[Ancient Faith Radio; January 9, 2008]
Frederica: Here we are, still hurtling along. This will air a week later, but I just broke there so that we could continue this fascinating conversation we’re having about ancient Rome, so that we could make it into two podcasts instead of one. I am in a car being driven with extreme competence and safety by my prayer partner Colleen Oren, who is the choir director at Holy Cross Church. Also in the front seat is Ina O’Dell, Shamassey Ina, wife of Deacon Mark. And we have our monthly breakfast where we get together and share our prayer requests, and our husbands think we get together to talk about them, but that just shows their suspicious minds. [Laughter] And today we’re going way out in the country to sort of a country family restaurant for breakfast, and I’ve been talking to Ina about what she saw in Rome about ancient Orthodox Christianity in Rome, and the very, very early churches that she saw. You have so much to say. How long were you there, like a week? Ten days. And you can see a lot in ten days. I remember on my honeymoon 34 years ago seeing St. Clement’s and Santa Pudenziana, those are two that really stick in mind. Why don’t you just name off a few of the churches that you saw and anything that was particularly startling or surprising about them, or beautiful, or whatever.
Ina: Well, we had been talking last week about St. Cosmas Italiano as they call it. That’s in between the Coliseum and the Capitoline Hill, the huge avenue where all the tourists go. Off the track a bit is St. Peter’s chains.
Frederica: St. Peter in Vincoli, I remember, it’s St. Peter in Chains.
Ina: St. Pietro in Vincoli, it is. Strangely, when I walked in, it’s another huge darkish church, but right down in the middle, way down in there, I could see this box below the high altar. And it was all lit up, and I could see from the very back of the church that it was the chains of Peter. And they were all -
Ina: And it was so interesting, and I just was moved and said my prayers and the troparion to St. Peter. And as I got closer, I saw there was a crowd and they all had their back to the chains, and I thought, ‘What are they doing?’ [Laughter] So we got closer, and I noticed that in this niche off to the right there was a sculpture by Michelangelo, the one of Moses, looking like Neptune or something.
Frederica: Yes, I remember. It’s Moses with the horns. Wasn’t that because the translation of the Bible instead of saying rays came it out, it said horns came out of his head, so-
Ina: So it’s interesting. I mean, the tour book that had mentioned this church called it St. Peter in the Chains, but they all said, this is what you go there to see.
Frederica: Ah, so the Michelangelo is the interesting thing.
Ina: So I took a picture of all these people standing with their backs to the chains. And it was kind of a picture of a lot of things that we saw there. That you have to be looking, you have to know on your own where you’re going, to see some of these early places. We also went to St. Clement’s, loved that, very interesting, layers of history, not only church history, regular history. When the city had burned under Nero it buried a lot of the city under, I think they said, ten feet of rubble, basically.
Ina: So a lot of the early stuff had to be dug out, or you go way down, you know, you go down a lot of stairs, sometimes, to get to the early sites.
Frederica: I remember about St. Clement’s, going in on ground level where it was 18th century or something, but there were more churches beneath it. And you kept going down the stairs, down the stairs, and you come to the very earliest church there which was second century, perhaps, and then below that there is a temple to Mithras, to the pagan god Mithras; and when you’re down at that level in the temple to Mithras, you can hear the water rushing underground in the ancient sewer pipes of Rome.
Ina: And interestingly, at that first site, at the very bottom there was a house church at the very beginning, in the early days, and there’s a tomb and stuff for Cyril and Methodius. And you think, ‘What in the world?’ But they were the ones who actually brought Clement’s body, or were able to recover his body, and so there’s a big veneration for them there, and this tomb for Cyril, who died there. So very interesting sites to see. And to see what the house was like in the first century, because that’s where the early Christians were meeting, not in churches, but in houses. So that was the early one. And actually, the temple to Mithras came later, in the second century, and it was because the Roman legionnaires were going off and finding out about these things, and they found out this Persian god, Mithras. And so they brought this back for awhile, and it was actually, it’s later than the earliest.
Frederica: Really? I remembered it backwards, then.
