Lasers reveal long-hidden Roman frescoes with biblical themes

Technology, art, and faith come together.

Doorway arch fresco depicting Christ and the Apostles at the Domitilla catacombs in Rome. Frescoes dating back to the fourth century A.D. have been restored with laser technology in underground crypts. Photo courtesy of Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology

This was originally posted by Josephine McKenna on June 6, 2017 on the Religion News Service website. Additional images from the catacombs appear in the original post.

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ROME (RNS) Ancient frescoes have been rediscovered inside the 1,600-year-old Domitilla catacombs after Italian art experts used laser technology to remove centuries of grit and grime.

The catacombs, or underground cemeteries, are named after a Roman noble family and are considered the most extensive in the Italian capital, drawing thousands of tourists.

The painstaking seven-year restoration, backed by the Vatican, focused on two burial chambers commissioned by successful bakers working in ancient Rome in the fourth century.

The restoration revealed spectacular frescoes showing how wealthy Roman aristocrats abandoned their pagan mythology to embrace Christianity.

Archaeologist Fabrizio Bisconti, head of the Vatican body responsible for ancient archaeology, said many frescoes had been discovered in Rome’s catacombs over the past 25 years.

But he said the latest revelation is significant, as the rooms had been completely covered in a black patina and graffiti.

“With the use of laser, the decorative work of the two chambers is shown in all its splendor, offering us a real discovery, even though the two chambers have been known about for many centuries,” he said.

The Domitilla catacombs are close to the ancient Appian Way and contain an underground basilica and four levels of corridors, chambers and crypts where 150,000 Christians and martyrs were buried. They span more than 10 miles.

The frescoes that were brought to light had been hidden under layers of dirt, algae and smoke left behind by oil lamps.

Using lasers, restorers discovered frescoes of pagan figures as well as biblical figures such as Moses and Noah on the chambers’ surface.

One ceiling fresco features an image of Jesus on a throne and two men, believed to be saints or Christian martyrs, seated beside him.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, said the catacombs were a reminder of “the passage of conversion to the new faith” and the importance of Domitilla as a Christian burial site.

“Between the third and fourth centuries they welcomed both the common faithful and the martyrs,” Ravasi said in a statement.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, many of the catacombs were forgotten and later raided for their art treasures. They were rediscovered in the 16th century by Antonio Bosio, an archaeologist who loved to leave his name scribbled on the frescoes in charcoal.

A new museum featuring sarcophagi, busts and epitaphs is expected to open at the catacombs this month.


More images: Lasers reveal long-hidden Roman frescoes with biblical themes

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.


Vatican restoration uncovers work of Renaissance master

Art restorers recover the 500-year old apartments of Pope Alexander VI, bringing new life to the works of the Renaissance artist “Pinturicchio.” The restoration brings attention not only to the masterful frescoes but also to the the story of the controversial pope who commissioned them, Rodrigo Borgia.

Source: Vatican restoration uncovers work of Renaissance master on Crux

Transfiguration | Art for Last Epiphany C

Luke 9:28-29 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

“Dark church” ( Karanlik kilise ) 11th century
Göreme district, Nevşehir Province, Turkey.
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Click here for more Göreme district churches.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Transfiguration, Fresco, 11th Century, Unknown artist of Cappadocia

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking to him.” (Matt. 17:1-3)

A large portion of the Eastern Roman Empire spoke Greek and by the seventh century it was the primary language used by the Byzantines. The Byzantine Empire extended eastward from Constantinople and included Asia Minor where Greek speaking Orthodox Christians often had to seek protection from invading tribes. In a region known as Cappadocia, the ash and lava of a volcanic eruption created rock formations that were soft and could be carved easily. By carving into the rock, Christians hollowed out spaces that would shelter them from the elements and offer protection from invaders. The soft rock also was carved out for churches.

