Water: Rebirth

Water: Rebirth. 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).

Biblical themes such as the great flood and the crossing of the Red Sea (connoting the renewal of the universe and the founding of the nation, respectively) represented purification and the baptismal rite for the faithful in Christian iconography: "...all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and the sea" (I Cor. 10: 1, 2).

Appearing in the catacombs, as still another visual simplification of Old Testament narrative - much of which had wellsprings in more ancient Mediterranean thought -the Flood was readily recognizable shorthand for the deliverance and redemption themes of early Christian art The cathartic effects of the Flood are implicit: “...in the days of Noah...eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us" (I Pet. 3:20, 21). Noah had prototypes in the Sumerian Ziusudra and the Mesopotamian Utnapishtim, the latter sending forth a dove and a raven, like Noah, as well as a swallow.[1] Babylonian legend told of the god Mummu "who directs the c[louds];...who purifies heaven and earth."[2] In religious contexts, earth's renewal, a baptism of the earth and its creatures, as it were, and the return of divine cosmic order may be allegorized in the story of Noah. As stated by Tertullian: "Water was the first to produce that which had life, that it might be no wonder in baptism if waters know how to give life.”[3]

The implication of resurrection and revivification is suggested by the image of Noah rising from the ark-coffin, a scene frequently depicted in the catacombs. The word for ark in Hebrew (like arca in Vulgate Latin and the Greek kibotos, the term used to describe the Ark of the Covenant in the Septuagint) also meant coffer or chest, and thus could describe either a burial chest or the receptacle for the sacred scrolls of the Law. Hence, the ark-coffin, the instrument of Noah's deliverance in catacomb art, could be associated etymologically with the Ark of the Law, which symbolizes national and thereby individual redemption in Jewish eschatological contexts of this period. According to the third-century CE writer Pseudo-Cyprian, "The ark is a type of the Church.”[4]

Fig. 1, DAPICS n. 1217.

Fig. 1. Over the rolling waves, the dove bears an olive sprig in her claws-instead of an olive leaf in her mouth (Gen. 8:11) - to a welcoming Noah portrayed as an orant rising from a coffin-like ark. Wall painting on entrance wall. Cubiculum delle stagioni in the catacombs of SS. Pietro e Marcellino in Rome.

Fig. 2. The vignette of Noah and his wife in an open "ark" resembling a chest is conflated here with the scene of their joyous debarkation with right hands upraised. The dove perched on the right end of the lid has perhaps returned from her first fruitless journey, while the dove on the left grasps an olive branch in her claws as in other catacomb representations. The doves pictured here on each side of the "ark" echo images of the immemorial shrine flanked by birds, frequently doves. The connotation of new beginnings is reinforced further here by the depiction of Noah's setting out with his mate prior to another creation of the earth. Reverse of bronze coin from Apamea Kibotos, in Asia Minor, situated below a mountain traditionally known as Mt. Ararat.[5] First half of third century. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des médailles, Paris.

The newsreel-like style of presentation resembles other sequential biblical narrations found in Jewish contexts such as the Dura Europos synagogue frescoes. This treatment may have been derived originally from illustrated manuscripts or scrolls of the Jewish Septuagint used for didactic purposes. These might have served as prototypes for the allegories of individual salvation in early Christian art as seen in the catacombs.

In the context of catacomb imagery, the wondrous escape through the waters of the Red Sea also refers to divine salvation in addition to its obvious connotation of promise for the birth of the "holy nation" of the "children of Israel" en route to the Promised Land (Ex. 14:13-31; Ex. 13:5).

Fig. 3. DAPICS n. 0328.

