Restoration work in Rome’s ancient catacombs reveals 1,600-year-old hidden frescoes

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Since their rediscovery in the 16th century, Rome’s catacombs have dazzled the archaeological community. The ancient underground burial networks are a famed burial site both for Christians and for people who worshiped any of the earlier Roman religions.

Underneath the city, people were either placed in distinct catacombs or buried together. It began as early as the 2nd century AD, when inhumation had become a more common funerary practice. Christians at the time typically opted for burials instead cremations, as they believed in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming.

As an extremely important site, Rome’s ancient catacombs represent an epic monument of the ancient empire and the inception of Christianity. Moreover, the catacombs also provide an invaluable contribution to the history of early Christian art. They have been a treasured site with a plethora of frescoes, sculptures, or gold-glass medallions among other items, which widely exemplify the artwork done before 400 AD.

The exploration and excavation of Rome’s hidden tunnels seem to be a continual work in progress. The discoveries have never ceased to surprise us. Not only have new chambers been identified in recent decades, but so have new precious artifacts.

In May 2017, restorers put the finishing touches on a seven-year restoration work of two underground burial rooms in the Catacombs of Domitilla. Thanks to their effort, two long-hidden frescoes, which were likely commissioned approximately 1,600 years ago by bakers in the city, have been revealed.

The Catacombs of Domitilla, named after Saint Domitilla, expand over 11 miles of underground caves. As large and impressive as they are, they are exceptional for several other reasons. They are the oldest of Rome’s catacombs, and the only ones still containing bones. Reportedly, they alone have been the burial site of almost 150,000 bodies.

The Domitilla Catacombs are also the best-preserved and the most extensive of all ancient burial networks beneath the city. Among their treasures and invaluable artifacts is a 2nd-century fresco of the Last Supper.

Lurking under a chalky deposit and algae domesticated after centuries of being abandoned, new frescoes have been found. Experts have used lasers and scanning technology to restore the paintings, stripping away the deposits, layer by layer. The technique used has never before been applied in catacombs.

As the layers have been removed, numerous images have slowly started to emerge on the surface, depicting figures from the Old and New Testament, and also vignettes related to the baker’s trade.

According to Barbara Mazzei, who had been supervising the restoration work on behalf the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, the restorers have accomplished the work “millimeter by millimeter.”

One of the scenes revealed in the frescoes depicts the deceased accompanied by two saints. The saints may be Nereus and Achilleus, who were two martyrs, most likely killed under Emperor Diocletian and buried here. According to the experts, all evidence shows the frescoes’ origin dates back to the second half of the fourth century when a similar type of iconography was common.

Restoration projects at the catacombs are set to continue further, as there are still more chambers that are in poor condition. It might mean that new finds just may be on their way.

A new museum, to be inaugurated in June, is to showcase artifacts dating from the 2nd to the 5th century from several catacombs in Rome. The collection is certain to shed light on how paganism and Christian faith were mysteriously intertwined together in the early Church.

 Stefan Andrews

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Eleanor Cobham, a seductive royal duchess, was found guilty of witchcraft in 15th century and forced to walk through London in penance

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The Duchess of Gloucester forced to walk through the streets as punishment for necromancy. Carnegie Museum of Art – Pittsburgh, PA (United States) Dates: 1900

On November 13th, 1441, the curious people of London lined the streets to observe an act of public penance. The criminal was a woman, perhaps 40 years of age, bare-headed, plainly dressed, who was rowed in a barge to Temple Stairs off the Thames. She would then proceed to walk all the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, carrying before her a wax taper of two pounds and showing the entire time a “meek and demure countenance.”

She was no ordinary woman and hers was no ordinary crime. The condemned woman was Eleanor Cobham, the wife to a royal prince: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, only surviving uncle to the childless Henry VI and the the heir to the throne. The duchess had been tried and condemned for heresy and witchcraft. This was the first of three days of ordered pilgrimages to churches. Afterward, she would be forced to separate from her husband and live in prison for the rest of her life.

The downfall of Eleanor Cobham was a shocking event in the 15th century, and it’s disturbing today. Certain elements of her life echo Katherine Swynford’s, the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt who eventually became his third wife. A bold beauty manages to marry a royal–it was seen again, and much more famously, in the following centuries with Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn. But while rumors of witchcraft swirled around both of those queens, the accusations were, historians now agree, not based in reality. While Eleanor Cobham most probably did dabble in the black arts. The most serious of such crimes was to seek to know–or perhaps even alter–the future, through the practice of necromancy.

Ever since the age of Homer, necromancers have hovered in the darkest shadows of society. They were believed to possess the secrets to unlocking the power of the underworld to divine the future. No matter the results—or lack thereof—necromancers did a brisk business in the Greek and Roman world. It was only by following their secret and ornate rituals, they said, could the boundaries be dissolved between the living and the dead.

