Themes and Motifs in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Art

Themes and Motifs in Ancient  Jewish and Early Christian Art. Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024).

"Art, as a faithful mirror, reveals and reflects the profound spiritual changes that characterized the epochs of history.”[1] Similar stylistic trends are apparent in sculpture and painting and are all influenced by artistic trends of the Late Antique period. Pictorial and coloristic effects are achieved by different instruments because of the diverse medium. The style of early Christian art "is that of the declining art of cosmopolitan Rome. There was no attempt to create a specific Christian style with formal standards…there was no question of a new style breaking away from the traditions of the past. The early Christians merely borrowed and 'baptized' the symbolism of their pagan and Jewish neighbors to express their own beliefs and hopes."[2] There is no fundamental distinction between the Christian and Jewish catacomb art on the basis of style and technique; they differ only in the use of their own specific religious symbols, yet both adapt motifs from pagan iconography and the Christians depict both Old and New Testament themes. It is quite probable that the same artist worked in both the Christian and Jewish catacombs.


Decoration and painting of tombs had been practiced for millennia by the time of the catacombs. The paintings in the catacombs present some of the only known examples of Roman painting of the 3rd and 4th centuries. These galleries of Roman painting provide evidence of specific artistic practices in Rome at the time of their creation, such as the use of fresco technique and sometimes tempera.[3]

Representations of painters’ implements have been inscribed on stones from Christian catacombs, such as the paint brushes, compass and stylus carved on the epitaph of Felix who died at the age of 22. The tombstone of Priscus, incorporated on its third recycling as part of the structure of the ambo in the basilica of S. Lorenzo, above the cemetery of the same name, is inscribed with his vocation of pictor.[4] That the paintings in the catacombs may at times have been done by the fossores is suggested by the term artifex (expert craftsman). Probably encompassing the skills of stone carver (of inscriptions, for example), painter, and mosaicist, the term was used by a fossor in early fourth century Cirta, Numidia to describe his calling.[5] The inscription of Eudoxius, buried in the Jewish catacomb of Vigna Randanini, bears witness to the profession of pictor imaginarius, or zoographos. Although it may seem a curious profession for a Jew considering the Jewish prohibition against the depiction of images, the proscription was not conscientiously observed at this time. Perhaps it can be speculated that Eudoxius was a member of the group responsible for the decoration of the very catacomb in which he was entombed.

Most of the painted decoration in the catacombs of Rome occurs in the vaults, where the greatest variety of ornamental programs appears, and in the arcosolia and cubicula. Notable is the fact that even though the Catacomb of Vigna Randanini had about thirty cubicula, the greatest number uncovered in any Jewish catacomb in Rome, only four were decorated. Only one of these has representations of Jewish cult symbols, namely the ethrog (citron) and menorah. The menorah, however, also appears on the walls of the galleries and on epitaphs. The other three painted cubicula in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini were decorated with Graeco-Roman motifs. Beyer claims to have seen a unique instance of "slight traces of paintings on a simple loculus closure" in the Torlonia catacomb suggesting that some loculus closures were painted. Perhaps this was meant to identify and distinguish the tomb or was considered embellishment. 

Photo of cubiculum in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini decorated with a red menorah and rather crude denticulated circular and curvilinear forms, perhaps representing the vaults of heaven according to Goodenough (v. II, p. 21; DAPICS n. 0063).

The ornamentation of walls and ceilings in many of the catacombs was geometrically compartmentalized by linear decoration on a white ground. Many of the painted panels which divide the walls in early catacomb frescoes were executed in a refined, delicate manner -- a simplification of the post-Pompeian linear style, as seen in the 'House with the Yellow Walls' at Ostia-. The emphasis was on flat surface decoration, the mode in many Roman residences of the period. Such architectonic decoration was used to frame themes from the Graeco-Roman artistic koine, such as the Good Shepherd and the orans figure (representing philanthropy and pietas, respectively), the seasons, and vintage scenes, which were adapted to the imagery of the Jewish and Christian catacombs. The "Dome of Heaven" motif, infused with eschatological implications dependent upon individual preferences including hope for a blissful sojourn in paradise, is often seen in circular, oval, semicircular, and angular frames in the vaults. Motifs and figural representations stand out and almost float free on the bright white background commonly used in a compendiaria or tachiste style in which the images were hastily and sketchily executed with daubs of light and shade, sometimes resting on an evanescent, shadowy ground line.[6] Contrasts such as intense coppery-reds profiled on a white ground made the imagery readable to visitors in the dim light of the catacombs.

