(By Simona Lommi) 313 d.C. represents a central date for Christian history. Emperor Constantine promulgated the Edict of Milan granting freedom of worship to Christians, who used to gather to celebrate their rites secretly in houses (domus ecclesiae) and to bury their dead in catacombs (from Greek katà = below, and Latin cumba = cavity). It is precisely in the catacombs that a long and complex – but at the same time very fascinating – journey in early Christian symbolism begins.
The earliest paleochristian representations inherited a symbolic and iconographic code close to the pagan tradition and to the Greek mithology, transforming and reinterpreting those images and figures to the Christian context.
For example, Orpheus, descending into hell to save the soul of
Eurydice, becomes a metaphor of Christ the Savior of the souls of his faithful. In Rome, Syracuse and Naples, several catacombical and archaeological finds testify a greatly enrichment for Christian symbology full of “secret” meanings.
Christians needed to invent a system of communication and recognition that defined their belonging to the community without arousing suspicion among the pagans. In this sense symbology represents a communicative channel easily accessible to all members of the community but at the same time inaccessible to strangers. It is a language that reveals and explains one’s social, historical and psychological condition.
A range of famous symbols date back to this period. Their meaning is often ignored but we will be able to deepen with care in the coming weeks. The Edict of Milan in 313 sanctioned the freedom of worship for Christians, starting a crucial historical, religious and artistic phase.
Christian symbols such as the chrismon and staurogramma (vertical X which becomes a real cross) left the darkness of the catacombs and came to light clearly and unequivocally consolidating the use of the symbol of the cross.
However, we will have to wait the end of the 4th century to find a new figurative language. In this period the first mosaic decorations will made and the iconography will be enriched with the figures of Christ, the Madonna and the Apostles.