After Rome fell, the early popes struggled to extinguish the pagan practices of not only necromancy but witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy. But these practices survived through the Middle Ages, in one form or another, and in the Renaissance, as scholars pored through ancient texts, experienced a rebirth. Some popes even  employed their own astrologers. The Munich Manual of Demonic Magic, a textbook in Latin, was compiled in the 15th century. Necromancy became, if anything, more common. After drawing a series of magic circles, saying conjurings, and making sacrifices, necromancers claimed a demon would appear to assist: see the future, drive a man to love or hatred, discern where secret things were hidden, such as treasure.

During the 15th century, England was a kingdom of devout Catholics–and yet superstition ran amok. In 1456, 12 men petitioned Henry VI for permission to practice alchemy, among them two of the king’s own physicians. Some courtiers owned astrological books. What was heresy and what was knowledge linked to the fashionable pursuit of ancient texts? It was hard to know what was forbidden–until you made a mistake. And then you could lose your life.

The stage was set for Eleanor Cobham and her ambitious play for love, power, and glory.

The daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham, Eleanor in her early twenties entered the service of the illustrious Jacqueline, Countess of Hanault. Jacqueline repudiated her husband, John of Brabant, and fled to England in search of champions, marrying the youngest brother of Henry V: Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.

At some point over the next five years, Eleanor herself became the mistress of the duke, the husband of her employer. Humphrey abandoned his wife; the pope annulled the marriage because of legalities to do with her first husband. Humphrey married her lady in waiting, Eleanor.

His nickname of “Good Duke Humphrey” notwithstanding, Gloucester was a complex man. Well educated, he supported learning more than most aristocrats and was a devoted patron of the arts. An enthusiastic soldier, he was devoted to his oldest brother, the famous warrior Henry V. But Humphrey was also impulsive and vengeful. There is little doubt he was, in addition, a womanizer. After the death of his brother the king, he claimed the right to be regent for his infant nephew. His claims were supported in the dead king’s will. But Cardinal Henry Beaufort and the rest of the Beauforts opposed Gloucester. The two branches of the Lancaster family fought for power for the rest of Humphrey’s life.

Eleanor did not make Humphrey more popular. She was criticized for her immoral history and for her greed. Historian Ralph Griffiths says, “One chronicler noted how she flaunted her pride and her position by riding through the streets of London, glitteringly dressed.”

The unmarried Henry VI, passive and easily led, was fond of his aunt and uncle.  Historians believe a decision was made in the Beaufort camp to permanently weaken the duke of Gloucester, and the key to the attack was his wife.

In late June 1441, word spread through London that two men had been arrested for conspiring against the king–divining the king’s future through the use of necromancy and concluding that he would soon suffer a serious illness.  The accused were two clerks, Roger Bolingbroke, an Oxford priest, and Thomas Southwell, a canon. (Those who practiced necromancy were often low-level clericals, because they possessed the knowledge of Latin necessary to read forbidden books and learn the rites.)

The men were sent to the Tower of London and possibly tortured. Bolingbroke told his interrogators that he had been prompted to look into the future of the king by the duchess of Gloucester.

Eleanor did not behave like someone innocent of all crime. She fled to Westminster, seeking sanctuary. Later, when she was set to appear before an ecclesiastical court, she tried to escape onto the Thames river, but she was caught. A witch was produced, Marjorie Jourdemayne, who said she procured love potions for the duchess to make Gloucester marry her. In her trial, Eleanor denied seeking to know the future of the king through necromancy, but she “did acknowledge recourse to the Black Art.” It is believed she turned to the necromancers and witch to try to bear a child.

Eleanor’s co-conspirators were condemned and executed–Margaret Jourdemayne was burned at Smithfield. One of the clerks was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Eleanor spent the rest of her life confined in various castles. She died in 1452. Her husband Humphrey, who, to the puzzlement of many, had done little publicly to free her—he “said little”—died five years before Eleanor. His wife’s disgrace had finished him as an important man of the kingdom.

Did Eleanor turn to the dark arts to try to bring about the death of Henry VI so that her husband could become king and she become queen? Most historians doubt she went that far; more likely, she dabbled in the same forbidden practices that other court ladies did. But in the tense and treacherous political climate of the Lancastrian court, where rivalries were soon to explode into the War of the Roses, a mistake in judgment could cost one everything. As was learned by Eleanor Cobham.

From https://www.thevintagenews.com

The young man who shook the Catholic Church to its core

Painting of Martin LutherImage copyright WITTENBERG STADTKIRCHE
Image caption  Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago

Five hundred years ago, a young German monk began the Protestant Reformation, shattering the authority of the Catholic Church.

Centuries later, there are signs that the churches have put aside their differences.

I pray thee… go not to Wittenberg. (Hamlet Act I, Scene ii).

In an early scene from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude begs him not travel to Wittenberg.

She believes that her son’s studies in a provincial German town on the banks of the River Elbe may be a threat to their security and the Catholicism of his upbringing.

She had good reason to be worried.

For that is precisely what happened when a monk called Martin Luther engaged in the concentrated study of scripture at the University of Wittenberg.

