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The Good Shepherd Fresco at the Catacomb of Saints Pietro and Marcelino

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The catacombs in Rome are culturally significant because they represent a part of the history of Rome and Christianity. During the era of Early Christianity (also the 4th Century CE), religious conflict was a prevalent problem in the Rome Empire. Although people then practice several religions including Christianity and other pagan religions, the strongest conflict was between Christians and ethnic religions.

The death of Jesus Christ marked the unjust persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Hence, during that time, the Roman Empire hindered Christian practices. Pagans believed in cremating the dead but in Christianity, Christians believe in burying their dead. Since the Roman Empire did not allow people to bury their dead within the city due to increasing population and the scarcity of land as burial grounds, and they persecuted Christians and defied Christian practices, including burying the dead, the conflict led to Christians building catacombs under the city. Christians built catacombs under Rome and Italy where they can bury their dead.

Aside from building the catacombs, the religious conflict also forced Christians to spread the word about Christianity. Instead of submitting to religious oppression from the Roman Empire, Christians pushed for mobilization by developing Christianity as a religion through the formation of the gospel, solid Christian philosophies and practices, the spread of Christianity through teaching and word of mouth, and the rise of Christian teachers and saints who symbolized the Christian faith. Since the voice of Christians then was trampled by the Roman Empire, they chose to express their faith and belief in Christianity through muted forms of representation, including art.

Symbolisms were prevalent in their chosen method of expression.  Through art, early Christians sought to establish their faith by reflecting on the life of Jesus Christ and who the Son of God represents. As a result, most of art works from the period of Early Christianity depicted the life of Jesus Christ. Moreover, some of the catacombs illustrated the Christian martyrs and saints who sacrificed for the good and betterment of Christianity.

Early Christian art that illustrate the life of Jesus Christ, the martyrs, and saints, can be viewed from the catacombs under Rome and Italy.     The Good Shepherd fresco at the catacombs of Saints Pietro and Marcellino in Rome, for instance, depicts Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd. As a shepherd, Jesus Christ leads the sheep into the right path, just as Christians believe the Son of God capable of steering man into the right path. Since Early Christian art strongly relied on symbolism, the Good Shepherd fresco illustrates Jesus Christ as a divine being. Christians sought to illustrate Jesus Christ’s power by showing the Son of God who is capable of looking after and sacrificing his life for man.

Overall, the catacombs generally represent the bitter history of Rome under the Roman Empire. The conflict between Christians and pagans was a valuable part of history, and the catacombs illustrate the kind of conflict that existed between them. Moreover, it illustrates how difficult it was for Christians to fight for their rights during the Roman Empire. The cultural significance of the fresco also illustrates how art is influenced by culture and religion in Rome, as well as Rome’s roots in Christianity. Aside from the culture and history of Rome, the fresco and the catacombs or Early Christian art in general constitutes an important part of the history of Christianity and shows how it grew and spread as a religion since the Roman Empire.

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