Fig. 3. Moses, clad like Jesus in tunic and pallium emblazoned with the crux gammata or swastika, performs his miracle under a star, while the Egyptians flee in disorder (Ex.14:21-25). "He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as a heap" (Ps. 78:13). Lunette painting in right niche of Cubiculum O in the Catacomb of via Dino Compagni in Rome. "And thou didst divide the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; and their persecutors thou threwest into the deeps, as a stone into the mighty waters" (Neh. 9:11). One of the intimations of the star is rebirth, and in the Old and New Testaments (Num. 24:17; Matt. 1 :21; 2:2) it implied kingly deliverance as well. In still earlier Near Eastern cultures the star also meant saving divinity. Here, it could represent guiding divinity like the "pillar of cloud."

Related to the purifying rituals performed or illustrated, either explicitly or allegorically, in the Roman catacombs are the cosmic aspects of water - its powers of renewal and fertility. Because these life-giving properties were treasured by earlier cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, ancient antecedents for the imagery in the Roman catacombs and their allusions exist. As in the catacombs, seasonal cycles of vegetation and its growth symbolic life and death in ancient literature as well as in ancient art: "He [the Lord] shall cause them that come of Jacob to take root: Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit" (ls. 27:3, 6). In the Akkadian myth depicting the death and rebirth of nature, Ishtar the fertility goddess (also the goddess of love and war) washes her lover Tammuz, the vegetation god, and anoints him to resuscitate him after his annual descent to the underworld (the “Land of No Return"). Similarly, her Sumerian equivalent, Inanna, beseeches her father, the water-god, for help: "The plant of life thou knowest, the water of life thou knowest. This one restore to life for me."[6] In early Mesopotamian lore, salvation, immortality, and fertility required the "water of life."

Fig. 4. In this depiction of the water-of-life metaphor, a Mesopotamian fertility goddess looks on as a nude priest pours a libation of water, apparently to revive a drooping date plant growing from a vase upon an altar. The goddess is crowned with what appears to be a horned headdress-like many Mediterranean deities and divine kings. Three shoots sprout from behind each side of her damaged head; the sprigs of vegetation and her head add up to the symbolic number seven. Probably intended to induce much-needed rainfall in a time of drought, this mimetic scene is enacted atop a stylized depiction of a mountain. Limestone votive relief. Circa 2500 B.C.E. Tello.

Ishtar herself is restored to the land of the living when she is "sprinkled with the water of life," a tale with many versions in Mediterranean legend.[7] In a precursor of the refrigerium, the Sumerian Inanna was offered "cold water that freshens the heart," by her father, Enki, the lord of wisdom and the watery deep.[8]

Parallels between water as a medium for sustaining plant life, and regenerating the deceased were not foreign to later cultures in the Mare Nostrum.

Fig. 5. Cow-headed Isis (a fusion of Hathor and Isis) pours a libation for her deceased husband Osiris. Together with their son Horus, they form a major Egyptian divine trinity. As the vegetation god, Osiris is the Egyptian counterpart of the Tammuz allegory for the cycles of nature. The soul of Osiris rises in the configuration of a man-headed hawk above vegetation sprouting from a sacred lake.[9] Resembling the depiction here of the rising soul of the divine Osiris is the description from the Pyramid Text of King Pepi I/Osiris of his hawk-like feet and wings as seen in the sky.[10] The image also recalls: "Thou ascendeth to the sky as a falcon";[11] and "thy essence is in heaven thy body in the earth."[12] Ptolemaic temple of Hathor and Isis at Philae.

Fig. 6. On the right stands a horned shrine from which grows a palm tree with three branches on each side of the crown (once again the symbolism of seven). Before the shrine a celebrant, most likely a priestess, is apparently about to pour a libation from a jug into a bowl set on an altar, or may have just done so. This ritual must relate to the revival of the deceased, shown in quasi-Osiride form on the reverse side of the sarcophagus. A dove-like bird, perching on the double axe that crowns the pole on the right of the stand, perhaps represents deity as in other ancient Mediterranean cults. The double axe was likewise an emblem of female divinity in both Crete and Mesopotamia. In the ancient Mediterranean, trees were often associated with flowing vessels, as were the poles depicted on either side of the coffin. Here the flowing vessel is a libation pitcher offering life-giving fluids. Detail of a long side of a painted limestone sarcophagus, 1400 B.C.E. From Ayia Triadha, Crete.

