First Known Image of Mary, In Catacombs of Priscilla


Title: First Known Image of Mary
Artist: Unknown
Location: Catacombs of Priscilla (Rome, Italy)
Medium: Fresco
Time: 170 BC
Dimensions: 14.79 x 16.42

The Roman Empire during 170 BC denied true religious freedom to their citizens. It appeared as if this empire offered religious freedom but required citizens to comply with a set of civic duties that contradicted their Christian values. These civic duties included making sacrifices to pagan gods once a year and acknowledging Caesar as the Son of God and Savior. Not only was true religious freedom denied but it was also discouraged by concocted propaganda lies. The authority led the people against Christians by spreading lies that Christians participated in orgies during communal means and sacrificed infants. This caused a great distaste for the Christian community and led to persecution of the community. Because of the persecution of the authorities and citizens Christians had to keep their practices private. Christians found refuge in the catacombs in which they were able to depict Christian images and find encouragement.

There are many Christian images concealed within the Catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome. One of these images is the first known image of the Virgin Mary, painted around the time of Christian persecution in 170 BC. The image of Mary nursing Jesus painted as a fresco high upon the walls of the catacomb was meant to refresh the persecuted Christian’s spirits and give them hope as Mary’s gentle gaze encourages them. Upon examining the fresco we begin to observe the intricate symbolic details that are included. For example, the clothing worn by the women within the painting reveals to us that the woman is in fact Mary the mother of Jesus. She is shown wearing a woolen garment which was most commonly worn by Roman matrons and is also wearing a short veil that was worn by dedicated virgins. We then recognize the baby on her lap as Jesus, who is glancing over his shoulder to observe another figure painted to the left. This figure is a man who is pointing up to the star of Bethlehem, he is dressed in a cloak that signifies him as a philosopher of distinction, but there is debate on who this figure was specifically. Some claim that it is depicting the prophet Isaiah who predicted that “The Lord Himself shall give you a sign. Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel”, but others claim that the man is representing the prophet Balaam who said “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. Reaching out over the prophet and Mary is a blossoming tree branch that refers to the Old Testament prophecy “The Rock of Jesse has blossomed; the Virgin has brought forth Love and Man”.

During the persecution the Christians suffered in Rome, art hidden in the Catacombs was used to express their faith and encourage other persecuted Christians to persevere. Although Rome was invaded and ransacked by enemies the image of Mary nursing baby Jesus remains intact in the depths of the Catacombs of Priscilla to become known as the oldest image of Mary.

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