Title: First Known Image of Mary (~170 BC)
Location: Catacombs of Priscilla Rome, Italy
Dimensions: 14.79 cm x 16.42cm (5.8 in x 6.5 in)
Upon first observation of this photo, the viewer may be unsure of what they are looking at. Yet, with further analysis, the subjects of this work become more apparent. The mother Mary is looking with love down at the baby Jesus. Meanwhile, a man points upward to the sky, probably referring to the star of Bethlehem. In his other hand, he holds a scroll. Some viewers of this painting believe the figure to be the Prophet Balaam. This prophecy would be referring to verses in the book of Numbers, which states, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (New International Version; Numbers 24: 15-17). It seems that Jesus, the scepter of the prophecy, looks towards the viewer of the painting. Other interpretations believe that Jesus is being nursed by his mother in the painting. Unfortunately, a great deal of the fresco is missing after years of existence.
What truly makes this painting distinctive is its history. This painting is one of the first known images of the Virgin Mary. It was probably painted around 170 B.C. during the Roman Empire. During this time, citizens were not allowed religious freedom. It would often seem as if a person was allowed to worship whomever they felt worthy, but Caesar was the one who was supposed to be recognized as the savior at the end of the day. Christians were persecuted, forcing them to meet in private. This resulted in the creation of the catacombs. In Rome alone, at least forty of these secret burial places and meeting grounds exist.
In the catacombs, there would be no persecution. Therefore, Christians were free to decorate the walls and encourage each other through the use of art. Different frescos were the result, many of which are still recognizable today. This image of Mary and Jesus, painted higher on the wall, was created specifically to rejuvenate the viewer. It gave the persecuted hope for a better tomorrow. There was a lifetime not only beyond those walls, but awaiting them in heaven.
Despite years and years of wear, I find this painting captivating. The viewer can still see the Virgins mother’s love for her son. Truly, movement can still be felt by it. It’s almost an eerie feeling when one thinks about all that this painting has seen throughout the years. Since the catacombs were known for Christian burials, it is almost as if the mother Mary is looking over each viewer. Death will come to everyone, but she is a sign of hope in the dark room. It cannot be compared to art after its time, because it was the original that initiated the subject matter of the Virgin Mother and the baby Jesus. It is obviously a more simple painting than one that could be seen in a gallery or museum. Yet, it still remains intricate because of its history and the tone that it produces.