In the performance of a comparable ritual, an Egyptian counterpart depicts the offering of sustenance to the departed in association with a tree. Portrayed is an animistic representation of the tree in the form of a mother-goddess emerging amidst the curving branches to nurture the departed.

This ceremony appears on the Nineteenth Dynasty stele of Tehuti-Hetep and Kayay, where Isis, as a tree-goddess, offers the kneeling deceased couple water, flowing in four streams from a vessel, and food on a tray. The deity appears to sprout from the trunk, which stands in a watering-hole and is banded, recalling the Djed column. This symbol of Osiris was raised to signify his revivification, associated with the fertilization and renewal of vegetative life by the inundation of the Nile. Inscribed above is the name of the goddess "Hathor, Lady of the West" (the land of the dead) who is mistress of the sacred sycamore tree, and performs similar functions; she is frequently syncretized with Isis. The epigraphy in back of the tree reads "she gives water as is right.”[13]

Often the sky-goddess Nut, who like Hathor dwells in the tree of heaven and nurtures the departed, appears in the same capacity; she is entreated: "Thou sycamore tree of the goddess Nut, Grant thou to me of [the water] ...which dwell in thee"[14] A response of this mortuary goddess to such requests is: "Receive the libation from my two hands. I am thy mother. I bring thee the vases with abundance of water to appease thy heart with refreshment," prefiguring the refrigerium of the Roman catacombs.[15]

The importance of water as an agent of purification and rebirth is exemplified by the motif of the Water Miracle. illustrated frequently in the imagery of the Christian catacombs, for example, and also alluding to the baptismal rite is the water miracle of Moses. "The Lord thy God who led thee through...drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint" (Deut. 8:14-15).

The powers of the God of Israel to satisfy the water needs of man and nature are described as follows: "When the poor and needy seek water and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst...I will open the rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water" (Is. 41:17-18). It was said of Samson that "...[H]e was sore athirst and called on the Lord...But God clave a hollow place... and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk, his spirit came again, and he revived" (Jud. 15:18-19). Then again, Israel and its future generations are also to be transformed and redeemed when the Lord "will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring" (ls. 44:3). Earlier, the great Babylonian deity, Marduk, is described in one of his many aspects as Enbilulu, "the lord...who has opened the fountains [and] has apportioned water in abundance [?]."[16] Lack of water for the thirsting Israelites in the wilderness is also recounted in Exodus (16:22) and Numbers (20:5; 21:5). On the other hand, the faithful believer expresses his gratitude: "He [God] turneth the wilderness into standing water, and dry ground into water springs" (Ps. 107:35).

Fig. 7. DAPICS n. 0292.

Fig. 7. Water spurts forth as Moses strikes the rock (Ex. 17:8; Num. 20:11) in order to assuage the thirst of the parched Israelites (Ex.17:3). He is dressed in the usual Greek garb and clasps a scroll in his partially concealed left hand. Wall painting at entrance of Cubiculum C in the catacomb of Via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 8. DAPICS n. 2831.

Fig. 8. Carved in stone, Moses striking the rock. This fragment of a sarcophagus was discovered in the Jewish catacomb of Vigna Randanini, and Goodenough leans toward its being of Jewish origin.[17] If indeed this relief is not intrusive, it would be the only representation of a biblical episode found in the Jewish catacombs of Rome to date.

Fig. 9. DAPICS n. 0961.

Fig. 9. Peter performs an analogous water miracle for the salvation of his Roman prison guards whom he converted to Christianity.[18] This is a curious conflation of two diverse episodes. A youthful Moses, removing his sandals (Ex. 3 :5) beneath a sinuous hand of God, is juxtaposed with a venerable Moses-like Peter, offering baptism with water streaming from a rock to a soldier arrayed in Roman military dress and sword. Lower vault painting in the Cripta delle pecorelle,  catacombs of S. Callisto in Rome.

