BENE MERENTI Inscriptions from the Roman Catacombs early Christian spiritual beliefs, symbolism & language
in an exhibition of replica funerary carvings from the Catacombs of Ancient Rome.
featuring a stone replica donated by Robert and Lura Mae Sider, carved by Rob Assie.
a special exhibition which opened in February 2008 at the Museum of Antiquities, University of Saskatchewan.
Bene Merenti is an exploration of the underground funerary world of the Early Christians. The catacombs of Rome are significant sites for many reasons, notably for their religious importance and their academic value. They allow entry into a society which existed for four centuries before passing away fifteen hundred years ago.
The most accessible way to enter the world of the Early Christians and to come into contact with their traditions is through studying the documents they left behind. In the case of the catacombs, the available documents are the inscription plaques which sealed burials and fronted tombs, much like our modern tombstones.
The inscriptions found in the catacombs clearly illustrate the particulars of Early Christian custom. For example, they demonstrate how the Early Christian artists blended their pagan heritage and traditions with their relatively new faith to create a fresh vocabulary of symbols based on the old. Furthermore, they illustrate how the elegant classical Latin of Augustus’ day became a tool in the hands of Roman Christians, rich or poor, through which they eulogized their beloved family and friends.
The compositions on the inscriptions are simple. They communicate clear wishes: hope for the resurrection of the deceased; love and longing; succinct catalogues of days lived and deeds done. Ultimately, they record a common sentiment: bene merenti--“for the well-deserving.”
The Early Christians left these brief lines of affection and of hope for posterity and eternity. Their sentiments are the clearest message modern audiences draw from the catacomb inscriptions. Buried alongside each other, in simple slots or in grand chambers, the majority of the Christian community of Rome rests underground. They are not alone. The grief and faith expressed on the inscriptions stay with them.
The catacombs of Rome are complex networks of underground burials, arranged in long passageways interspersed with monumental cubicula (chambers). They were generally the purview of the Christian community at Rome, though there are also Jewish catacombs and pagan Roman hypogea (underground mausolea). The Christian catacombs were used for burial from the late 2nd century A.D. into the 5th century A.D., peaking during the 4th century.
During this period, the early popes erected basilica churches connected to the martyr shrines of various catacombs. The catacombs were visited by pilgrims in the Early Middle Ages for the relics they housed, but thereafter most were forgotten. In the 16th century, a scholar named Antonio Bosio rediscovered the extent of the catacombs; ever since, they have been a subject of intense interest for the information they provide on the art, social history, and spirituality of the Christians in Rome.
Roman Christians did not invent catacomb burials. Many other Mediterranean civilizations utilized underground complexes as burial sites. However, most Romans did not bury their dead in this manner; pagan Romans cremated their dead and interred the ashes in tombs that were generally aboveground.
Christians, believing in the resurrection of the body, preferred inhumation to cremation. Problems of space (burial was prohibited within the city limits) meant that they turned to the excavation of underground warrens of tunnels. Originally, wealthy Christians donated most of the land for the catacombs; only one catacomb, San Callisto, was directly administered by the Church.
The catacombs and the burials within were dug by men called fossores. A catacomb can be 20+ km long with tunnels on four or five levels. They were usually laid out on regular or “fishbone” plans, though some are more haphazard than others. The passages are narrow while the ceilings average about eight feet high. Skylights for light and ventilation, called lucemaria, sometimes occur at intervals.
Though the catacombs were built as burial sites for an egalitarian Christian community, there were nevertheless several different styles of burial (the more elaborate of course belonging to the wealthy): loculi, simple slots in the walls, stacked four to eight high; forma, graves dug into the floors; arcosolia, horizontal loculi surmounted by painted arches; and decorated cubicula housing sarcophagi (the word sarcophagus means “flesh-eater”). In the 4th century and onwards, situating burials near the existing graves of saints and martyrs became increasingly popular.
Burials in the catacombs were sealed by plaster and terracotta slabs. These slabs were often inscribed with the name of the deceased and sometimes a short message eulogizing the loved one and hoping for their eventual resurrection. Grave goods such as lamps, dolls, coins and other objects were occasionally pressed into the plaster.
The catacombs also display a great number of frescoes and wall-paintings. Some are figurative, others narrative, depicting scenes from both Old and New Testaments. Others are rife with symbolism drawing from the common Roman tradition of both Christian and pagan faiths.
The surviving inscriptions of the Roman world are fundamental to our understanding of the culture from which they came and display a staggering variety of compositions. They were set up to honour the living, to honour the dead, to proclaim laws or celebrate victories, to mark out boundaries and to identify property.The Romans’ affinity for inscriptions was broad and insatiable; while the Greeks were first to show any widespread use of public inscriptions, it was the Romans who recognized the medium’s potential and took its applications to an entirely new level.
Inscriptions were used for commemoration and advertisement of both public and private concerns. One important use of Roman inscriptions was funerary--that is, inscriptions used to mark graves, individual and family, and to preserve a record of the life and accomplishments of the deceased. It is this particular sort of inscription which we see in the catacombs (Christian and otherwise).