As in earlier cultures, mineral and vegetable pigments (ochres, cinnabar, minium) as well as those derived from carbon, namely lead and perhaps copper compounds, were used for coloring. Compensating for this confined palette (mainly white, yellow, red, brown, and green), and the apparently casual tachiste technique is a vivacity of style and a keen observation of nature which translates into freshness and a sense of immediacy.

Crypt of the Coopers, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. From left to right: two large barrels and eight coopers in short tunics carrying a third barrel. Modern inscriptions include the name of Antonius Bosius (DAPICS n. 642).

Painting frequently reflected societal conditions and attitudes of the day. There were "popularizing," realistic scenes as in the cubiculum of the “bottai” (coopers). Under Eastern influences and during periods of disillusionment, figures were frontally conceived, and facial features, particularly the eyes, were accentuated in such a manner that inner spiritual qualities were emphasized. In other paintings, a compactness of form was stressed. Different concepts and artistic vocabularies -- illusionism, or "impressionistic" and "expressionistic" representations -- might appear in the same catacomb.

The new cemetery of Via Latina is almost a microcosm of the stylistic evolution of painting from the early to mid-fourth century. Frescoes such as the "Sermon on the Mount," in which the rounded forms are unified by large splotches of color, decorate the earlier cubiculum A near the entrance of the catacomb. Form could be modeled by delicate shadings of color as in cubiculum B which was painted fairly early in the second quarter of the fourth century. The classicizing "stile bello," or grand style with three-dimensional forms, well-defined by strong contour lines and vivid colors, is depicted in such imposing later paintings as Samson's contest with the lion, "the lesson in anatomy," and the exploits of Heracles which appear further along in the catacomb and are later in date, around the mid-fourth century. Representations of the Herculean feats were all confined to Room N, and therefore probably represented the beliefs of one group in this catacomb. This room is quite remote from the entrance of the catacomb.  It is located between two chambers including Old and New Testament iconography, attesting to the varied sources nourishing the religious beliefs visually expressed in close proximity in the catacombs. An important feature of fourth century painting well-represented in this catacomb is the horizontal division of the walls to accommodate narrative cycles of scriptural and mythological paintings, often elaborately framed as though on exhibit. This is a phenomenon characteristic of the cycles in Early Christian above- ground basilicas and of those in the earlier sacred buildings at Dura Europos. Because of their narrative quality, the configurations appear to reflect the themes of illustrated manuscripts such as the Greek Octateuchs, perhaps both deriving from a common prototype.[7] These later trends anticipate the decorative programs of the monumental basilicas and are also apparent in sarcophagi and other sculpture of the period.


Two types of sarcophagi were commonly created during the third and fourth centuries; the tub or lenos type, possibly derived from the Dionysiac wine vat, and the chest type. The tub type could show continuous relief encircling the sarcophagus in Hellenistic style, while on the chest type the ends were often secondary to the sides. Some sarcophagi were strigilated; others had the figures and scenes separated by a series of strigils. Others had a continuous frieze, often narrative in nature. The frieze decoration could be separated into superimposed rows and could also be broken up by columns or similar vertical separations, an Anatolian influence. Both registers and columns were often used on the same sarcophagus, such as the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus of 359 BCE.

Sarcophagi with definitely Christian scenes do not appear before the third century and the first Christian sarcophagi were most probably carved in the second quarter of the third century. Christian sculpture, like painting, germinated in the artistic climate of the Late Antique. Many of the third century Christian sarcophagi were very classical in style, perhaps deriving from earlier Greek models. The more elaborate, ornate sarcophagi, inspired by Eastern models were usually pagan.[8] The subject matter, however, as with painting of this period, shows a combination of religious motifs and imagery. Mythological scenes were taken from the Graeco-Roman repertoire and the strigilated sarcophagus of the stonecutter Eutropos offers evidence of the tools used by a sculptor or carver. Tools such as the bow drill, mallet, and chisel are depicted. The drill was used for deep cuts and grooves creating shading and rendering drapery, anatomical details, hairstyles, and clothing. Chisels were used for the blocking out of the relief, and finer chisels completed the finish.

Detail of a marble inscription from a catacomb. In Greek: "Holy God fearing in Peace & his son Eutropos made (this tomb)…." (ICVR VI, 17225; DAPICS n. 3130). 

