Archaeologists find oldest paintings of apostles

ROME Tue Jun 22, 2010 1:49pm EDT

1 of 4. Italian professor Fabrizio Bisconti shows a painting inside the catacomb of Saint Tecla in downtown Rome June 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile

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ROME (Reuters) - Archaeologists and art restorers using new laser technology have discovered what they believe are the oldest paintings of the faces of Jesus Christ's apostles.

The images in a branch of the catacombs of St Tecla near St Paul's Basilica, just outside the walls of ancient Rome, were painted at the end of the 4th century or the start of the 5th century.

Archaeologists believe these images may have been among those that most influenced later artists' depictions of the faces of Christ's most important early followers.

"These are the first images that we know of the faces of these four apostles," said Professor Fabrizio Bisconti, the head of archaeology for Rome's numerous catacombs, which are owned and maintained by the Vatican.

The frescoes were known but their details came to light during a restoration project that started two years ago and whose results were announced on Tuesday at a news conference.

The full-face icons include visages of St Peter, St Andrew, and St John, who were among Jesus' original 12 apostles, and St Paul, who became an apostle after Christ's death.

The paintings have the same characteristics as later images, such as St Paul's rugged, wrinkled and elongated forehead and balding head and pointy beard, indicating they may have been the ones which set the standard.

The four circles, about 50 cm in diameter, are on the ceiling of the underground burial place of a noblewoman who is believed to have converted to Christianity at the end of the same century when the emperor Constantine made it legal.

Bisconti explained that older paintings of the apostles show them in a group, with smaller faces whose details are difficult to distinguish.

"This is a very important discovery in the history of the early Christian communities of Rome," said Bisconti.


The frescoes inside the tomb measuring about 2 meters by 2 meters were covered with a thick patina of powdery calcium carbonate caused by extreme humidity and no air circulation.

"We took our time to do extensive analysis before deciding what technique to use," said Barbara Mazzei, who headed the project. She explained how she used a laser as an "optical scalpel" to make the calcium carbonate fall off without damaging the paint.

"The laser created a sort of a mini explosion of steam when it interacted with the calcium carbonate to make it detach from the surface," she said.

The result was stunning clarity in the images that were before blurry and opaque.

The wrinkles on St Paul's forehead, for example, are clear and the whiteness of St Peter's beard has re-emerged.

"It was very, very emotional to discover this," said Mazzei.

Other scenes from the Bible, such as Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead or Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, are now also much clearer and brighter.

"As far as paintings inside catacombs go, we are used to very faint paintings, usually white, with few colors. In the case of the St Tecla catacombs, the great surprise was the extraordinary colors. The more we went forward, the more surprises we found," Mazzei said.

The tomb, in a web of catacombs under a modern building, is not yet open to the public because of continued work, difficult access and limited space. Bisconti said the new discoveries will be made available for viewing by specialists for the time being.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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Comments (3)
Aftab68 wrote:
We Christians here in Pakistan are very happy and in fact moved by this new findings by the Archaeologists. I am very eagerly waiting to see these pictures in a clear and visible way. In fact the whole world must be waiting to see these pictures. Well, well, God Bless us all in Jesus Christ and congratulations to all Christians and those who love to know and see these precious findings.

Jun 23, 2010 4:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Chadderwikz wrote:
The first group of people to create a global community based on love! The better way of life. I don’t really buy into all that almighty/supernatural stuff though. It’s still a way of controlling people in my opinion, but, humans seem to need controlling and this method seems the most humane. We are a couple of millenniums into the future, i don’t think people are so gullible nowadays!!

Jun 27, 2010 7:07am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Metalhaid wrote:
Congratulations on such a historical find. Whether or not you accept Christ as your savior, this is important work regardless. As a Christian, I find this impressive from both a historical view and more proof (if I needed any) that Christ was and is a very real, vital figure in our lives. My faith in Christ is stronger than ever, as we go through all this crap on a daily basis. If needing to lean on a ’supernatural’ being makes me weak, well call me guilty.

Jun 29, 2010 12:36pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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