements and unfounded assumptions - yet, in carrying out this task, I have found myself rephrasing or summing up critical statements that, in light of when the manuscript was first drafted in the mid to late 1980's, are ahead of their time. Even so, the surviving text is in no way a reflection of my own thoughts or study of the catacombs of Rome, though it is a topic I know well. Brettman, who photographed extensively in the catacombs, was consumed in her later years by the desire to share her knowledge of them, and this text manifests, in albeit mutilated form, something her "magnificent obsession" with the history and iconography of the Jewish catacombs of Rome, and her dying wish that this information be shared with her friends, her family - and now, at long last, with the world. 

[i] As described in an anonymous review of the manuscript submitted to Harry Haskell, editor of Yale University Press in 1999.
[ii] Previously, Brettman had published several versions of an exhibition catalogue to "Vaults of Memory" (1981, 1985), but had been at work for over a decade on a lengthy study of the catacombs of Rome, which was intended to elaborate upon her belief in a universal symbolism in the art of "Western Civilization". She received large grants from the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation and the Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust towards its completion, and assistance from New York editor Carl Rieser with the book proposal she submitted in 1989. On her deathbed, literally, on June 6, 1991, Brettman signed a legal agreement with Wolsky and Hirschfeld for them to act as independent contractors "to complete the work and prepare it for publication". A letter of Florence Z. Wolsky to International Catacomb Society directors and supporters in 1992, emphasizes the importance of preserving Brettman's vision: "I worked with Estelle since the society was originally formed...Publishing the book was her dream and life's work. I think it essential that we see the book through to publication." The ICS board subsequently credited co-authorship of the manuscript to Hirschfeld and Wolsky, with ICS directors Nitza Rosovsky, Joseph Horn, Carney Gavin, Howard Weintraub, Theodore Herzl Teplow, Allan Swartz, and Sandra Sheiber serving as peer editors during the process. Research assistants on the project included Nicole Missio, Patricia McCall, Rosalia Sanni, Alexandra Fallone, Victoria Crammer, and Carl Hirschfeld, with Liza Wolsky assisting her mother Florence during the revision process through 2000.
[iii] Letter of Florence Z. Wolsky (drafted by Amy Hirschfeld) to Giuseppe Cardinal Caprio on June 18. 1999. Hirschfeld, in addition to her role as the Society's administrator (1991-2015), worked as an editor in various Massachusetts-based publishing houses.
[iv] These evaluations are consistent with earlier reviews of the manuscript Brettman had sent out for consideration in the late 1980's. Academic presses, such as Oxford, thought it too non-specialist and suggested that to "bring to a wider audience a relatively unknown body of material in the Roman catacombs", the book forego footnotes in "coffee table" style with many illustrations, and focus on the Roman catacombs and "what is Christian or Jewish about their art", not "pre-Christian work that has nothing to do with the topic at hand". Overall, the peer review identified a "lack of clarity" of Brettman's theory concerning precedents for Roman catacomb art. Trade presses, on the other hand, like Little, Brown and Company, saw the nearly 600-page volume aimed at scholars rather than the general public. Among the many suggestions was that the book be published in two volumes; that two separate books be made to reach different markets; that supplemental material be available on a CD-ROM (or website); and that an academic be commissioned to "ghostwrite" parts of the book. Bearing upon the last suggestion was concern about the timing of "Vaults" soon after a new edition of Harry J. Leon's classic "The Jews of Ancient Rome" and Leonard V. Rutgers' "Jews of Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, both hit the shelves in 1995.
[v] Vaults of Memory press packet by Amy K. Hirschfeld, 1999. The original manuscript proposal of 480 pages in two parts ("History" and "Iconography") was accompanied by 501 images, including 318 photographs in color (later reduced to 150), which are now digitized in the ICS's DAPICS archive (link).
[vi] The quote is from a meeting around 2000 between Florence Wolsky and Patrick Alexander, who was at that time the chief editor of Hendrickson Publishers. The first part of "Vaults" on "History/Archaeology" was scheduled for completion in Summer of 1999; the second part on Iconography, connecting the catacomb paintings to earlier art of different cultures of the Mediterranean, in the Winter of 1999/2000 (the last documented revisions are dated to 3 September 2000). The executive director of the ICS, Amy Hirschfeld, subsequently used much of the content of the unpublished “Exploration of the Catacombs” chapter from Brettman's book for the article "An overview of the intellectual history of catacomb archaeology," published under Hirschfeld’s name in Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context, Studies of Roman, Jewish, and Christian Burials (eds. Laurie Brink and Deborah Green. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2008).
[vii] Vaults of Memory press packet, 1999.
[viii] Vaults of Memory press packet, 1999.
[ix] The Vilna Shul on Philips Street in Boston. Estelle Brettman and other concerned Bostonians lobbied successfully to save the site from development: it is now a Jewish cultural center and museum. The ICS donated Estelle Brettman's documentation on efforts to save the synagogue building to the Vilna Shul Center for Jewish Culture in 2021.
[x] Letter of Jessica Dello Russo to Florence Z. Wolsky of September 13, 2001, recommending that the project be available on a website, rather than in print form, which, in fact, is how it would eventually be revealed. 
[xi] Notably the Vatican's own comprehensive and lavishly-illustrated account of the Roman catacombs, by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti, and Danilo Mazzoleni, The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions (Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 1999).