Sarcophagi could be made from marble, terracotta, limestone, lead, and porphyry. Marble could only be afforded by wealthier patrons as could porphyry which was used in fourth and early fifth century Christian imperial sarcophagi.[9] After the sarcophagus was carved, it was also painted with varied colors, used to add expressive value and unify the composition, transcending material form. Yellow was most frequently used and was often the base color. Reddish-brown was used for grooves, folds, and outlines; blue for contrast or to accentuate the background, and gold on hair or decorative objects. Other colors, such as green and violet, were also used, though less extensively. Sometimes color was used only on details, being applied in lines and strips, while other times it was used to a much greater extent. The colored painting of sarcophagi is thought to have derived from the Greek and Etruscan tradition of painting on marble.

Unexpected needs could be met by sarcophagi production as is revealed by what appear to be unfinished pieces. Sarcophagi have been found that had been completely finished aside from the face of the figure representing the deceased. This would imply that many coffins may have been carved as stock pieces, with no particular patron in mind. The portrait head was left blank and could be carved in when the sarcophagus was purchased. The sarcophagus of the Two Brothers provides a humorous example of this practice. This sarcophagus must have originally been meant to contain a married couple because there are two portrait busts, one with female clothing and one with male clothing. Then, after what must have been a last minute purchase, the portraits were carved as both representing male faces. 

The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is the apogee of the "stile bello" type and is a quintessential example of Christian carving. It epitomizes the artistic effects and motifs of this age and it anticipates subsequent trends. The two registers of figures stand almost independently of the background and are separated by columns and in the lower register, by aediculae. The effective disposition of the figures surrounded by space and the subtle plastic modeling of forms has a Hellenistic flavor and echoes the environment of its conception, the Late Constantinian epoch, 340 - 360 C.E. The deep carving and expressionism impart a sense of drama and individuality to the scenes of Christ between the Apostles on the mountain, Christ before Pilate, Christ's entrance into Jerusalem, Christ enthroned, Paul conducted to martyrdom, Abraham and Isaac, Adam and Eve, Daniel and the Lion, and Job. The focus of the themes is on Christ since the central scenes depict him both in his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and in majesty and the heavens. A major concept behind these representations is the triumph of the spirit over death.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, St. Peter's in the Vatican (DAPICS n. 1836).


Since the tomb was considered by some to be the "house of eternity" as it was among many ancient people, there were often personal objects which were used in daily life deposited with the deceased, customary even in the Talmudic period.[10] Since the majority of burials were in loculi and/or trench tombs, the bodies must have been protected solely by funerary garments as in biblical times, although no vestiges were extant, in most cases. The jewelry which bedecked the deceased, a fashion from time immemorial, might be confirmation of this. One can only speculate as to the removal of other precious objects, since the cemetery has been so thoroughly vandalized.

Outstanding among these objects of personal adornment were 2 gold bracelets ornamented with gems. One sported an oval clasp set with amethyst and elliptical custodie (probably guards or spacers arranged in pairs, enclosing green stones, and resembling laurel leaves. This object was discovered in a loculus southwest of the entrance staircase. The other, an armilla (bracelet), uncovered to the west of the entrance stairs in a "type of cave" was embellished at this point, with only one translucent green and one pale blue stone but originally there must have been more. At this time, emeralds and sapphires were very much in vogue in fine jewelry and were possibly used in this instance. Alexander's eastern conquests apparently stimulated the penchant for ornamentation with colored stones in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, there was no documentation of the exact nature of the stones used in this bracelet. In addition, it was decorated with what were described as “regoletti angolari”, evidently small rectangular slides or strips. The bracelet and the hooks were connected by wires as shown by the soldered tubes and their openings.

Muller felt that the 7 cm. long, 16 mm. thick (at its maximum) carved coral animal (probably a dog, which have long been depicted in funerary contexts) with a hairy back and abdomen, retrieved from the ruins at the northeast of the main stairway was an amulet. He cited the example of the popularity of contemporary charms against the “malocchio”, evil eye, at one time feared also by Jews as well as others, according to Muller.[11] Talismanic animal pendants have been found in the excavations of Palestine and of many Mediterranean civilizations from the early third millennium B.C.E.[12] Of course, there is also a high probability that this was simply an object of adornment.

On the other hand, there is a great likelihood that the 44 mm. long and 8 mm. wide small cylindrical case of sheet bronze, with double bottom, which was encircled by two 4 mm. wide bands that end in 2 rings for suspension from a cord had a talismanic function. That this was its purpose was further strengthened by the parchment strip insert, covered with writing, which, unfortunately, had deteriorated immediately after discovery, and therefore could not be read. Possibly the 7 cm.-long lead cylinder found in burial hall A of catacomb 2 at Beth She'arim and a like object with vestiges of papyrus inside, found in the ruins of the city, had similar functions.[13] They might have been analogous to the mezuzah, attached to door posts and today worn as pendants. The amuletic function of the mezuzah is referred to in the Talmud (TJ, Pe'ah 1:1,15 d: Gen R. 35:3). All-metal cylindrical hollow amulet cases (often of gold), some containing spells written on papyrus, made their appearance in Middle Kingdom Egypt (early 2nd millennium B.C.E.) and hollow metal Phoenician amulet cases existed in the 7th-6th centuries B.C.E. In addition, Bosio, in the early 17th century, had described a corroded metal "medal" or disc which could well have been an inscribed amulet, in this catacomb.