Ina: Well, I had thought it was interesting enough, because, why in the world were they doing this? Why would they do this, after they had the truth? Well, it was somebody else was there, and it wasn’t a house at that time. So interesting. But then it shows that they did build an actual church there, and this whole thing with Cyril and Methodius happened there, and the relics of St. Clement, and all this. So that was interesting, and you can go see this dark level in the early site, and there’s discussion about the walls, like, ‘This is a picture, we’re not sure what the depiction was.’ And I thought, you could take any Sunday school kid out of an Orthodox church in there and they would recognize it, it was the icon of the Ascension. But it’s interesting.
Frederica: Scholars are puzzled by this.
Ina: Very interesting. So they’re very much faded and such as this, but you know, you can-
Frederica: Are these mosaics? Or these are frescoes, I guess.
Frederica: If they’re faded. You mentioned that the early churches met in houses; they were house churches. I think when most people think of Rome they think they’re meeting in the catacombs. Is that not true? Did they not meet to worship in the catacombs?
Ina: They make it clear everywhere there, and I’m no scholar in this, but apparently that was the case, and the confusion came—I kind of had a little Orthodox chuckle about it, because from what the tour guides would say in these places, you had to kind of read between the lines. They were for instance saying that in the catacombs, there was some confusion about worship going on there, but apparently it was just that these people would come on the anniversary on the death of the person, and they would light these lamps and have some kind of a ceremony. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a memorial service.’
Frederica: Right, right.
Ina: So we recognized some of the things that people were kind of mystified about and I thought, ‘Well this makes sense.’ And they would make little niches in the wall, put their little lamp, and they would have some kind of a service.
Frederica: So that was the confusion. It wasn’t that they were meeting there for the Sunday liturgy, it was that they were having, continually, I suppose, that they were always having memorial services there.
Ina: Right. And apparently in the early days, they would not allow people to be buried within the city walls of Rome due to sanitation and everything. In the earliest days people were cremated, and so it was not the tradition to actually bury until the Christian era; until then, once you were dead, you were just dead. No one was thinking of you, da, da, da. So coming along with the Christian era came this whole thought, remembering the dead. And so they dug out this volcanic tufa, this -
Frederica: Oh yeah. Tufa stone, that you can - it’s soft when you dig it, but when it’s exposed to air it gets hard, so it’s like the perfect building medium.
Ina: And it’s inexpensive, and that was a need as well. After there began to be persecutions of Christians in the Christian era, then there were martyrs. And so an interesting thing happened which I had never thought about, but for instance in this one catacomb, Domitilla, that we went to, one of the earliest ones, it had many pagan tombs as well as Christian tombs. And it’s like five stories deep into the ground, and you can only go down about two stories now, and they require that you have a guide with you because you could get lost. It goes on for many, many miles of winding scary darkness, you know. So you have to have a guide with you. But it’s so narrow; it’s the width of your shoulders to walk along. So it’s a little difficult for people to get around.
Frederica: And that’s where the very earliest icons are, Christian art, the earliest preserved are the frescoes there in the catacombs.
Ina: Exactly. And the other thing that was there after a time were these martyrs. And the two that were very important for that place were two obscure, to our minds, soldier martyrs. Um, Antonius and Nebius, or something. Names I was not familiar with. But they were martyred and so people wanted to be buried next to the martyrs.
Frederica: Oh yeah.
Ina: Which I thought was - yeah, I could see that they might - interesting. I didn’t realize. So then people started to make more of a big deal, and they would make a basilica down there so that they could have a bigger service for these two. And that’s how there began to be bigger places. But again, they didn’t hold normal church services there, they would hold memorials there, but everybody wanted to go to the memorial of these two famous martyrs who had, you know, had maintained their faith during their martyrdom. So the next catacomb we went to, of Callistus, was built during the Christian era, it is predominantly only Christians, and you see lots of the paintings, but they’re tiny little renderings.
Frederica: Is this right? Is this 30, 31? Umm, that’s a shopping center there. It’s, um, I don’t remember; is it Route 31?
Ina: It’s out into the country.
Frederica: We’re lost! [Laughter]
Colleen: I think we should turn on Center, but that’s okay.
Frederica: You know I just, I just did it. It’s past here. Yeah, it’s definitely past here.