It would lead him to some Biblical beliefs – particularly the doctrine of justification by faith alone – that would transform Luther’s understanding of church, God and eternal life.

It would also result in him hammering 95 theses – arguments and objections – to the doors of the Schlosskirche, or University church.

With each blow, the authority and stability of the Catholic Church was challenged as never before.

Heavy church doors with picture of Christ above
Image caption   The door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche, where Luther nailed his theses

“He wanted to rediscover Christ,” says Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Germany’s most senior Protestant bishop, “and he fought against certain practices of the Church of his time.”

“And since it was not possible to agree upon these things and to find a way forward to reform the Church, he started something new. And many people went with him,” adds the bishop.

The anniversary of Luther’s protest will be marked in Wittenberg on 31 October, 500 years after he hammered on the University church’s doors.

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What was the Reformation?

  • A religious movement which challenged the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church
  • Began in Germany in 1517 but soon spread through much of northern Europe
  • Held that salvation came by grace through faith alone, not by good works or deeds
  • Led to the creation of Protestant churches separate from the Roman Catholic Church
  • The Church of England broke from the Catholic Church later in the 16th Century
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But this theological earthquake began a little earlier.

If Paul the Apostle was converted on the road to Damascus, then for Martin Luther it was thunder and lightening on the road to Erfurt.

Luther, aged 21, was returning to university having spent time visiting his parents in 1505.

As he walked, the heavens opened and a deluge of Biblical proportions rained down.

It provoked such fear and anxiety that he cried out to Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother, promising that if he survived he would enter a monastery.

Two weeks later Luther was admitted to the house of Augustinian friars in Erfurt and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bishop standing outside Wittenberg church door
Image caption  Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm: “Luther wanted to rediscover Christ”

Luther’s theological crisis was accelerated by a Dominican monk called Johann Tetzel, who was charged with collecting so-called indulgences on behalf of the Catholic Church.

These were payments which were made in the hope that individuals, and their deceased relatives, would be fast-tracked through purgatory into heaven.

Tetzel was an effective travelling salesman.

He would ask his audience: “Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others? From this you could redeem us with small alms.”

He would even offer a jingle that would not be out of place in a modern advertising campaign: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

But as Luther read the New Testament letter to the Romans, he was transfixed by the phrase “the righteousness of God”.

He later explained his epiphany: “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.”

Suddenly, Luther came to believe that one’s acceptance before God could not be purchased by indulgences, nor achieved by good works, but only received through faith.

He also came to the conclusion that only scripture could determine the governance of the Church and the practice of Christians.

‘Son of iniquity’

Luther’s observations were not well received.

Within a year, Pope Leo X dismissed Luther as an outspoken drunk who would repent when sober, describing him as “a son of iniquity”.

Excommunicated in 1521, Luther was dragged before the Diet of Worms, an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, but refused to recant, uttering words which are now permanently linked to him: “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.”

Before Luther could be punished, the territorial prince of Saxony, Elector Frederick the Wise, arranged for him to be smuggled away to his castle at Wartburg.

There he would spend a year translating the New Testament into German.

With the advent of the printing press, alongside Luther’s translation, the word began to spread.

Martin Bashir stands looking at altarpiece picturing the Last SupperImage copyright    BBC/WITTENBERG STADTKIRCHE
Image caption    Tourists have flocked to Wittenberg to see Lucas Cranach’s altarpiece

Luther’s breakthrough led local artist Lucas Cranach to paint his friend, in disguise, alongside the disciples at the Last Supper.

The clear suggestion was that Martin Luther was much closer to the New Testament message than the Catholic Church.

But as the Reformation spread through Europe, it was marked by bloody episodes of warfare and violence.

Wars were waged in central, western and northern Europe from 1524 to 1649, fuelled by the religious rivalry that Luther had unwittingly inspired.

Eventually, the two Churches would co-exist peacefully, but without any formal links.

To mark the anniversary, we brought together the respective leaders of the Anglican and Catholic Churches in England.

Today, the Churches are arguably closer than at any point since the Reformation.

The leader of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, said: “It’s unimaginable that 50, 60 years ago that the two of us should have sat doing an interview together.”

Vincent Nichols and Justin Welby, seated
Image caption   Cardinal Nichols and the Archbishop of Canterbury agree relations are improving between Catholics and Protestants

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and leader of Catholics in England and Wales, also expressed relief that violence is no longer part of theological disagreement.

“I hope we will always maintain that mutual respect and freedom for religious expression in all its aspects,” he said.

To demonstrate the setting aside of differences, an act of reconciliation will take place at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday.

Mr Welby will present copies of a text that seeks to resolve the dispute that erupted in Wittenberg.

Although the joint declaration has been signed by denominational leaders, many individuals within their Churches still do not agree and prefer to stick with their own traditions.

But they might consider the question asked by Pope Francis, when he visited the Lutheran Church in Rome two years ago.

In a brief homily, he asked: “If we have the same baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together?”