Since the tomb was considered the eternal home of many Jews, as well as other ancient people, it contained trappings of everyday life. Especially numerous were the more familiar (humble) practical objects, equipment of the period, such as glass and terracotta vessels, and lamps and pot shards - too numerous to list. Particularly notable were the clay receptacles, such as goblets, juglets, cups and deep plates, all of rather moderate size. One example, in the shape of a cup 4 cm. high and 10 cm. in diameter, resembling "an ancient drinking vessel." Two vessels, each with a handle, in the form of juglets, were 14 and 10 cm. in height, and 30 and 17 cm. in circumference, respectively. The smaller container was closed with a cover of lime, 2 cm. thick, when unearthed. Also, a strip a dry lime around the neck of a goblet (15 cm. high and 41 in circumference) with low foot and neck, "capacious" or ample body and handle indicated to the German archaeologist, the earlier existence of a cover. Muller opined that these covered vessels must have served as containers for some substance, even though they were completely empty at the time of discovery. Pots with covers have been discovered more recently at "Dominus Flevit," a 1st century necropolis in Jerusalem and in the lower catacomb under the Villa Torlonia, in addition to the fragments of cups or plates found in the upper cemetery, as in so many other burials of this period.[14] The custom of placing food and drink offerings and the necessary utensils, of varying degrees of elegance, those pictured on Greek and Etruscan vases and found in such settings being particularly opulent, in tombs of many civilizations in antiquity is born out in Palestine in Kathleen Kenyon's excavations of Middle Bronze Age burials at Jericho.


The making of gold glass was a Roman production. The technique consisted of fusing a surface layer of blown glass over a glass-mounted sheet of thin gold leaf which had been incised with decorative motifs or scenes, which could include Christian or Jewish imagery, Biblical themes, words and phrases, mythological subjects, and individualized portraits. Alexandria became one of the main sources for these as it was for so many of the decorative arts of the period. The theory behind this technology could have germinated in the fifth century BCE in Greece with the sculptor Phidias who sought to protect the gold leaf adorning his monumental chryselephantine statues of Zeus and Athena Parthenos by molding glass layers over the gold.

Most of these fragments to date have been found sealed in tomb closures. This detail in addition to the subject matter depicted on the glasses led scholars to believe that they were originally the bottoms (fondi) of chalices or dishes used to celebrate commemorative events or ceremonies during the lifetime of the deceased or at his or her burial. These shimmering beacons of glass which penetrated the gloom of the burial sites are rare today because of their lure for tomb robbers.

The large amount of glassware and broken pieces of glass found in the Monteverde catacomb bear out the references to the Jewish involvement in the (ancient) glass industry of the Roman Empire, in such literary sources as Martial, the satirical epigrammist of Domitian's reign, in a biting, deriding reference in the Epigrammata (1, 41, 3, 5, of M. Valerius Martialis) and as implied in the Mishna (Kelim 8: 9 and Kelim 24: 8). An unusually large quantity of thin undecorated pieces were uncovered in the loculi of the cubiculum which opens off of the larger gallery of the northeast region and runs behind it.

Among the larger, more intact fragments, there was a small oval plate, 33 mm. high, 63 long and 54 wide with low upper edge and foot; the two best preserved glasses with "spherical lower forms" (bodies), rounded neck and large mouth were 32 mm. high and 10 cm. in circumference, and 1/4 of a glass, the upper part of which had been destroyed, had a large bottom, to which was joined a "slightly rounded parietal surface," the thickness of which was 1 mm. and the circumference, 13 cm.

Muller also discovered one facetted hemispheric glass, 63 mm. high, 106 in diameter, and 2 mm. at its maximum thickness. Even though only about 1/4 of this object was extant, it was the most notable, as well as the largest fragment and may have been a remarkable example of the craft of a highly skilled Alexandrian artisan who had mastered the technique of cutting glass by means of an abrasive (such as emery) fed rotating wheel by the 1st century.

