Rome: oldest images of Apostles found in Catacombs

Archaologist working last June

Archaologist working last June

The oldest icons of the Apostles Peter, Paul, John and Andrew have been discovered in on the ceiling of a catacomb under an eight-storey modern office block in Rome, Vatican officials said yesterday.

The images, which date from the second half of the 4th century,  were uncovered using a new laser technique that allowed restorers to burn off centuries of thick white calcium carbonate deposits without damaging the dark colours of the original paintings underneath.

The paintings decorate what is believed to be the tomb of an aristocratic Roman lady in the Santa Tecla catacomb. They represent some of the earliest evidence of devotion to the apostles in early Christianity, Vatican officials said.

The icon of Saint Paul was announced last June. Forensic tests on bone fragments long attributed to Paul  also confirmed their identity.

But Vatican archaeologists have now confirmed that the image was not found in isolation, but is part of a square ceiling painting that included the images of  Peter, John and Andrew - surrounding Christ as the Good Shepherd.

"These are the first images of the apostles," said Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of archaeology for the catacombs, which are maintained by the Vatican's Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology.

The Vatican has supervised and funded the two-year 60,000 euros ($84,322) restoration project. This is the first time lasers have been used to restore frescoes and paintings in catacombs. The damp air of underground catacombs makes conservation particularly difficult and complex.

Chief restorer, Barbara Mazzei, explained that the small burial chamber in which the icons were found,  was covered in a thick layer of white calcium carbonate. In the past archaeologists would have scraped this away by hand in a time-consuming and very painstaking process.  Using the  new laser technique, conservatioists have been able to strip away the calcium to reveal the bright colours underneath, without risking any damage to the icons.


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