Ina: It’s in the middle of the country, I remember seeing - it’s 30, isn’t it.
Frederica: Is it 30 or 31, but it’s something like that. Yeah. Yeah, we were talking about Callistus, the catacomb of Callistus. And I’d seen reproductions of at least two of the icons there, one is of the Virgin of the Sign, and the other is a mother and child, but it’s like you say, it’s like a sketch. You know, it’s like she’s just sitting there holding the baby and she looks up. It’s like you just walked up to her and she looks up at you; it’s very fresh looking, doesn’t look like what we would think an icon would look like.
Ina: Well, a lot of them were very small, eight inches tall or something, and they would be put on the outside of the stone that covered over the slot where they stuck the person. And so they wanted to be identified as a Christian person, and such as that, so they would have the person standing in the orans position, or they would have an anchor which was symbolizing, the curve at the bottom, I guess, symbolized the dove, the Holy Spirit, and the top of the anchor was the cross. So that was an early, kind of secret Christian sign. And of course the fish. And interesting, the Three Holy Youths which we see is a common theme, in the furnace, and Jonah.
Frederica: Oh, let me say something about the Three Holy Youths. I was reading the Leonid Ouspensky book about icons, and he points out that they saw plenty of martyrdom around them, but they didn’t paint that. They didn’t want to see things that might be distressing or horrifying. Instead they painted the Three Holy Youths to encourage those who were facing martyrdom, or those that were burying martyrs, that would be a sign of God’s presence with them and care, despite being in this terrible and terrifying situation. I think I see Bowers. It’s as big as a barn, isn’t it? I’m ready for a good breakfast here. Ina, sum up, then. Was there a concluding thought you wanted to give us about Rome, about being an Orthodox tourist in Rome? Looking panicked, she gathers her thoughts. [Laughter]
Ina: There’s just a lot of different things to see: St. Helena’s palace, where she came back to after finding the cross, and she supposedly brought with her the stairs that Jesus went up to see Pilate. She brought back pieces of the Cross, and they have the little plank that was uncovered in the wall, I don’t know, like 100 years ago or something, that says Nazarene in three different languages. And they have pieces of the thorns, and the chains and the nails and various things. Very few people go to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, it’s called, and it’s basically her palace, and down in the basement was a chapel that she made, so that she could worship—this is Helena, Constantine’s mother. And I don’t know, St. Lawrence, San Lorenzo, he was the first deacon, and we were excited to go there because my husband is a deacon-treasurer. And he was a treasurer of the early Church, and they grabbed him and said, ‘You must bring to us the treasures of the Church,’ and he brought all the cripples and all the poor, so they roasted him alive. And they have the slab that he was laid on. So we went into San Lorenzo, and we were the only ones there.
Frederica: There’s the famous story about him saying, ‘Turn me over, I’m done on this side.’ It’s such an ancient joke, but it’s one that’s just been repeated for 1500 years or more, I guess.
Ina: So there’s a lot to see if you really do the research. I mean, you see the tomb of Paul and the tomb of Peter and many different places like that, and of course the catacombs. And St. Pudenziana, I think you mentioned that, where they thought in the early days that it was a woman, and she-
Frederica: I thought it was a woman; it’s not anymore? [Laughter]
Ina: Well apparently in 1969 the Pope declared that these people were not actually humans, that they had mixed up the - it was a translation issue, and apparently Pudenz was one of the Roman senators and Peter lived in his house for a time when he was there. And so it was a house-church during that time. And over time the translation got mixed up and they thought it was a woman, Pudenziana. And there was another lady who was supposed to be soaking up the martyrs’ blood with a sponge. St. Precari or something like this, and there’s a beautiful early, early church there by her name. So they’ve let it keep the name although they realize now that these were not probably actually people.
Frederica: The Roman Catholic Church has decided now that some of these ancient saints didn’t exist. Like St. Christopher, St. Susanna. I think we Orthodox say, ‘Yeah, they do exist.’ You know, we don’t fire saints, like they do sometimes. Well gosh, thanks Ina that was terrific. If I ever go to Rome, I’m going to have you set up my itinerary for me; you’re a real wonderful researcher. Bacon, right? Let’s go have some bacon.