In a monastic compound known as the “Dark Church,” The interior walls and the ceilings are covered with frescos and among the paintings is “The Transfiguration.” In it, Moses and Elijah are with Jesus in an event interpreted as a revelation that Christ is the fulfillment of the law and prophets. Moses represents the law and often he is shown holding the Torah or a stone tablet. Elijah represents the prophets. In this fresco, neither Moses nor Elijah has been given an identifying symbol but we can assume the gray-haired bearded man is Moses and the un-bearded figure is Elijah.

Mt. Tabor is the traditional site of the transfiguration but other places have been proposed. One of the suggested sites is Mt. Hermon which has three distinct peaks and in paintings of the event often three peaks are shown; Christ is always in the center. In the “Dark Church” fresco, Moses is standing on the right peak and Elijah is on the left. Below them are the disciples kneeling and crouching. At the bottom left is Peter with white hair and a beard. He is pointing upward toward Christ. The disciple John is depicted in the center as a beardless youth (his face is partially obscured by damage) and James is to the right with brown hair and a beard. Linear rays indicate a direct connection between Jesus and each of the figures.


The “Dark Church” is so named because it has only a small opening (oculus) for light, thus the interior is dim.

Among the various people of ancient Cappadocia were the Armenians who were known at one time as being horse breeders. “Cappadocia,” the historic name for the region was derived likely from “Kapatuka,” an Old Persian term meaning, “Land of beautiful horses.” The Crusaders referred to the region as Terra Hermeniorum: “Land of the Armenians.”

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Alpha Omega | Art for Proper 29B

Revelation 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Alpha Omega
Cristo barbato (dettaglio), affresco 60×72
Bust of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla.
Late 4th century
Catacombe di Commodilla, Roma.
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian


Alpha and Omega, Fresco from the Catacomb of Commodilla, Late 4th century.


For many of us during youth, a catacomb was imagined to be a place where one might wander into, become lost, and never find a way out. They were thought to be maize-like underground tunnels where secret rituals took place. Early Christians, it was said, hid from Romans in them. Reality is seldom as mysterious as the imagination and although it is conceivable a catacomb could have served as a hiding place, the evidence for this is lacking. The catacombs were burial sites for early Christians living in Rome and the rituals that took place were burial rites. When a Roman died, cremation was the usual practice but Christians buried their dead and believed in the body’s resurrection. The most common image painted on catacomb walls is that of Jesus raising Lazarus. Because space in the city was limited, Christians carved underground burial chambers in soft volcanic rock at the outskirts of Rome.

The catacomb of Commodilla has been of special interest because within it is an underground church built under the direction of Pope Siricius during his reign from 384 to 399 AD. Frescos cover the walls of the church and in the center of the ceiling – surrounded by smaller paintings – is a bust of Christ with the letters Alpha and Omega written on either side. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and are in reference to two statements in the Book of Revelation; “I am the Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God, who is and was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8). This concept is stated again in the last chapter of Revelation; “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:13).

This painting is one of the earliest depictions of a bearded Christ. Before this time, paintings were based usually on young males seen in Roman wall paintings and Christ was shown as a beardless youth (as in catacomb images of the Good Shepherd). Many centuries lapsed before Christ was regularly depicted with a beard. The image of a bearded Christ was used regularly first in Eastern Christianity and his features tended to be more Near Eastern. If the beard were removed from this painting, Christ’s face would still look Roman.


In the Greek alphabet, some lowercase letters bear no resemblance to their uppercase counterparts. In the painting of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla, the Greek letter, “alpha” is written in uppercase and “omega” is in lowercase (like a cursive “w”). An uppercase omega is shaped like a horseshoe with “feet” extending outward from the bottom on each side.

In the latter part of the third century, some of the wealthy Christians chose to be buried in a sarcophagus; a stone coffin. It often was made of marble, carved elaborately with relief sculpture, and was intended to remain above ground. At one time, limestone was used for sarcophagi and it was thought it caused the body to decompose. The Greek word “sarcophagus” means literally, “eating of flesh.” The word “sarcasm” has the same root. To be sarcastic is to “tear the flesh.”

