From THE ORANTE AND THE GODDESS IN THE ROMAN CATACOMBS
The Orante or Orans, generally a female figure with open eyes and upraised hands, is a pervasive symbol in early Christian art, perhaps “the most important symbol in early Christian art.”1 Found frequently in the late second-century art in the Roman catacombs, as well as in sculpture, her head is almost always covered with a veil, and she wears a tunic. She exists both as a separate symbol and as the main figure in a number of Biblical scenes, but rarely in masculine form with male clothing. Instead, she frequently stands in for male figures in scenes of deliverance—she becomes Noah in the ark, Jonah in the boat and spewed out of the whale, Daniel between the lions, and the three young men in the fiery furnace. In one instance, she does represent a female figure— Susannah as she is saved by Daniel.2
It is the salvation/deliverance aspect that appears to be the most common in early Christian art. Her exact meaning and usage, however, are debated, since there is no ancient literature to tell us exactly how her image was employed. Before considering the range of meanings she might have had, it is necessary to discuss the primary context of her image – the Roman catacombs.
[…] The catacombs were first excavated in the late 16th century. About 40 chambers are known.6
The catacombs preserve some of the earliest Christian, as well as Jewish and pagan, art related to death, resurrection and reunification of the deceased with the deity. This art is a rich repository of religious symbols, some of which originate in a much earlier time and can assist in the interpretation of the Orante. Below we shall consider several types of symbols: the gender and posture of the Orante herself; Nature symbols, including flora and fauna; anthropomorphic figures from the Graeco-Roman repertoire, such as deities and personifications of values; and Biblical scenes and figures.
Religious Symbols in the Catacombs
In the catacombs, space shared by pagans, Jews and Christians, are depicted Graeco-Roman goddesses, plants, flowers, trees, birds, animals, food and fish. As images representative of other values or qualities, these symbols all have roots in prehistory. While such images may be merely decorative, they may also have deep meaning, especially in a specific context. Since the primary function of the catacombs was to provide a permanent resting place for the deceased, it is highly likely that many of the symbols chosen for the paintings held meaning related to death, resurrection and the afterlife.
First, as has been noted by art historians, catacomb art generally conveys peacefulness, plenitude, and deliverance from danger. There is remarkably little sense of human sinfulness, death (even the death of Jesus on the cross), fear or the awesomeness of God. Death appears as an almost welcome release from the perils and hardships of life, not as a dark, foreboding place to be dreaded.
Since this positive emphasis is so different from much of early Christian theology as expressed in mainstream literature of the time (written mostly by men), we must ask why there is a discrepancy. Might the ethos of the catacombs be due to earlier, pre-Christian (and pre-Jewish) conceptions of death and the afterlife? The underground burials were sacred ground, with apparently little or no theological conflict occurring between the many groups using them. This space was also “ground” itself — mother earth, Nature, a locus of life-sustaining and life-enhancing vegetation.
The connection between Nature and peacefulness is well illustrated in the Jewish catacomb of Vigna Randanini. The wall paintings in this catacomb have “a festive air… There is nothing solemn about the graceful, mythological figures, leaping dolphins and sea horses, flying birds, palm trees full of dates, and garlands of flowers.”24
Furthermore, one of the vault frescoes of Vigna Randanini depicts a Winged Victory (the Greek goddess Nike) crowning a naked youth in the center of a round design; Nike holds a palm leaf in her right hand. The central picture is surrounded by symbolic flora and fauna: a peacock with its feathers spread sits on a column, while two birds stand on either side of a pedestal with a basket of flowers and fruit on top.25 The decoration of the vault also includes curved and straight lines in a design that gives a swirling, watery feeling.
Many of the symbols found here not only evoke Nature but are reminiscent of the prehistoric goddess, as presented especially by Gimbutas. Nike is a female deity or personification; she, like many female deities in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, are direct descendants of the prehistoric goddess.26 The palm leaf has very early goddess resonance,27 as do birds, flowers and fruit, geometric designs, and water. The peacock, sacred to Juno/Hera, Queen of Heaven, is also significant: the eyed feathers of peacock’s tail represented the goddess’ starry heavens or her all-seeing awareness. On Roman coins, Juno’s peacock meant apotheosis for women.28
However, the peacock could also be a bad-luck sign in Christianity, precisely because of its goddess association.29 Since it is unlikely that anyone, Jewish or Christian, would have surrounded their deceased relative/s with symbols that might negatively impact his or her afterlife journey, it is quite likely that the artist, the deceased and the deceased’s kin took comfort from these symbols—and therefore revered the goddess with which they were associated, whether they called her Nike, Juno, or Hera or had no name for her at all.