The catacomb inscriptions mirror traditional pagan Roman funerary inscriptions in several important ways. Some of the parallels are so basic as to be easily overlooked. For one thing, the material is the same: the catacomb inscriptions are inscribed, and they are inscribed in stone.
The composition of the inscriptions--that is, the words and patterns of speech that appear on grave markers--often resemble formulas which are standard to the larger corpus of Roman inscriptions, lending a particular cadence to the patterns of funerary inscription. So, for instance, in both traditional and Christian inscription, one will often see a formula like the following:
For John Smith, a well-deserving and beloved husband.
He lived thirty years four months.
His loving wife set this up.
The phrase bene merenti (“to the well-deserving”) is an example of one paralleled in both Christian Roman and Pagan Roman funerary traditions; such patterns are even more rigid in the Latin, as the different parts of an inscription are indicated by different grammatical cases.
Another facet of traditional funerary inscriptions which is also evident in the catacombs is the inclusion of vivid personal detail about the persons commemorated. Roman funerary inscriptions--whether Christian or not--were frequently intensely personal, mentioning qualities or events important in the life of the deceased. So, for instance, a father sadly recalls that he had less than seven years to enjoy his son, a bright little boy who taught himself “without any help” to write Latin; a freedman and former actor sets up a marker for himself and his wife (“I lived with her 30 years”).
Often the occupation of the person is listed: baker, tanner, seamstress, pharmacist, soldier, physician. Some of them were martyrs, and the inscriptions on these tombs became markers for the subsequent generations of Christians who wished to honour them. Some of them were popes, with burial inscriptions as self-aware and premeditated as those of any Roman noble buried along the Appian Way.
The funerary inscriptions of the catacombs are traditionally Roman in yet another way: their purpose is to mark out the lives of individuals, to frame them within their families and their community, and to record--for posterity, but also for the moment--the ideas and beliefs that governed their lives and mitigated their deaths.
Their final point of likeness is, for us, in a way the most important: the inscriptions of the catacombs, like those of the world around them, have survived. They have become markers not only for those who erected them, those who walked by them, those who visited them, but for us as well.
Dr. Robert Sider
February 28, 2008
Lura Mae and I wish to thank Cathy Gunderson and her superb staff for preparing this outstanding exhibit, curated so magnificently by Kate Bens. I doubt that Lura Mae and I have ever made a gift where we have been more personally involved. It was Cathy who suggested to us that we give a Christian inscription to the Museum. The idea struck a chord immediately since both Lura Mae and I, having grown up in Christian families, have had from our youth an intense interest in Christian antiquity, captivated, no doubt, by that highly legendary image of ‘Christians cowering in the catacombs of Rome.’
Second, we wish to thank Rob Assie for making such an accurate copy of the original inscription. Cathy and her staff did an enormous amount of research--virtually a college course on the catacombs--to help us make the choice of an inscription. We chose the one you now see featured in Bene Merenti, that of Apuleia Crysopolis. Happily, as it turned out, this was also the one Rob had identified as the one he would most prefer to carve. In this inscription he has brilliantly demonstrated his outstanding ability as a stonecarver.
Lura Mae and I liked the inscription of Apuleia Crysopolis both for its stark simplicity and its evocative mystery. This inscription has not yet been accurately dated, but almost certainly is from the third century A.D. or later. That it is a Christian inscription is clear only from the image of the Good Shepherd, an image of special interest here, since it is not untouched by pagan influences. The last name (Crysopolis) shows that the little girl was born into a Greek family that had been domiciled in Rome long enough for her to be given a Latin first name (Apuleia). We know that for perhaps a century the Early Christian Church in Rome was predominantly Greek-speaking. Were Greek families still predominant in the Church? Further, the crudely chiseled letters suggest a family from the lower classes, but how low? We don’t know; we can only wonder about the style of life into which this little girl had been born. But it is the simplicity, the verbal restraint, that says so much: through the few words of the inscription, formulaic though they are, we reach across the centuries in sympathy to the parents who felt the loss of their seven-year-old daughter in exactly the same way we would feel that kind of loss.
Third, Lura Mae and I wish to express our thanks to all the volunteers who currently and over the years have helped to make this museum what it is today; and thanks, too, to the people who had the vision to establish it in the first place. Two years ago we invited our twelve-year-old granddaughter from Toronto to visit the Museum. She entered the Museum, quickly surveyed the room, and exclaimed, “Wow!” That really says it all; this museum is a jewel in Saskatoon.
Finally, it is a pleasure to recognize with gratitude the role the Saskatoon Community Foundation has played in providing, through its ‘Donor Advised’ programme, a most congenial way for us to fund this gift.
Exhibit Curator & Designer:
Research & Writing:
Robert & Lura Mae Sider
Chantal de Medeiros
Chantal de Medeiros
Installation & Construction:
Jonathan & Bruce Barton
Chantal de Medeiros
Cathy & Dale Gunderson
Print Catalogue & Exhibit Website Designed & Created by Kate Bens
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