Hovak Najarian © 2012

B Easter 4, Art for April 29, 2012

Catacomb of Priscilla
Click for Wikipedia article.

from the Catacomb of Pricilla
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Related art commentary by Hovak Najarian.

The Good Shepherd, Fresco, (ca. AD 225), Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post “B Easter 4, April 29,2012

From the time of the early church until today, images and symbols have become part of Christianity but in the first several hundred years there were very few. The fish and the lamb were early symbols and the Good Shepherd was among those that followed. In depicting aspects of their faith, image makers (now called artists) often used established symbols from non-Christian sources when they were appropriate and had meaning in a Christian context.

Because the image of Christ as a shepherd is such an established part of church art today, one could easily regard it as being an image that is unique to Christianity. Its origin, however, goes back to prototypes found in Archaic Greek sculpture. A calf, goat, or ram on the shoulders of a man is found in works that were created several hundred years before the coming of Christ; Roman copies are known also. The subject of the Greek “Ram Bearer” is of an animal that is being carried to the place where it will be sacrificed. This pre-Christian image was adapted and used by Christians, not as a sheep or a goat being carried to the place of sacrifice, but rather to depict Christ as the Good Shepherd; the loving guardian and protector.

The painter of the Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of Priscilla was familiar undoubtedly with Roman copies of Greek sculpture and also familiar with paintings of pastoral scenes in Roman homes. The facial characteristics of Christ in this fresco are similar to figures seen in wall paintings of that time. He is beardless, without a halo, and not dressed in long white robes as he is depicted in later works. In Christian art, halos had not come into use as a symbol at the time this was painted.

It is thought that depictions of Christ were slow in developing because image makers were not sure how to portray him. Christ’s characteristics tended to differ according to social context. The Eastern Church portrayed Christ with a beard but in the Western Church often he was clean shaven until as late as the twelfth century. During the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods the image of Christ continued to evolve and even today there is debate regarding his true appearance. The image of Christ in the Catacomb of Priscilla reflects the time period in which it was created.

The image itself, however, was not created simply out of someone’s imagination. It had its roots in many centuries before the advent of Christ.


© 2012 Hovak Najarian

Noli Me Tangere, Fresco (1430), Fra Angelico (c.1387 – 1455)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Related post “Easter, April 8,2012′

In 1407, Guido di Pietro joined the Dominican order in Fiesole (near Florence, Italy) and at his vows took the name Giovanni. Thus, he was known as Friar Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole). Vasari referred to him as Fra Giovanni Angelico (Brother John the Angelic one); now he is known simply as Fra Angelico. In Fra Angelico’s lifetime, Italy was in a state of transition. In the early part of the fifteenth century, medieval art was still a presence but Florence was at the heart of the Renaissance and Fra Angelico was aware fully of the trends toward humanism and the changes in art that were taking place.

In medieval art, figures are generally flat with little sense of individuality. They seem to exist in a mystic realm surrounded by gold leaf that shimmers as though reflecting heavenly light. Figures are not always anatomically correct in proportion and may be made larger or smaller according to a person’s status. During the Renaissance, the interest in humanism, an awareness of the world in which they lived, a better understanding of perspective, and the use of oil paints were factors that led artists toward the creation of paintings that were convincing effects of reality. Figures of a Modonna and Child no longer existed in another realm; they were given anatomically correct proportions and were presented as real people.

Fra Angelico’s life was devoted to the work of the church and one of his major undertakings was at the monastery at San Marcos in Florence where he and his assistants painted the cells (prayer and meditation rooms) with scenes from the life of Christ. Noli Me Tangere (“Don’t touch me”) is a fresco on the wall of one of the cells. The scene depicts Mary Magdalene just after she recognized the risen Christ. She is kneeling and reaching out toward him as Christ subtly gestures to her and steps aside.

