Laser technology used to analyze fresco art in the catacombs of Rome has made possible the recent discoveries of the earliest known icons of the apostles Peter, Paul, John and Andrew. Our interest in these discoveries was high when the news broke during our workshop at St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary the week of June 19-26, 2011. The prototypes we offer as instructive examples and make available for students to render during our courses bear an identifiable resemblance to the catacomb provenance, which dates from the second half of the fourth century.

One of the emphases in our teaching of icon writing is that we can depend upon the share of images from the Early Church as a record of physiognomy of certain prominent persons in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament. Our conservative approach to making icons is more than nostalgia for the past; it is historical honesty.  In this regard, artists who adopt the semblance of icons to make cultural statements without interest in the authenticity of their subjects abuse the very nature of icons as witnesses of real events and real persons.

When the Church moved upstairs, so to speak, after it gained legal status with the signing of the Edict of Milan 313 AD, churches erected throughout the Roman Empire, including the Levant, Asia Minor and Egypt were packed with scenes from Christ’s life. Old Testament prophetic and typological foreshadowings of the incarnation of the Messiah were woven into the icon schema.

Throughout the middle ages and reaching into our own times, scenes like the three youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) depicted in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome were repeated in churches in Russia and Eastern Europe where it is typical to also find the hospitality of Abraham, Jacob’s ladder and many other expressions of  Old Testament archetypes.

Three Hebrew children in the flames Priscilla catacombs-Rome

Yet, the organic bridge between Jewish and Christian iconography is barely explored. The part that illustrative painting played  in the adornment of Jewish synagogues is evidenced by a huge store of examples going back to the Talmudic period that have recently been excavated in Northern Israel. Similarly, excavations of a synagogue (erected circa 245 AD) in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria reveal a worship space filled with depictions of major figures from sacred history such as Moses, Elias (Elijah)and David, as well as lessons from Ezekiel and Daniel. These panels, stylistically influenced by Hellenic and Roman models of mythical heroes, celebrate the encounter of real persons with the presence of God. Clearly, the Christian Church inherited this tradition of artistically populating Her places of worship with images that describe past events as eternally present. In fact, the oldest known Christian paintings are probably those of a house church also found in Dura-Europos.

The objective of both Jewish and Christian art was instructive but also experiential. The Jewish Dura-Europos  murals of the infant Moses rescued from the river, his encounter with the burning bush and the Exodus more than reminded the community of its origins; they built faith and reliance on God for its survival. Beyond this, the text of these images proclaimed the promised appearance of another “Deliverer”, an archetype of Moses who would usher in an everlasting and imperishable kingdom. The same subjects in Christian iconography identify this Deliverer as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel.