The catacombs, martyrdom, and the reform of art in Post-Tridentine Rome: picturing continuity with the Christian past



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The fortuitous discovery of early Christian images adorning the catacombs on Via Salaria in 1578 enabled scholars to address urgent, contemporary problems concerning the Catholic tradition of image veneration, which had been attacked by Protestant iconoclasts. Although the catacombs had been important devotional sites for the cult of martyrs and relics throughout the Middle Ages, the 1578 catacomb discovery was the first time that Romans connected the catacombs with the early Christian cult of images. Only after 1578 did scholars and antiquarians begin to collect and study early Christian frescoes and antiquities found in Rome’s numerous catacomb sites. Their research culminated in the publication of Antonio Bosio’s Roma sotterranea (1635), the first treatise on the Roman catacombs. After the Council of Trent (1545–1563), Catholic scholarship on the catacombs defended the early Christian origins of the cult of martyrs, relics, and images. I argue that the Tridentine Church’s claim of continuity motivated the study of early Christian art in the catacombs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By critically evaluating images and archeological sources to support an interpretation of the Church as semper eadem (ever the same), Bosio and his sixteenth-century predecessors contributed to the development of modern historical and archeological methods.

This dissertation explores the juxtaposition of imaginative and analytical interpretations of the Roman catacombs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Early modern descriptions of the catacombs characterize these burial sites as emotive worship spaces for the early Church that evoked Christian suffering, martyrdom, and devotion to the cult of saints. I argue that the gruesome martyrdom imagery commissioned to decorate S. Stefano Rotondo and SS. Nereo e Achilleo in the last two decades of the sixteenth century imaginatively recreated what contemporaries thought early Christian worship would have been like in the catacombs. As the first in-depth study to consider the relationship between the exploration of the catacombs and the first large-scale martyrdom cycles in the late sixteenth century, this dissertation demonstrates how vivid pictorial imagination of the Christian past inspired the early Christian revival movement in post-Tridentine Rome.