- Jessica Dello Russo, Executive Director, International Catacomb Society (2017)

A note on the manuscript history of "Vaults of Memory" (Jessica Dello Russo): Estelle Shohet Brettman petitioned ICS sponsors and friends for funding for a full-length book on the Catacombs of Rome even before the catalogue of the exhibit she had curated by the same title had gone to press in 1985 (English and Italian editions). Many of the early drafts of the "Vaults" monograph, in fact, were extended commentary on material in the exhibit and other photographs Brettman had in her possession. Now, in a longer textual format, Brettman seemed anxious to elaborate upon her ideas concerning the universality of visual motifs used in artistic media across cultures, perhaps with more emphasis on art and less on theology than scholars who had tried a similar approach, notably, E. R. Goodenough and Joseph Campbell. Following a showing in Rome of the "Vaults" exhibit in late 1985, and even without a publishing deal in the works, Brettman was awarded a large grant ($75,000.00) from the Eleanor Naylor Dana Trust for her book project. In the few remaining years of her life (she would die in 1991), Brettman curtailed her travel abroad and most other activities in order to complete the manuscript and send it out to publishers. Although no publishing house responded favorably at the time, Brettman persisted with the writing and revising of her text, with editorial assistance from friends and graduate students whom she had hired as research assistants, including her eventual successor at the International Catacomb Society (ICS), Amy K. Hirschfeld.

A key component of the project along with a detailed history of catacomb excavation and study was the incorporation of photographs in color - this feature had not been able to be included in the exhibition catalogue, printed largely at Brettman's own expense. Thanks to close contacts made during her travels, Brettman was on the whole very successful in obtaining permissions to reproduce images of artifacts in many public and private collections. Many of the negatives she planned to use in the book are now in the DAPICS archive. 

After the long hiatus in circulating Brettman's work, described in the preface above, and at the start of my tenure as the society's executive director in 2015, I decided that finishing the book was going to be a "now or never" affair. The intrinsic motivation was a sincere regard for Brettman's dedication to her "cause"; the practical reason was that I had acquired along with the job title close to a hundred boxes of manuscripts, notes, letters, and other material related to the ICS and, above all, what was often labeled, simply, "the BOOK". The material, for the most part, had not been looked at since Brettman's death in the early 1990's: many manuscript envelopes, in fact, were still sealed from the time she had mailed the drafts to herself from her family's winter residence in Florida. On the other hand, there was very little documentation of any project activity after 2000 to give me a sense of what had already been done to update and complete the work. All that was clear in breaking open this time capsule was that a lot of papers could be consolidated or eliminated, saving the society thousands of dollars a year in storage expenses. Unsurprisingly, this was the winning argument to persuade ICS directors to face the past, preserve what could be preserved, circulate what should be circulated, credit who should be credited, and, above all, honor Brettman's dying wish that her book, somehow, somewhere, see the light of day. 