Symbols such as the tree, the vine, wine, fish and bread are found frequently in the catacombs. The tree, like the palm, represents for Christians either a sign of victory (the presentation of a palm to the winners of the games) or a sign of life — or both. Of course, in many contexts victory could mean victory over death, which parallels the promise of eternal life. Church historian Graydon Snyder asserts that the tree appears “most frequently in the context of the Good Shepherd,” which may derive from Orpheus with the tree symbolizing “satisfactory existence.”30 However, far back in time the tree represented life in the sense of Nature, life-giving fruit, shade, and shelter; these too were all under the dominion of the great goddess.31
Doves and other birds also figure prominently in catacomb art. Whether under the guise of Aphrodite or Astarte, the dove represented for pagans of the Graeco-Roman era the great goddess,32 while for Christians it was often equated with John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit.33 Therefore, the frequency of the dove’s appearance in the catacombs cannot be purely coinci-dental. In several instances (e.g., the catacomb of Priscilla, several times in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini, and in the catacomb of SS. Marcellino e Pietro), the dove is presented with an olive branch or roses.34 For people of the Neolithic era, both the olive branch and the dove symbolized the peace of the goddess.35
Elsewhere in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini, four doves, depicted with a spray of roses, may signify the four seasons,36 which were also under the domain of the goddess in the prehistoric mindset. Another examples of doves is from the catacomb of Priscilla: a figure of the Good Shepherd stands amid his flock of sheep flanked by doves who sit on two trees.37
The roses too were significant, appearing in graveside funerary rituals and symbolizing immortality, rebirth and hope from very early times.38 A hen and roses appear on a wall painting in cubiculum I in the Vigna Randanini catacomb.39 Ducks and hens, fish, baskets of food, and roses are depicted together in the Vigna Randanini and SS. Marcellino e Pietro catacombs,40 bringing together themes of fertility, water, nourishment and immortality—all linked to the prehistoric goddess.
Fortuna/Tyche, symbol of Nature’s profusion, is another goddess descendant appearing in a vault painting in the Vigna Randanini catacomb.41 She holds a cornucopia in her left hand and pours a libation with her right.42 As both giver of plenty and taker of life, she was very much at home in the catacombs.
Another two female deities appear in the catacomb of the Via Latina. In cubiculum O, a wall painting shows Demeter as a fashionable Roman matron. “With her right hand she sprinkles grain from a sheaf; in her left she bears aloft the flaming torch of life.”43
In cubiculum E the goddess appears again: “a voluptuous pagan earth goddess clutches to her bosom a serpent, symbol of earth’s fecundity. The scene has been associated with the myth of the fertility goddess Persephone.”44 This scene, like many others, reinforces the link between life and death and recalls that people saw the earth as both womb and tomb. The “flaming torch of life” symbolizes the hope that the way to the other world is illuminated for the deceased by the deity, and the serpent/snake, as we saw above, is the return to earth and new life (via the annual spring shedding of its skin) and life energy.45
Significantly, the Via Latina catacomb was a private pagan-Christian catacomb.46 This suggests that the families who buried their kin here did not find it contradictory to honor ancient deities, including goddesses or female personifications, along with the Christian god. Perhaps they felt that the goddess better represented fertility and the earth than did Jesus, a male.
The fish is a very complex symbol, carrying several meanings for early Christians but hearkening back much earlier. There appear to be two early Christian uses of the fish symbol, one nautical representing life in an alien environment and the other in conjunction with the communal meal: Jesus the Christ is “eaten” in the eucharistic meal. Snyder proposes that the nautical fish “developed de novo [and] referred to the alien nature of the environment. When that alienation disappeared, the nautical fish became a Christological symbol with baptismal implications. . . . At the same time a meal with fish . . . became the primary kinship or fellowship meal of the early Church.”47
Even the church father Tertullian in his work de baptismo appears to connect early, goddess-related symbols to Christian theology: “But we little fish, according to our ichthun Jesus Christ, are born in the water, nor are we saved in any other manner than by remaining in the water.”48 Tertullian and other early Christian leaders argue that the goddess, one of whose domains was water, the environment of the fish, has been replaced by Jesus the Christ; the goddess’ life-giving waters, essential to all living things, have been replaced by the more esoteric and symbolic waters of baptism, possible only through conversion to the Christian faith. Tertullian’s reference to being saved by water obviously refers to Christian baptism, yet it undoubtedly hearkens back to salvation and life as originating in the waters of the human female and, by extension, the all-powerful Nature goddess who provides the life-giving waters of streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.
A similar transformation has taken place with regard to the fish as a major component of the meal. Fish as a source of food would again, in the Nature-centered, pre-industrial mindset, be a gift from the deity, especially the female deity who rules over all plants and animals. In the Christian context, the deity becomes male; the communal meal is given to devotees by the grace of a male god in the form of Jesus the Christ.
Finally, the overall pastoral setting of much of catacomb art is a compelling illustration of a link between the Orante and the ancient goddess. In a painting in an arcosolium in the Coemeterium Maius in Rome, the Orante figure “stands in surroundings suggesting an earthly Paradise [green trees and grass], flanked by two shepherds, one of them milking one of the flock, the other bringing a stray to the fold, under the watchful eyes of a dog.” The graves are carved directly under this painting.49
Several symbols in this painting are suggestive. Milk was a sacred liquid associated with the goddess, a female fluid and vital source of sustenance, without which humans and animals would perish. The dog, often accompanying a goddess such as Hekate, appeared in prehistoric images and later folklore as a harbinger of death, overseer of cyclical time, guardian of life and crucial to the awakening of slumbering vegetation.50 The lush surroundings in which this figure is placed further suggest the goddess who oversees all of Nature and causes trees, plants and grass to grow, to the benefit of all.