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 info@catacombsociety.org 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)

Categories: Uncategorized

International Catacomb Society

The International Catacomb Society was founded in 1980 by art historian Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925-1991). The society is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of the Jewish catacombs and other rare vestiges of history that illustrate the common influences on Jewish, Christian, and pagan iconography and funerary practices during the time of the Roman Empire. The society also 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.