Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Catacombs |
Coded artwork in the catacombs

Catacombs is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 84, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

At first, cautious Christians decorated tombs mainly with signs or symbols, but by the fourth century many catacombs included unmistakable scenes from Jesus’ life

Catacombs - Coded artwork in the catacombs

Catacombs - Coded artwork in the catacombs
The resurrection of Jesus Christ was an obvious theme for artists decorating the Christian catacombs of Rome. However, the message was delivered indirectly, by depictions of scriptural events that implied or symbolized the resurrection that all could anticipate. In the catacombs on the Via Latina, a fresco of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was painted over the loculi of one believer, the implication being that the deceased saw in it the hope of his own resurrection.

It’s the second of the Ten Commandments: “You must not make a carved image for yourself, nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Exod. 20:4 REB). To some Christians in the first three centuries, that admonition seemed clear: Any kind of image was forbidden in the exercise of faith.

Most saw the commandment as prohibiting the worship of images, not their use for decoration or instruction. Given the tension between the two camps, if there was Christian art it was initially symbolic, purposefully not an easy object for worship.

Early in the catacombs, overtly Christian themes were rarely painted or carved on the sarcophagi of the faithful, and depictions of Jesus himself omitted such powerful, explicit events as the Crucifixion or Resurrection. Instead, some paintings used Old Testament themes to illustrate Christian tenets: Christ’s triumph over death was echoed in Jonah’s escape from the fish or in Daniel’s survival in the lion’s den. There were more subtle hints: Christians would recognize an ordinary man carrying a sheep as a reminder of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

By the fourth century, catacomb art had grown to include more representational forms. Illustrations clearly portrayed events from the Gospels and central themes such as the Incarnation. There were depictions of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would give birth to “Immanuel” and of the visit of the Magi to the Holy Child. Images of the Virgin and Child also began appearing on Christian tombs in the catacombs.

This is the end of the Catacombs category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 84, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Catacombs from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at