Early Christianity, in contrast to a few Greek and Alexandrian intellectuals, does not emphasise the earthly life of Jesus. Except among the exalted who drew inspiration from martyrdom, it dwells on his sufferings even less. The reliefs on sarcophagi say little about his human trials. They were influenced by pagan thought, and in times of trouble they wanted to stress not Christ's weakness but his power to save. It is only fairly late that Christ begins to appear as sufferer rather than as divine Teacher and Wonder-Worker; and even then this is shown as a triumph in disguise, without humiliation. The Crucifixion is rarely depicted before the fourth century. As to Constantine's alleged vision of the cross in the sky, followed by his employment of the cruciform labarum-monogram XP ( = Christos), the cross meant magic more than anything else to him, and in any case it stood not so much for the Passion as for the Resurrection -a new era and a new stage in the divine plan. Those wishing to see Jesus as god rather than man could rely on the Gospel according to St John. For this, despite its Hellenism, had concentrated in mystical and allegorical fashion on the divine nature of Jesus, seeing him not as a man but as a personified idea.
The wall-paintings in the catacombs of Rome and elsewhere are strongly influenced by this Gospel, and again have little to say about the humanity of Jesus. As among pagans, burial and not cremation was the custom, in order to permit the Resurrection of the body. Early Christians had at first preferred to bury their dead in open-air cemeteries above ground, but from c. 200, when space grew short and persecution increasingly threatened, they buried them instead in these underground corridors and cells. At Rome such catacombs evolved from subterranean graves of the Jews and other western and eastern traditions. The dark, soft, volcanic rock, strong but easily cut, was hollowed out first into a simple Greek cross or grid of the Catacomb of St Calixtus-to whom pope St Zephyrinus (d. c. 217) entrusted the administration of 'the cemetery' - and then into miles of several-storeyed mazes, containing between half and three-quarters of a million tombs. During the persecutions, some catacombs may have provided temporary places of refuge, and after Christianity became official, although burials continued until the end of the fourth century, they were turned into centres of pilgrimage.
The catacombs are lined with religious paintings, which reflect all the tendencies of the time, ranging from the artistic traditions of Rome to those of Alexandria and Mesopotamia, and from natural classical style to impressionistic or illusionistic baroque on the one hand and the simple severity of popular art on the other. This is a dogmatic narrative art, owing debts to the crowded reliefs of Roman tradition, and it uses much symbolism and shorthand, not from any desire for secrecy (the intention was to instruct rather than conceal) but because supernatural truth defies analysis. The paintings seem to reflect cycles of instruction partly derived from Jewish sources; there are echoes of prayers from the liturgy and from writings attributed to the great saints, and reflections of Christian poems and paraphrases of the Resurrection story.
The artists of the catacombs reveal an almost complete lack of emphasis on the humanity and suffering of Jesus. What they stress instead is his power as a divine Saviour. For the most frequently represented scene from his life is the Raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the Dead, of which the only account is in the Fourth Gospel. Already a good many years ago no less than fifty-three portrayals of this theme, accompanied by a gesture of benediction found also on the imperial coinage, were noted in the catacombs of Rome. For what most Christians really wanted from their faith was that they, like Lazarus, should be saved when the time for their Resurrection comes. The Raising of Lazarus meant the Resurrection of themselves. The doctrine of a general Resurrection and bodily survival or ascension of the dead is present in Ignatius and again in the oldest versions of the Creed, of late second-century date. For Christianity satisfied more specifically and invitingly than any other religion the almost universal craving for escape and salvation in the next world from the evils of this. Man, says Arnobius. has received the gift of immortality unknown before -that is the decisive fact, and the relief from a dreadful fear. His pupil Lactantius declares that he himself became Christian because conversion guaranteed him immortality.
Weidenfeld, 1968; Rev. eds., 19??/1974.