Like the water springing forth from the rock, the rock itself assumed metaphysical significance. God is the rock of Israel's strength (Is. 17:10). In gratitude for his deliverance "out of the hand of all his enemies," David's paean compared the Lord to a rock: "The Lord is my rock and my fortress, and my deliverer; the God of my rock; in him will I trust; my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my savior" (II Sam. 22:2- 3).[19] Jesus advises Peter in a play of words: "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). Peter, Petros in Greek, has its root in petra, the Greek word for rock.

The rock became the "rock of truth" for the author of the eleventh Ode of Solomon, who was "circumcised" by the "Holy Spirit" of "the Most High" and thus saved to run "in the way of truth," acquiring "his knowledge.” "Speaking waters touched [his] lips from the fountain of the Lord generously; and [he] drank and became intoxicated from the living water that doth not die."[20] The Rock was a source for the life-giving spring or fountain, which was equated by Philo with Wisdom or the Logos (the Word which is also God and Jesus in John 1:1, 14).[21] And for the wandering Israelites: "He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths. He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused water to run down like rivers...And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer" (Ps. 78:15- 16, 20, 35). Paul interpreted the phenomenon as follows: "And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" (I Cor. 10:4). As described in the Midrash Rabbah, the rock-shaped well which followed the Israelites was like a beehive.[22]

Fig. 10. DAPICS n. 3391.

Fig. 10. The epitaph (Frey n. 148) from the Jewish catacomb of Vigna Randanini is dedicated to "Ursus, the grammateus who died at the age of 22 years and 2 years [sic] and 3 months. The memory of the bridegroom-to-be. In peace his sleep.”[23] Below a menorah on the left is an object shaped like a beehive and a sketchily-delineated bird (perhaps a dove). The beehive configuration suggests the Midrashic legend.[24]

And again, life-giving waters were offered by God at Elim where there were "twelve wells" or "fountains" of water to sate the thirsty Israelites (Ex. 15:27, Num. 33:9).

Fig. 11. DAPICS n. 2368.

Fig. 11. Water flows in twelve streams from a well to twelve orantes figures (probably symbolizing the twelve tribes) standing at the entrances of their tents in the encampment of the Israelites in the wilderness. Moses, the central figure, taps the water in the stone well with his staff. He wears a Greek chiton (with checked pattern) and himation; the orantes figures are mainly attired in Iranian official dress.[25] A small tripodal golden table for shew-bread stands in front of a gold menorah with arms and shaft composed of "balls and discs". This monumental lampstand towers over two objects also composed of a "ball and disc" pattern. Although these ritual objects resemble lampstands, they could be thymiateria representing the "altar of incense" (Ex. 40:4-5).

In the background, the artist's rendition of the Tabernacle features a triangular pediment supported by Corinthian columns. Because this is not a precise pictorial depiction of the biblical narrative, Kraeling advances the theory that other legends and interpretations of the Bible may have influenced the imagery. One likely candidate is the story of the miraculous well of Miriam which is described as dividing the camp into twelve sections by the streams flowing from it. Watercolor of a fresco entitled "The water miracle at the 'well of Be'er'.”[26] Painted on the west wall of the Synagogue of Dura Europos (244-245 C.E.).