Thus the late first century B.C.E. discovery of glass blowing, often into a hollow mold could be further enhanced. The sumptuousness of this object, possibly imported from Alexandria, attested to the affluence of some of the Jews buried here. It is featured in a 42 mm. "high" (wide?) band, a Dionysiac scene reading from left to right, a "nude dancing maenad," a "Beardless dancing man," also "unclothed" (probably a satyr, a "garbed dancing (attired?) woman," most likely another bacchante (maenad), bearing a wine skin in her right hand and thyrsus, the Dionysiac wand, a stalk of fennel, crowned by a cluster of vine leaves, ivy or grape (?) or a pine cone; and finally "a bearded man" seemingly bearing the semblance of the great patron god (or great god of the vintage?) himself, in his traditional pose "with only hips clad," leaning on a staff and (glancing or) gazing at a bunch of grapes situated between him and he female celebrant nearby.

The tentative identification of the last 3 performers (revelers) in this drama (scene?) is predicated on the theories put forward by Leon and Goodenough on a sarcophagus which these two scholars had studied on the grounds of the Villa Torlonia and which had been recovered from that catacomb according to a workman who had participated in the explorations there.[15] According to Muller, the artistic style of the figures dated this vessel to the "3rd or 4th" centuries. It might be interesting to speculate as to whether any of these glasses had served as receptacles for wine at a (convivial) funerary repast with eschatological overtones, particularly since Muller had detected a dark red crust deposited on the interior of the glass which he felt could have been the remains of "some Liquid" or could have resulted from "the decomposition of the surface of the glass." There is always the possibility that this matter could have been the remains of a substance such as the red pigment used to decorate the catacombs as was found in a limestone bowl in room I of hall K of catacomb 1 at Beth She'arim; yet this hardly seems like an appropriate function for such an opulent vessel. Support might be lent to the supposition that this was the residue of the sacramental liquid, a major component of the messianic banquet, by the ritual scene enacted on the faceted glass.

Further possible evidence might lie in the Latinized Greek exhortation "pie, zeses" - drink, live (perhaps analogous to the Hebrew le-Hayyim - to life) which is inscribed on a number of gold glass fragments from the catacombs. Frey interpreted the inscription on gold glass fragment 522 as Felix Venerius' toast to the good health of this master, Vitalis, with his wife and children.[16] Perhaps a gift treasured on special festal occasions such as the “cena pura” on the eve of the Sabbath as the vestigial representations of the fish reposing on the plate above a table encircled by the customary semi-circular banqueting cushion along with wine amphora and traditional ritual objects depicted in the upper register might imply. In the cemeterial ambience perhaps auguring the felicity of the world to come for Vitalis and his family. A relevant prescription is described in Proverbs 31:6 "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts." This advice not only applies to the beneficial properties of the restorative fluid for the departing, but also the solace it affords the bereaved even as it does today. The regenerative liquid which Rabbi Akiba (Serna, 12.9) counsels sprinkling "upon he bones," as well as its precursor, the grape or grapevine had long appeared in ancient funerary and ritual contexts in such sites as Middle Bronze Age Jericho, Geometric Attica, as well as in Hittite and Homeric literary sources. Similar significance was attached to the age old energizing substance, blood and its simulated replacement, red pigment sprinkled on bones in many ancient funerary rites in Palestine; as attested to as early as the Natufian (Late Mesolithic period, 12000-7500) and employed decoratively or figuratively in funerary receptacles and ambiances in the Greek world from the period of the 8th century. Particularly notable is the document of such a custom in ossuaries of the late Second Temple period in Jerusalem;[17] thereafter it is standard usage in the catacombs of Beth She'arim (for walls and ceiling configurations as well as for inscriptions as in the Roman and other catacombs, perhaps another attempt to ensure the survival of the name and thus the individuality of the departed.

Since most of the tomb closures had been broken before the exploration of the catacomb, very few objects sealed in the lime of the closures were extant; Muller felt that these were placed there mainly as distinguishing markers, and in fewer instances as manifestations of affection for the deceased or as grave goods. And yet, judging from the objects affixed to tombs in the other catacombs, surely such artifacts as gold glass portraits, dolls and objects cherished by the deceased in everyday life could have been intended as nostalgic reminders of the deceased, accompanied by the hope that they would be enjoyed by them in the world to come.

