June 23, 2010

Oldent Known Apostles Painting Discovered

Using new laser technology, art restoration experts and archaeologists have discovered what they believe are the oldest paintings of Jesus Christ's apostles.

The images were found in a section of the catacombs of St Tecla near St Paul's Basilica, near ancient Rome. The team said they were painted sometime around the end of the 4th century or start of the 5th century.

Archaeologists believe the images may have been among those that have influenced later depictions of the faces of Christ's most important early followers.

"These are the first images that we know of the faces of these four apostles," said Professor Fabrizio Bisconti, the head of archaeology for Rome's numerous catacombs, which are owned and maintained by the Vatican.

The frescoes were known to exist, but their details didn't come to light until a restoration project that started two years ago. The results were announced Tuesday at a news conference.

The icons include visages of St Peter, St Andrew, and St John, who were among Jesus' original 12 apostles, and St Paul, who became an apostle after Christ's death.

The images show the same characteristics as later portrayals of the apostles do, such as St. Paul's rugged, wrinkled and elongated forehead and balding head and pointy beard. The team thinks the images may have been the ones to set the standard.

The four frescoes, each about 20 inches in diameter, are on the ceiling of the underground burial chamber of a noblewoman who is believed to have converted to Christianity at the end of the 4th century sometime after it was legalized by emperor Constantine.

Bisconti said that older paintings of the apostles only show them in groups and have smaller faces with less detail, making them difficult to distinguish.

Bisconti believes this discovery is an important find "in the history of the early Christian communities of Rome."

The frescoes were covered with a thick patina of powdery calcium carbonate caused by extreme humidity and lack of air circulation.

"We took our time to do extensive analysis before deciding what technique to use," said Barbara Mazzei, who led the project.

Mazzei explained how she used a surgical laser to make the calcium carbonate fall off the frescoes without damaging the paint. "The laser created a sort of a mini explosion of steam when it interacted with the calcium carbonate to make it detach from the surface," she said.

The end result was stunning clarity in the images that were blurry and unclear beforehand.

To discover the great detail in the images was "very, very emotional," said Mazzei.

The laser was also used to clear up other scenes from the Bible as well, such as Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

"As far as paintings inside catacombs go, we are used to very faint paintings, usually white, with few colors. In the case of the St Tecla catacombs, the great surprise was the extraordinary colors. The more we went forward, the more surprises we found," Mazzei told Reuters.

The tomb is not yet open to the public due to continued work, difficult access and limited space, but the new discoveries will be made available for viewing by specialists for now.