‘Old­est’ apos­tle icons re­stored

APOS­TLES: Laser used to re­veal im­ages

Weekend Witness - - 16 16 News News -

ROME — Ar­chae­ol­o­gists and art re­stor­ers us­ing new laser technology have dis­cov­ered what they be­lieve are the old­est paint­ings of the faces of Je­sus Christ’s apos­tles.

The im­ages in a branch of the cat­a­combs of St Te­cla near St Paul’s Basil­ica, just out­side the walls of an­cient Rome, were painted at the end of the fourth cen­tury or the start of the fifth cen­tury.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve these im­ages may have been among those that most in­flu­enced later artists’ de­pic­tions of the faces of Christ’s most im­por­tant early fol­low­ers.

“These are the first im­ages that we know of the faces of these four apos­tles,” said Pro­fes­sor Fabrizio Bisconti, the head of ar­chae­ol­ogy for Rome’s nu­mer­ous cat­a­combs, which are owned and main­tained by the Vat­i­can.

The fres­coes were known, but their de­tails came to light dur­ing a restora­tion project that started two years ago and whose re­sults were an­nounced on Tues­day at a news con­fer­ence.

The full-face icons in­clude vis­ages of St Peter, St An­drew, and St John, who were among Je­sus’ orig­i­nal 12 apos­tles, and St Paul, who be­came an apos­tle af­ter Christ’s death.

The paint­ings have the same char­ac­ter­is­tics as later im­ages, such as St Paul’s rugged, wrin­kled and elon­gated fore­head and bald­ing head and pointy beard, in­di­cat­ing they may have been the ones that set the stan­dard.

The four cir­cles, about 50 cm in di­am­e­ter, are on the ceil­ing of the un­der­ground burial place of a no­ble­woman who is be­lieved to have con­verted to Chris­tian­ity at the end of the same­cen­tury when the em­peror Con­stan­tine made it le­gal.

Bisconti said that older paint­ings of the apos­tles show them in a group, with smaller faces whose de­tails are dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish.

The fres­coes in­side the tomb mea­sur­ing about two me­tres by two me­tres were cov­ered with a thick patina of pow­dery cal­cium car­bon­ate caused by ex­treme hu­mid­ity and no air cir­cu­la­tion.

“We took our time to do ex­ten­sive anal­y­sis be­fore de­cid- ing what tech­nique to use,” said Bar­bara Mazzei, who headed the project. She ex­plained how she used a laser as an “op­ti­cal scalpel” to make the cal­cium car­bon­ate fall off with­out dam­ag­ing the paint.

“The laser cre­ated a sort of a mini ex­plo­sion of steam when it in­ter­acted with the cal­cium car­bon­ate to make it de­tach from the sur­face,” she said.

The re­sult was stun­ning clar­ity in the im­ages that were be­fore blurry and opaque.

Other scenes from the Bi­ble, such as Je­sus rais­ing Lazarus from the dead or Abra­ham pre­par­ing to sac­ri­fice his son Isaac, are now also much clearer and brighter.

“As far as paint­ings in­side cat­a­combs go, we are used to very faint paint­ings, usu­ally white, with few colours. In the case of the St Te­cla cat­a­combs, the great sur­prise was the ex­tra­or­di­nary colours …” Mazzei said.

The tomb, in a web of cat­a­combs un­der a mod­ern build­ing, is not yet open to the pub­lic be­cause of con­tin­ued work, dif­fi­cult ac­cess and limited space. Bisconti said the new dis­cov­er­ies will be made avail­able for view­ing by spe­cial­ists for the time be­ing. — Reuters.

PHOTO: AP

A spot­light il­lu­mi­nates the icon of the Apos­tle John dis­cov­ered with other paint­ings in a cat­a­comb lo­cated un­der a mod­ern of­fice build­ing in a res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood of Rome.

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