Two fragments of gold glass, in Italian “fondi d'oro” (gold bottoms) as well as two rings of bone were discovered in the grey plaster covering the exterior of a loculus in the southeast section of the catacomb. Out of more than 500 gold glasses extant, less than 20 have been identified as Jewish.[18] The remnants of this rare glass were 79 mm. high and 4 cm. wide, 35 mm. high and 63 cm. wide, respectively. These were vestiges of a "circular disc of considerable circumference judging from the well-preserved rim of the larger fragment." The previous loss of their upper layers resulted in the disastrous deterioration of their painting, by degrees, upon exposure to the atmosphere. Especially apparent on the larger piece was the representation of "finta architettura," mock architecture (which could well have meant architecture in perspective), executed by means of sharply incised gold leaf with added accents of white, yellow, light and dark green, pink and red. Could the evanescent edifice recorded by Muller have been a representation of a shrine- like edifice such as the Torah shrine seen in other Jewish gold glass and in catacomb frescoes and inscriptions or possibly a depiction of Solomon's Temple. A claim made for the fondo d'oro from the catacomb of S.S. Pietro and Marcellino by De Rossi among other scholars and for the fragments, now lost, from the catacomb of S. Ermete by Bonavenia, as well as for the vestiges of a building, with the roof also shown in perspective, in the mostly destroyed fresco of the rear arcosolium of painted Cubiculum A in the upper catacomb under the Villa Torlonia. Goodenough felt that these remains must have depicted "a temple of some sort" if the conclusion could not be drawn immediately that it was "the inner shrine of the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem."[19]

On the smaller glass, a man, "perhaps a Roman consul," visible to the hips, was depicted above a throne to the right of "similar architecture." Reddish- brown pigment colored his head and right hand raised in an "oratorical" attitude; his tunic was in hues of gold and his "over garment" tinted blue. A soaring golden putto, with garments fluttering, supported his (?) right hand on the right edge of the seat. Muller's description conjures up images of the figure delivering an oration on the vault of the rear compartment of the mausoleum of M. Clodius Hermes as well as of Christ outlined in the mosaic in the ambulatory of S. Costanza. Their prototype is the famed imperial statue of Augustus found (at the Villa of Livia) in Prima Porta, the forebear of which was the Etruscan bronze, L'Arringatore.

Embedded in the plaster of another loculus in the same region were four fragments sans upper seal again of a gold glass of which the largest piece (55 cm. high and wide) featured a "linear design" in light and dark gold with added white, blue and red pigments; the fragmentary word "NOSI" was also inscribed on it. Even though another fragmented fondo d'oro, 68 mm. high, 39 mm. wide, and 5 mm. thick, was unearthed from the collapsed section of the cemetery, the vestiges of lime still adhering to the back indicated that it had been affixed to a burial. There were also remains of a round plate which measured more than 15 cm. in diameter with a base 3 mm. in height and 1 mm. in width. In contrast to those pieces from which the upper glass seal had become detached, this fragment still retained its upper protective cover of glass which had a maximum thickness of 4 mm. while the lower layer, the thickness of which scarcely reached 1 mm., was not as large as the upper one but "terminated with the edge or foot, already noted serving as a base for the design executed in gold." There were vestiges of a square frame, "that is a straight line," and close to it a triangle which enclosed an oval ring and a round point.

Plain glass, generally round, was also used as identifying markers, such as the remains of the thin bottom of a round glass embedded in the clay before a loculus beyond a menorah crudely executed in the clay plaster in the first front gallery of the northeast region of the cemetery. Although the diameter of this glass measured more than 4 mm. in diameter, a greenish-white round sheet of glass impressed in the plaster of another loculus of the same gallery had a diameter of 16 cm. Even though two other pieces were retrieved from the ruins, the lime, still clinging to their backs indicates their usage for the purposes noted above: one was "the remnant of a vessel," a bottom with circular edge projecting"; the second of aqueous translucency "resembled a circle of round glass" with a 4 mm. wide and high rim, within which a "ring in relief" was still visible.(Perhaps a segmented piece of a "thin slab of enamel" with residual lime on the back, and a large "bone slab," 38 mm. in diameter, both recovered before violated tombs, could have been counted among the tomb markers, according to Muller. Such a disposition for the latter object, as described, seems debatable, especially given the fact that apparently no fixative matter was observed adhering to it.)

There were about one hundred terracotta lamps or fragments of lamps unearthed in the Monteverde catacomb. Especially significant was the horde of 26 and 32 lamps, intact or only partially so, uncovered in the remainder of a gallery only two and a half meters long and in the adjoining cubiculum, respectively. Muller felt that this great quantity of lamps (the spout of which were blackened) indicated that "they had been lit when placed in the tombs," in addition to the fact that many had been uncovered in the burials (like a number in the catacombs at Beth She'arim) near the head of the deceased, eliminated their usage as a means of dispelling the darkness only. Perhaps this was reminiscent of such customs in "casa mortuaria" (mortuary houses). Lamps have been unearthed in burials in the eastern Mediterranean from the Early Bronze Age on (such as those at Ur), and in Greece at least from the Late Bronze Age on, thus possibly suggesting a ritual function.

