Graffito from the via Paisiello hypogeum, Rome.

Original Location/Place: 
Cubiculum within the Hypogeum of Via Paisiello, Rome.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
in loco
4th BCE to 5th BCE
Black line drawing on white wall.
Black line drawings on the white walls of an underground chamber in a private catacomb, in the north of Rome; the drawings include figured scenes from the usual repertory of early Christian art. The drawing under consideration here is found between the loculi of the left wall of the chamber, and appears to depict a naked male figure standing on a pedestal, most likely representing a statue; it holds a sceptre or staff in its left hand and a circular object, perhaps a patera, in its right. A figure wearing a short tunic stands to the right of the statue-figure, with both arms raised and one hand holding on to a rope that has been thrown around the statue’s neck. To the left of the statue another figure can just be discerned, also wearing a short tunic, and throwing rocks.

(Published by De Rossi, Giovanni Battista, “Un esplorazione sotteranea sulla Via Salaria Vecchia” in Bullettino di archeologia cristiana 3 (1895), p. 1-8)


In 1865, whilst searching for the Catacombs of St Pamphilus in the north of Rome, Giovanni Battista De Rossi discovered what turned out to be a series of private, isolated hypogea, or underground burial chambers. One chamber, or cubiculum, remained intact including the wall paintings that decorated three of the four walls. These figured, black line drawings depicted some of the biblical scenes most commonly found in early Christian art with the exception of one image, which appears to provide evidence for the Christian destruction of pagan cult statues. It is a unique source on account of the private nature of its creation, perhaps indicating the interests and experiences of the patron of the tomb (for a detailed description of how the tomb chamber was discovered, see De Rossi, “Un esplorazione sotteranea sulla Via Salaria Vecchia,” p. 1-8).
The figured scenes, drawn in a somewhat rough and unrefined style, depicted a variety of Christian scenes, which have been interpreted as Jonah thrown into the sea, the raising of Lazarus, the healing of the paralytic, the Good Shepherd, Noah in his ark, Jonah under the gourd tree, Moses striking the rock, Abraham and Isaac, and the three young Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace. As Peter Stewart has noted, there is no obvious programme for these scenes, and although their content is “mostly conventional,” their form and style is extremely unusual; the closest iconographic parallels suggest that they were drawn in the second half of the 4th century CE, and probably when the tomb was redecorated following the introduction of two new loculi into each side wall (Stewart, Statues in Roman Society, p. 292). All of these scenes were taken from stories in which God or Jesus intervened, resulting in the physical salvation of those who had trusted them; these allegorical scenes were intended to reinforce Christian belief in the power of God and thus their desire to ensure salvation in the hope of resurrection (Sauer, Archaeology of Religious Hatred, p. 68). It would appear that this was, then, the private catacomb of an individual of Christian faith, who had used a known repertoire of scenes and images but who was acting outside of the control of the church, hence the somewhat amateur nature of the drawings (Ferrua, Le pitture della nuova catacomba di Via Latina, p. 95-101). The most unique feature of the drawings, however, is the scene found next to the depiction of the Fiery Furnace, between the two loculi of the left wall: here, a naked figure appears standing on a pedestal, the front of which shows a regular rectangular space, holding a sceptre or staff in its right hand and a circular object – possibly a patera or a globe – in its left. To the right of this standing figure, another stands, wearing a short tunic and holding on to a rope with raised arms, which has been thrown around the neck of the elevated nude. To the left, another short-tunicked figure stands, apparently throwing a stone or rock towards the central, standing figure. The scene has been identified as one of statue-destruction: the central, standing figure appears to be a nude statue, standing on a pedestal, the rectangular space on the front of which indicating the epigraphic field for the dedicatory inscription (Sauer, Archaeology of Religious Hatred, p. 68). The figure to the left is therefore throwing stones or rocks at the statue, with the figure to the right attempting to pull it down from the pedestal by means of the rope around its neck. Some scholarship has sought to identify the statue as one of the Roman emperors, but this was dismissed earlier on by De Rossi, who noted that nude sculptures of the emperors were common only to the early empire; more recent publications suppose the statue to be more likely of Jupiter, on account of the sceptre and possible globe that the figure holds, the characteristic attributes of the god (Sauer, Archaeology of Religious Hatred, p. 68).
