A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Although St. Peter is one of the best known of Jesus' apostles, his travels in Rome and even his final resting place remain mysteries. An early third-century painting, however, sheds some light on the apostle's popularity among the early Christian community of Rome and perhaps his activity near the catacombs of Priscilla. These subterranean burial grounds on the Via Salaria, the ancient salt route entering Rome from the north, were probably named after a noble Roman family member who donated land to the Christian community for burial purposes. The nucleus of the catacombs of Priscilla was a family cemetery where the name Priscilla is found inscribed on a marble plaque along with other family names.
In the earliest section of the catacomb--dating to the late second or early third century--a recently restored, highly decorated burial chamber stands amid blocked galleries and partially destroyed chambers. Its restoration is part of the Vatican's ongoing preservation of material culture in its care.
The area above a series of graves cut into the soft walls is painted with illustrations of biblical events. The chamber takes its name from a three-part fresco called the Veiling (Velatio) that fronts the entrance. Celebrated by art historians for the mastery of its painting technique, the fresco was named by early scholars who thought that one part of the painting, the image of a seated man extending his right hand toward a woman and young man, represented part of a Roman wedding ritual. The meaning of the painting has remained a puzzle.
My research in the catacombs over the past ten years has established that the central image--a standing, frontal person, with head covered and arms outstretched--is an illustration of resurrection. Usually a woman, it is one of the most popular images in early Christian art. But what did this man, wearing senatorial stripes on his head covering, have to do with the resurrection? I believe the painting illustrates the late second-century apocryphal text, the Acts of Peter. During the opening centuries of Christianity, many books were written about the life, family, and followers of Christ. Most of the authors are unknown. Eventually, the church fathers selected the most authentic accounts, to form what we now know as the New Testament. Books containing questionable information came to be known as apocryphal.
Here, the artist illustrated the story of a resurrection miracle performed by the apostle Peter, who brought a popular Roman senator back to life, while exposing the false teachings of a magician represented by the miracle of the mother and suckling child. The child spoke as a man, warning the sorcerer and striking him dumb. The third composition depicts the risen senator, still holding his grave cloth and helping his mother to present a thanksgiving offering to the seated apostle Peter, as described in the text.
Although it seems to be the only illustrated example of this text, archaeological records compiled at the turn of the twentieth century reveal a similar painting in a group of hand-painted copies of frescoes that decorated various burial chambers. Now lost or destroyed, it was identified as existing in a catacomb where the apostle is supposed to have baptized. Interestingly, it may have been a burial ground joined to Priscilla.
Records of late sixteenth-century excavations conducted by the archaeologist Antonio Bosio suggest that two other cemeteries were found close enough to Priscilla to be connected to it. If the apostle Peter actually preached and baptized in the burial grounds eventually annexed to Priscilla--as early itineraries, graffiti, and a number of legends and testimonies suggest--it would have been a fitting tribute to commemorate the event through an illustration of his miraculous deeds as described in the Acts of Peter, a text written not long before the frescos were painted.
Linda Sue Galate (Casperson School of Graduate Studies, Drew University) first presented her preliminary research on the Veiling fresco at the SBL International Meeting in Rome on July 11, 2001. The final paper was presented in March 2002.