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picture showing st paul in the catacomb fresco
The first icons?

Posted on 11 July 2010, 23:22

Last month, a burial chamber in Rome from 17 centuries ago, part of the Catacomb of St Thecla, was opened to the world’s press after its walls had been scraped clean by lasers. The lasers have uncovered an amazing array of wall paintings showing biblical scenes, but best of all is the chamber’s colourful ceiling, with bold geometric patterns.

At the centre of the ceiling is a smiling Christ carrying a lamb on his shoulders, while the four corners have medallions containing portraits of the apostles Peter, Andrew, John and Paul.

Because the chamber is from the late 4th century, these are the oldest known images of John and Andrew, and that was the detail which made headlines in the media. But more significant than that is the format of the painting, with the four apostles surrounding Jesus. This suggests they were being venerated in some way, which makes them the earliest example of Christian icons – images used in prayer and worship – we know about.

Other early images of the apostles show them as actors in scenes from the four Gospels, but here they appear in the stillness of portraits. They turn to look out at us directly to encourage and hear our prayers. Their position on the ceiling suggests they are looking down from heaven. These images give us a glimpse into a very early moment in the development of icons, about 350 years after the death of Jesus.

It’s especially enjoyable to recognise the image of St Paul (shown above), who looks exactly as he does in later icons. There are earlier depictions of Paul (although not many) which have this same look, which was taken from a description in a 2nd century book, The Acts of Paul.

In the opening of the book, Paul is spotted in the street in the Roman town of Iconium, and described as ‘a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.’

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