If the scene does indeed represent the destruction of a cult statue of a pagan god, then the drawing may belong to the Theodosian backlash again pagan images in the period immediately after his law of 407 CE, which ordered any image in a temple or shrine that was, or had been, worshipped to be torn down (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.19; Stewart, “The Destruction of Statues,” p. 175). The idea had been proposed some thirty years earlier in the last two decades of the fourth century, after the Edict of Thessalonica, which distinguished between those images of the gods that should be condemned as idolatrous, and those which should be preserved and appreciated for their aesthetic value (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.8); the edict itself related to the Eastern empire, but it was used widely to justify the movement of statues and sculptural groups across other parts of the empire, from ancient places of pagan worship (Michel d’Annoville, “Rome and Imagery in Late Antiquity,” p. 347). The key issue here appears to have been the notion of worship, and whether or not there was a genuine distinction between religious statues that were only intended for aesthetic appreciation, and those that had been set up for the purpose of worship (this point is best debated by Peter Stewart’s Statues in Roman Society, which proposes that there was a clear differentiation, both in the language in which the statues are discussed and the practices by which they were dedicated).
By the early fifth century, however, the debate had taken a decisive turn, with Theodosius’s law reinforcing the principles against idolatry enacted by zealous Christians. Instances of violence against temples and shrine are detailed in the writings of the Christian authors, but scholars such as Peter Stewart have cautioned against overestimating the extent of the violence, noting that there is “no very strong evidence for the central organization of iconoclastic activities and movements tended to arise spontaneously and spasmodically in different parts of the Empire,” with most occurrences happening in more localised situations, led by bishops and in the provinces, rather than in Rome (Stewart, Statues in Roman Society, p. 291).
It is worth considering too the extent to which both Jewish attitudes to pagan statues may have influenced this Christian-led destruction of idols; Rabbinic literature expresses strong opinions concerning avodah zarah, or “alien worship,” against which the rabbis were strictly opposed – and which appears to have been in response to the Second Commandment, which forbade the making, possession and worship of images: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:4-5, NRSV). Passages in Exodus (23:24; 34:12-16) and in Deuteronomy (7:1-5, 25-26; 12:1-3) also order the destruction of idols. In order to accommodate living within such a pagan world, the rabbis created categories that helped Jews to navigate the potential contact that they might come into with problematic material (see e.g. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 61). For example, Sacha Stern has noted a number of passages in the Rabbinic texts which appear to confirm Peter Stewart’s interpretation of how statues were understood in a Graeco-Roman context, noting the distinction between whether or not a statue was worshipped; if it was worshipped, then for the Rabbis the image constituted avodah zarah, but if it had not been, then it did not count as an idolatrous object, and were therefore not forbidden (see Mishnah Avodah Zarah, chapter 3, cited in Stern, “Images in Late Antique Palestine,” p. 119-122). Whether or not such thinking affected the Christian attitude towards the destruction of pagan statues is impossible to state with any certainty, with a number of scholars preferring the practice of damnatio memoriae as a more tangible influence (see Stewart, “The Destruction of Statues,” p. 159-189 for a detailed discussion of this).  In any case, the drawing that was used to decorate the wall of the private tomb under via Paisiello in Rome would clearly have stood out to a Christian audience as an example of contemporary image destruction; although the visual record of such events did not form part of an imperial programme of destruction, it is clear that the growing security of the Christian church and the familiarity with such practice led to its celebration in the context of a private burial setting.
Bibliographical references: 

Rome and Imagery in Late Antiquity: Perception and use of statues

Michel d’Annoville, Carolinearticle-in-a-bookPagans and Christians in late antique Rome: conflict, competition, and coexistence in the fourth centuryM. Salzman, M. Sághy, R. Lizzi Testa343-357Rome and Imagery in Late Antiquity: Perception and use of statuesNew YorkCambridge University Press2016
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Graffito from the via Paisiello hypogeum, Rome.
Author(s) of this publication: Caroline Barron
Publishing date: Mon, 07/08/2019 - 17:33
Visited: Mon, 04/22/2024 - 12:47

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