The dearth of water in the arid lands neighboring on the Mediterranean made its availability a primary concern for those seeking sustenance and cooling refreshment of thirst in the afterlife. In the Sumerian netherworld there were "...drinkers who satisfy the thirst of the dead with fresh water,"[27] and Sumerian myth narrates that the deceased requests: "Of the libated water, let me drink a little.”[28] In Babylonian legend, this water was supplied to the deceased by "[Doubl]es of Anu and Enlil" (gods) who poured "cool water from water skins in the House of Dust" (netherworld).[29] "Communion" drinking scenes, showing two individuals drinking from a single vessel with straw-like tubes or individually from cups, appear frequently on early Mesopotamian seals. According to Andre Parrot, this represents the dead sating their thirst in the hereafter with a liquid which "gives them life."[30] Other opinions declare that this is a " commerce agréable" between the departed and divinity in the great beyond.[31] Such a theme was carved on a seal, dated from the first half of the third millennium B.C.E., and found in the royal cemetery at Ur. This apparent cult scene continued to be depicted through much later periods on seals from the various regions of Asia Minor. Perhaps this motif represents the sharing of a communal drink symbolizing the imparting of divine wisdom to a devotee. This thought evokes the attributes of Ea, the Mesopotamian god of wisdom as well as the "watery deep," which gives rise to all earthly sweet water. A later development of this water/wisdom metaphor appears in Sirach (24:21), wherein the thirst for wisdom is compared to the thirst of those who drink, and still thirst for more.

[1] Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p.163, and Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1955), pp. 94-95, 11. 145-154 (translated by Speiser).

[2] Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago, 1951), p. 57.

[3] De Baptismo III, 4.

[4] Ad Novatianum 5.

[5] See Age of Spirituality, edited by Kurt Weitzmann (New York, 1978), p. 383, no. 350.

[6] Stephen H. Langdon, Semitic Mythology (Great Britain, 1931), p. 328.

[7] Pritchard, ANET, p. 108. 1.34 (translated by Speiser), and ibid., p. 56, 1.271 (translated by Kramer).

[8] Kramer, The Sumerians, p. 161.

[9] E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection (London, 1911), I, p. 8.

[10] Ibid., II, p. 315.

[11] James Henry Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (New York, 1912), p. 109; Pyr. Text (of King Pepi) § 913.

[12] Budge, Osiris, p. 123, Pyr. Text (of King Pepi I) § 304.  

[13] Flinders Petrie, Ancient Egypt (London, 1917), Margaret A. Murray, "Some Fresh Inscriptions," in Ancient Egypt 64 (1917), pl. 65.

[14] E. A. W. Budge, The Book of the Dead (London, 1969 ed.), ch. LIX, p. 204.

[15] Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York, 1956), vol. 7, pp. 93-96.

[16] Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 56, vol. 2, pp. 57, 60.

[17] Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, v. 2, p. 30.

[18] U. M. Fasola, Peter and Paul in Rome (Rome, 1980), pp. 47- 58.

[19] Also I Sam. 2:2; II Sam. 22:32, 47; II Sam. 23:3; Pss. 18:2; 28:1; 31:2- 3; 62:2 among others.

[20] James H. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon (Oxford, 1973), verses 2-3, 5-7.

[21] Philo, Commentary on Deuteronomy, 32:13.

[22] Numbers v. l, ch.2, translated by Judah J. Slothi (London, 1983), p. 5.

[23] J-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum 1: Rome (Vatican City, 1936) suggests the phrase: “The memory of the bridegroom-to-be should be completed with (for a blessing?)." Frey opts for "In memory of the affianced."

[24] R. Garrucci, Cimitero degli antichi ebrei (Rome, 1862), p. 59, and Antonio Ferrua, "Addenda et corrigenda al Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum," in Epigraphica 11 (1941), p. 33, describe it as a beehive, while Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, v. 2, p. 24) discerns an omphalos.

[25] Aaron's coat is described as woven "in checker work" in Ex. 28:39.

[26] Carl Kraeling, Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report Volume VIII, Part 1 The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), pp. 118-125, Plate LIX.

[27] Kramer, The Sumerians, p. 132.

[28] Kramer, The Sumerians, p. 159.

[29] Gilgamesh Tablet VII (iv), from Pritchard, ANET, p. 59.

[30]  André Parrot, Le "Refrigerium" dans l au-delà (Paris, 1937), pp. 39 ff.

[31] Ibid.