Byzantine Catacomb Art and Victorian Symbolism

The Victorians and the Byzantines were both vastly different societies, yet to compare the ways in which they approached death and mourning is extremely interesting. The Victorians, the English who lived during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), were very strict about their funeral customs. The Byzantines, on the other hand, were the Eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire that surrounded the Mediterranean. This empire lasted significantly longer than the Victorian era, from 330 CE – 1453. While extremely different in their methods of burial, especially interesting was just how similar they were about the decoration of their loved one’s final resting places.

Whereas Victorians predominately buried their dead similar to how we would today, cremation was the principal method of burial for the Byzantines until the 2nd century. The transition to inhumation (to inter the dead) only came when it became difficult to find fuel for the fires. When cremations ‘died out’, the development of catacombs became important in the Holy Roman Empire due to lack of available surface space. While cremation was the most efficient and space-saving method, catacombs were the next best choice. The Byzantines hired individuals to dig their catacombs, called Fossors, and they very quickly transitioned into quite elaborate burial spaces. The surface area of the walls allowed for loved ones to create elaborate funeral art for their deceased, art that would represent the ideals that were most dear to them. The artwork used primarily depended on their religion and while it was possible that multiple religions would use the same catacomb, each chamber would often be dedicated to separate religions.

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A Fossor at work. 

Byzantium’s beginnings were not in Christianity, but in Paganism and Judaism, but all three religions are represented in their catacomb artwork. As Christianity was illegal in Rome until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, Christians would often have to hire Pagan or Jewish artists and ask them to paint scenes from the Old Testament, as they followed both the old and the new. They would also adopt pagan motifs as a way to not raise suspicion. The fish (Ichthys), had been used by many religions prior and had therefore not risen suspicion. The story of Orpheus was often used to represent Christ. One of the most famous aspects of the Orpheus myth is the story of Orpheus’s  descent into Hades to rescue his love Eurydice, who had been snatched from him by an untimely death. While he was ultimately not successful in recovering Eurydice, he himself emerged from the underworld alive. This particular aspect of the myth resonated with early Christians, who saw this as an allegorical reference to Christ’s descent into and return from the fiery depths of hell. Orpheus thus became a symbol of victory over death, and a symbol of eternal life.

Orpheus as Christ. Catacombs of Marcellius and Peter. Rome.

Once it was legalized, scenes from the New Testament, such as Jesus and the Woman of Samaria at Jacob’s Well, became popular. Also used were the symbols of the dove, the anchor, and the cross (Christos). All of these symbols had profound meaning, often taken from scripture. For instance, the anchor a symbol of hope in future existence because the anchor was regarded in ancient times as a symbol of safety. In other words, it represents Christianity’s firm belief in eternal life, their hope of their future existence in heaven.

Woman of Samaria at Jacobs Well – Via Latina Catacomb, Rome. 
The Fish and the Anchor – St. Pricilla Catacombs

Another central theme to Christian Catacomb art was death and resurrection. Through the use of Old Testament imagery, they focused on alluding to post-death salvation. An example of this is the story of Jonah being swallowed by the fish, then three days later being vomited back out. This was seen by early Christians as a resurrection story. The message being: “Save me [Lord] as you have saved Jonah from the belly of the great fish.”

Jonah being Vomitted from the Great Fish – Resurrection Icon. Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter. 

Jewish frescos would often depict a Menorah, the Arch of the Covenant,, the Shofar (horn), the Lulav (branch/twigs), etc. They would also use scenes from the Old Testament, often making it difficult to tell the difference between a Jewish and Christian tomb.

Typical Jewish scene from the Catacomb in Villa Torlona. Two Menorahs flank the Arch of the Covenant. The Shofar, Lulav, and etrog (fruit) are all depicted. 3rd Century CE. 


Jewish Catacomb Art. Villa Torlonia.



Jewish Catacomb. Vigna Randanini.

Pagan artwork would use the symbols of the Putti, the peacock (immortality as the peacock’s flesh did not decay, or so they believed) and the phoenix (rebirth), while also taking scenes from Roman/Greek myths and legends to declare their beliefs. For instance, the scene of Hercules leading Alcestis to her husband Admetus in the Catacombs of Via Latina. This scene is commemorating a wives loyalty to her husband during his illness, that she would have given up her life to save him, as Alcestis does for Admetus in the legend (see below). Though it should also be mentioned that both Judaism and Christianity took pagan symbols and shaped them for their own, as can be seen in the photo above this paragraph where a Jewish catacomb is showcasing icons of the peacock.


Hercules leads Alcestis to Admetus. Via Latina Cubiculum N. 


As can be seen, unlike Victorian monument symbols, there is no virtually no reference to sorrow or mourning in Byzantine catacomb art. The majority of the focus is on the religiosity, the life that the deceased lived, or their death and resurrection (which was not considered something to be in sorrow about).

The Victorians, however, seemed to do the opposite. Not much of the artwork decorating their monuments is overtly religious, though much of it has religious connotations. Icons such as the willow tree, the rose, the laurel and clasped hands are extremely common at Woodland Cemetery, and each of them has a separate meaning. As Levi mentioned in an earlier post, the Victorians were fixated on symbolism, and when they erected a gravestone for a loved one, they wanted to make sure it reflected something of that person’s disposition, their career, their relationships, or their life. The willow tree, symbolizing mourning, is an example of how much Victorian death rites focused on the mourning and loss that the loved one’s family was feeling. A broken column stands for an individual who was cut off in the prime of life, often the head of the family. The clasped hands were religious as well, showing the hope of re-unification in the next life.

Clasped Hands
Willow Tree

Overall, although the two societies lived centuries apart, there are commonalities in their mourning customs. Byzantine art, while overtly religious, often has hidden meanings about the deceased’s life. Victorian symbolism, while not usually obviously religious, also was carved in the belief that the monument should reflect not only the life of the deceased but the sorrow of the loved ones. Both used artwork as a way to depict a life lived and lost, and to show their dedication even after death.

Sidenote: Thanks for reading this blog post! I know that it’s different from other weeks, but we spend so much time with Victorian symbols that I thought it would be interesting to see how a different culture would approach mourning artwork.




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