Archaeologists and restorers working at the Roman catacombs of St. Tecla on Tuesday announced the discovery of the world’s oldest known paintings of the apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and John.
“They're the oldest images of the apostles and are datable to the latter half of the fourth century AD," said Fabrizio Bisconti, superintendent of archeology at the catacombs.
According to ANSA, the catacombs are owned and maintained by the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. They are located about one-third of a mile from the church of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, where the Apostle to the Gentiles is buried.
The paintings were found on the ceiling of the burial chamber of an ancient Roman noblewoman who commissioned painters to decorate it with Bible scenes.
Previously, the Vatican had reported the archaeologists’ discovery of the oldest known image of St. Paul while doing routine restoration work. On Tuesday, the Vatican team said Paul’s image was part of a ceiling painting that included the full-face icons of the other three apostles.
“The paintings of Andrew and John are undoubtedly the oldest ever,” Bisconti commented. “Some showing Peter have been found that date to the middle of the fourth century although this is the first time that the apostle is not shown in a group but singly, in an icon."
Barbara Mazzei, chief restorer at the site, said the discovery is evidence that the devotion to the apostles began in early Christianity. She said restorers have been able to uncover the image with the help of a new and sophisticated laser technology that peels off the thick calcium carbonate deposits without damaging the colors underneath, according to ANSA.
Speaking at a press conference to announce the discovery of the icons, President of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi said, “we ought to proceed in a manner that (recognizes) all artworks of this kind have the capacity to speak to the contemporary culture, making their voices resound with their values and all of their beauty.”
Vatican Radio reported that the laser technology also uncovered an image of Christ the Teacher.
The catacombs of St. Tecla were discovered by chance in the 1950s during excavations for the construction of an office building.