I never came across the master copy of "The Book" that had been sent out for peer review and submitted to a number of presses around the year 2000, and was forced to rely instead on multiple drafts of the individual chapters that had been reworked by ICS director Florence Wolsky to such an extent that she officially became co-author of the text. Other parts of the manuscript, entrusted to another co-author, Amy K. Hirschfeld, were never recovered, perhaps because Hirschfeld used much of the material in a book chapter published under her own name. Luckily, Wolsky, a committed and focused writer, had raised the book to the level of historical synthesis, the means which justifies the lengths now taken to put it into digital format as an orientation to the study of the catacombs of Rome with a distinct integration of their evidence by Jews. Wolsky's recent death (in 2018) has made it all the more pressing to preserve something of her voice and career expertise in Greco-Roman antiquity that infuse "Vaults" with authority, something that Brettman, a lay scholar, believed, deep down, she could not wholly possess. 

Appendix: Estelle Brettman's description of her project, "Vaults of Memory: Sources of Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome" (in a letter to Prof. Richard Brilliant of Columbia University, October 27, 1989):

"The text of the publication (Vaults of Memory) is supplemented by color and black and white photos of the imagery and inscriptions (with captions) found in the catacombs of Rome. Also included are: maps, plans, archival engravings and photographs, and drawings. I plan to use illustrations of fine objects of art executed in different media to support my theses, so that readers will be aware that many different types of art forms from various cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean share these pertinent symbols.

This work delves into the roots and origins of the symbols and imagery in the Jewish and Christian catacombs of Rome. It dwells extensively on reasons for the visual expressions of the beliefs of the people buried in the catacombs as I understand them from both my research on the chance discoveries of archaeology and the existing literary evidence. as well as on the work of scholars in these fields. Literary, religious, art historical, and archaeological documentation are drawn upon in a multidisciplinary approach to a search for antecedents of the imagery of that critical moment when Christianity was emerging from Judaism. Analogues for the motifs in the Roman catacombs are found in iconographic representations in ancient Israel and other Mediterranean sites. Relevant passages from the Bible, ancient literature, mythology, and Jewish and early Christian writings reinforce the conclusions.

Of necessity, a project of this kind must be eclectic and subjective, reflecting the author's predilections, choices, and even partialities as well as the accidents of archaeology, chance discovery, and selected scholarly research. I can only hope that upon completion of a review of this work, the reader will have gained some new perspectives on the significance of the representation of the catacombs. 

The publication is organized like the exhibit, its seminal predecessor, into two main sections with subsections. The first section is introductory, providing background for the second, which is an exposition on the main thesis of the work - an elucidation of the commonalities, the intersections, the shared beliefs at the time of the Roman Empire with emphasis on the usage of such symbols and rites in earlier cultures of the Mediterranean.

Not only are the intersections of religious beliefs explored in visual terms, but also the common concerns of diverse cultures - all with the hope of increasing understanding among different religions and peoples. The need to preserve the precious vestiges of our history is also implicit in this publication.

Following a description of Roman burials in general, the introduction presents a view of the catacombs and precedents for this type of burial. Information on the exploration of the catacombs, and overview of several catacombs (abstracted from archaeological reports), and general historical and sociological insights, particularly with reference to the Jews, are preludes to the principal section on imagery. This is the core of the work. It is concerned with the rites and rituals, based upon observed natural phenomena, which were deemed necessary for attainment of the anticipated idyllic afterlife. Also described is the role of symbolic flora and fauna. Following an examination of the traditional means of transport to the envisioned bliss of the hereafter, the work delineates the various conceptions of afterlife, an idealized earthly existence - spiritual, bucolic, academic, or a fulfillment of material desires. This all culminates in the last three sections exploring ageless cosmic symbols connecting or associated with salvation and immortality. A consideration of the concept of ultimate victory over the vicissitudes of life and the finality of death is followed by the conclusion illustrating the shared use of specific themes and symbols, dating back several millennia, by Christians and Jews of the Roman Empire. The epilogue discusses the relevance and significance of the catacombs to contemporary life as well as the need for their preservation."