Graffiti or “dipinti” of symbols of the faith of the deceased such as menorahs could be scratched on the plaster or lime cementing the closures or coating the masonry. Objects cherished by the departed, such as toys, gold- glass, coins, and small sculptures were imbedded in the plaster walls not only as memory-evoking grave markers but also, perhaps, with the hope that the deceased would enjoy them in an idyllic afterlife. These objects could serve as the only form of identification when the closures were anepigraphic as was so often the case in many of the Roman catacombs, Jewish and Christian, particularly in poorer burials.

These shimmering lures for tomb robbers were sometimes part of a drinking vessel, bowl or the base of a plate or were, in themselves, finished decorative medallions. Like lamps, coins, small glass flasks and favorite objects of the deceased, such as small sculptures and reliefs, miniature objects, and even toys, these rare objects were used as grave markers not only for identification purposes, but also, perhaps, with the hope of enjoying them in an idyllic afterlife---an inspiration for immortality; a simplified version of the more elaborate burial rituals of the elite among more Mediterranean ancient peoples such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Mycenaeans and Etruscans.

Fr. Umberto Fasola notes what could be the rare find in situ of a gold glass surrounded by an inscription on a loculus in the Torlonia catacomb.[20] Otherwise, not much documentation exists for the location of gold glass in the Jewish catacombs of Rome. Even so, many of the themes depicted on the extant Jewish gold glass in museums, as well as their reputed connections with the manufacture of Roman glass, help to illustrate why these artefacts would have been part of the furnishings in a burial place.

A fragment of Gold Glass (from a chromo-lithograph plate obtained by de Rossi by examining both faces of the fragment after cleaning the originally "opaque" find.[21] From the fourth century CE. Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. The Greek inscription, if intact, would probably have read, "House of Peace. Take Blessing (Eulogia).”[22]

This rare Jewish artifact was discovered at the beginning of the 1880s under the debris near the door of the last chamber, still unexcavated, in the Christian catacomb of SS. Pietro e Marcellino on the via Labicana (today's via Casilina). During this excavation, de Rossi found the impression of a piece of glass that had been previously removed by vandals near the scene of a funerary banquet with a fish on a tripod before the participants.

An Egyptianizing type of perspective, in which all parts of the scene are visible, reveals an aedicula (temple-like edifice) in the center of a courtyard enclosed on three sides by a colonnade which is abutted on the right, as it most likely was on the damaged left, by two schematized buildings, perhaps entrance gates, in front of palm trees. A number of table-like structures behind a trellis-like barrier confining the front end of the sacred enclosure seem to bear a flaming menorah flanked by golden or brass vessels (as in the Biblical passages referred to below). In addition to the vessels, two of which are kantharoi (Greek wine receptacles), an ethrog (citron) and lulav, ritual objects of the Feast of Tabernacles,[23] stress the ritual nature of this scene.

The four-stepped edifice, the pediment of which is graced by a menorah above four columns, is similar to many depicted architecturally in funerary contexts on mausoleums and also on ossuaries, lamps, and sarcophagi in the early Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean and later in ancient Israel from the late second century B.C.E. on tombs in the Kidron Valley and on coins (for example, those minted during the Bar Kochba War, year three, symbolizing hope). This configuration, which has been identified variously as a tomb, Torah shrine, or Temple, is reminiscent of the façade and the entablature above the niche of the Torah Shrine at Dura Europos and of representations in Palestinian synagogue mosaics as well as the holy arks depicted in the Beth She'arim catacomb.[24] 

De Rossi, like Marucchi and later Frey, preferred to interpret the gold glass fragment as illustrating the First Temple. He regarded the two isolated brazen flanking columns seeming to float to the left and right in the holy precinct as an adaptation of the famed brass columns of Jachin and Boaz of Solomon's Temple. These were described along with brass and gold vessels (see above) in such Biblical passages as I King &:15-22, 41-42, II Kings 25:13, 16-17, II Chronicles 3:15-17, 4:12, Jeremiah 52:18-23, Ezekiel 40:39-42. Since these columns had no structural purpose like Egyptian obelisks they were often presumed to symbolize the Divinity much like the Creto-Mycenaean pillar cults (sites where only one column appears).[25] This is a provocative connection considering the proposed eschatological function of much of the cemeterial gold glass. Monuments such as the columns were often associated with trees as in the instance of the Djed column which signifies the backbone (Luz in Hebrew) of Osiris, the Egyptian god of resurrection. The earliest name of the site of Jacob's sanctuary, Bethel, the "house of God," was originally Luz, the almond tree. Similar relationships are also to be found in other venerated patriarchal sites. 