There is pictorial depth in this fresco and the modeling creates an effect of solid figures under the draped clothing. Mary Magdalene’s kneeling position is believable as is the sense that Jesus has just moved his right foot as he withdraws slightly from Mary. Yet, although the figures are no longer painted as they would have been in medieval times, the tomb is quite stylized and tightly rendered. The landscape of springtime flowers and the backdrop of trees also are stylized.

Studies by perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim have shown that viewers tend to “read” a painting from left to right. It also has been shown that from the standpoint of visual balance, we are more comfortable when there is more visual weight on the left side of a painting. Fra Angelico followed intuitively these compositional guidelines. If the painting, Noli Me Tangere, were to be divided in half (the background palm tree being the center) the larger and more passive visual mass on the left – the tomb and Mary Magdalene – is balanced by the more active figure of Christ on the right.

In Noli Me Tangere our eyes enter the painting on the left side at the tomb. We make a mental note of the darkness in the open door (this door is not designed to be closed by a large stone) and then we continue our visual journey to Mary Magdalene dressed in red, a color that also carries weight. The direction of Mary’s gaze, her arms, and her hand gesture lead our eyes to the figure of Jesus the focal point of the painting. In the figure of Jesus we find movement and we follow his gaze as it leads us back to the face of Mary. A fence in the background limits pictorial depth and keeps the focus of attention on the figures of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the foreground. Although Noli Me Tangere seems to be a simple composition there is within the subtle gestures and facial expressions, a subtext that causes us to reflect on the moment this meeting occurred.

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

The mural and the fresco

Editor’s Note: Hovak Najarian, Art History Professor Emeritus from College of the Desert, will begin to help us understand the art that informs our faith and understand the faith that informs our art. In our lectionary on Sunday we read from Numbers 21:4-9. Michelangelo’s fresco the Brazen Serpent, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, opens up this scene from the Exodus. Enjoy the art, enjoy this background to the art. Keep learning.

Become more familiar with often encountered terms:

Mural:  A mural is a large work of art that is usually created directly on a large architectural surface.  The murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel often are referred to as “ceiling frescos” because the fresco process was used to paint them.  In the same manner, critics often refer to an oil painting simply by its medium, “oil,” but all paintings are not oils and all murals are not frescos  The terms mural and fresco are not synonymous.  Mural identifies a work’s category (the type of work that it is) and fresco refers to its medium (the material that is used to make it).

Fresco: In the fresco process, an artist paints directly on wet plaster with water based pigments.  Before painting begins, a plasterer covers an area of a wall (or ceiling) according to an estimate of how much the artist believes can be painted before the plaster sets.  While the plaster is still moist, the pigment is absorbed into its surface and when it is set the pigment becomes an integral part of it.  The pigment is not on the wall or ceiling, it is within its surface.

If a plastered area has set before it can be painted it is no longer capable of absorbing pigment and must be chipped off.  A fresh area of plaster is spread on the wall before work continues.  The removal of plaster is done along a contour of a figure in order that a seam is not apparent.  This procedure is repeated until the mural is completed.  It is a time consuming and messy process and is seldom used now unless a particular effect is desired.  Michelangelo worked on the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512 AD.

Sistine Chapel: This chapel is named “Sistine” because it was Pope Sixtus who had it restored in the latter part of the fifteenth century.

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

A Pentecost: Art for readings 06/12/2011

GIOTTO di Bondone
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Scenes from the Life of Christ: Pentecost
Fresco, 200 x 185 cm
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 Click on their image to enlarge/fit page etc.

Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
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A Easter7: Art for readings 06/05/2011

GIOTTO di Bondone
Click to open Web Gallery of Art Artist Biography

Scenes from the Life of Christ: Ascension
Fresco, 200 x 185 cm
Click to open Web Gallery of Art display page.
 Click on their image to enlarge/fit page etc.

Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Click to open Web Gallery of Art location/setting information.

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