The importance of this piece of gold glass is not only as an evidence of artistic practices of the past, but moreover, as an example of the importance of the imagery in the catacombs. An in depth look at catacomb imagery, its origins, its influences, and its implications, will be the focus of the following section of this study, “Imagery and Iconography of the Catacombs.”

[1] P. Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, 2d ed. (Bari: Edipuglia, 1980), p. 339.

[2] John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 10.

[3] See Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, pp. 279-307 for a detailed treatment of catacomb painting.

[4] James Stevenson, The Catacombs: Life and Death in Early Christianity (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1978), pp. 21-22.

[5] "Gesta apud Zenophilurn" in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum XXVI (1893), p. 193.

[6] Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, Rome: The Late Empire (New York, George Braziller, 1971), p. 88.

[7] K. Weitzmann, Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (New York, 1979), p. 472.

[8] D. Strong, Roman Art (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 260.

[9] Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, p. 31.

[10] Mazar, Beth She'arim I: Report on the Excavations During 1936-1940 (New Brunswick, N.J. and Jerusalem, 1973), p. 210.

[11] Ludwig Blau, Das altjüdische Zauberwesen (Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, 1898), pp. 152 ff.

[12] George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 1221.

[13] Mazar, BS I, p. 219 and n. 20.

[14] B. Bagatti, J. T. Milik, Gli scavi del "Dominus Flevit (Jerusalem: Tipografia dei PP. Francescani, 1958), pp. 134-135; 137-138; U. M. Fasola, “Le due catacomb di Villa Torlonia,” in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 52 (1976), pp. 60-61.

[15] H. J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia, 1960), p. 215; E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York, 1953). Symbols, Vol. II, p. 43 and Vol. III, fig. 833.

[16] This fragment is now in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Fruhchristliche byzantinische Sammlung. This translation is questioned by Goodenough in Jewish Symbols, Vol. II, p. 118, but substantiated by Leon (Rome, p. 224, n. 2).

[17] L. Y. Rahmani, “Jewish Rock-Cut Tombs in Jerusalem,” in 'Atiquot v. III (1961), p. 103.

[18] Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, Vol. II, p. 114.

[19] Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, vol. II, p. 38.

[20] Fasola, “Villa Torlonia,” p. 61: Beyer also records vestiges of a gold glass here on a loculus: H.W. Beyer & H. Lietzmann, Die jüdische Katakombe der Villa Torlonia in Rom (Berlin & Leipzig, 1930), pp. 5, 30, n. 5.

[21] Illustration in G. B. de Rossi, "Verre representant le Temple de Jerusalem,” in Archives de I'Orient Latin 2 (1884), pp. 439-455. Only one other fragment similar to this has been documented, although not published, from the Roman Christian cemetery of San Ermete, "a most minute drawing, almost microscopic in size, which gives an ideal representation of the Temple in Jerusalem. In its central part this fragment strongly resembles the one published by de Rossi.": G. Bonavenia, “"Un cenno sulle recenti scoperte fatte nel cimitero S. Ermete ai Parioli," in Römische Quartalschrift für christliche Alterhumskunde und für Kirchengeschichte, VIII (1894), 42.

[22] The traditional Jewish meal on the Sabbath and festivals was marked by a thanksgiving blessing, in Greek the eulogia, over bread and wine at a shared meal. The early Christian celebration of the Eucharist had antecedents in this berachah. Easter commemorates the same ritual which had been observed in the Passover Last Supper in which the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist (I Corinthians 10:16) was established.

[23] Celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles appropriately marked the date for the sanctification (dedication) of Solomon's Temple. 

[24] Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, Vol. I, pp. 93-4, 127, 153, 154, 249. Plates XXXII shows a relief of a holy ark with a menorah in the center, under an unfinished arch, flanked by two pairs of columns. Plate XXXIV shows a holy ark with closed doors above five steps, beneath the shell of the central arch, flanked by two pairs of columns with the lulav carved in the intercolumniation on the right. Both in room 7 of Hall A in Catacomb 4 in the Necropolis of Beth She’arim, Israel.

[25] 33 S. Yeivin, "Jachin and Boaz," in Eretz Israel V (1953) Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Studies of the Israel Exploration Society, pp. 97-104.