Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.01

BMCR/BMMR Archives

Frederich Perez Bargebuhr, The Paintings of the "New Catacomb" of the Via Latina and the Struggle of Christianity against Paganism. Edited by Joachim Utz. Abhandlungen der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse. Jg. 1991, Abh. 2. Heidelberg: Carl Winter and Universitätsverlag, 1991. Pp. 107; 48 b & w plates. ISBN 3-533-04090-9 (pb).

Reviewed by Dale Kinney, Bryn Mawr College.

If this book teaches anything, it is that aging scholars should take care to prune their Nachlass. Frederick Bargebuhr, who died in 1978, published distinguished scholarship in his lifetime, including a book on the Alhambra which Oleg Grabar called "inspiring" and "a revolutionary contribution"; "it would not be too much to say that [Bargebuhr] ... set the understanding of the Alhambra on a totally new basis."1 Why Joachim Utz, and Rudolf Sühnel who also signed the preface, were moved to append the present volume to a respected published record is beyond me. Ignorance must have played a role; at least one hopes so, for if the editor knew of the large bibliography which has rendered these maundering ruminations troublesome and annoying, their publication must be considered insensitive or even perverse.

The "new" catacomb (discovered in 1955) under property lying on the Via Latina in Rome is famous for the unique mix of Christian (Old and New Testament) and pagan subjects in its paintings. It was the mix that attracted Bargebuhr. Reading through the iconography to intention, he divined a unified theme, "an underlying motif in almost all the paintings" (p. 35); conversely, he saw reflected in the choice of subjects a single outlook, "the specific Lebensgefühl of the Via Latina brotherhood" (p. 69). The brotherhood and its Lebensgefühl were Christian (p. 35), but "very conservative" (p. 90), not of the "decadent Roman bourgeoisie" but people who had "rebuilt Roman virtues under the influence of Christian asceticism" (p. 91). The pagan images reveal their dynamic conservatism, an admirable ability to renovate ancestral beliefs: "not yet limited by the evolving dogma, the members of the brotherhood preserve the ancient tradition in many of their images, which unite tragedy and serenity" (p. 92).

The title is a misnomer, for here there is no "struggle" of Christianity against paganism. On the contrary, at least in the matter of views about the soul and the afterlife which are the author's only concern, the two were effectively one. To be sure there were "more pagan and ... more Christian members of the Via Latina community" (p. 17), but "the line ... which separated Judaeo-Christian from pagan creeds and institutions" was "fluctuating" (p. 25). Differences in belief were the inevitable differences among individuals, and they were overridden by communally acceptable forms of representation articulated by the group. Consequently, "it seems futile to attempt a clear evaluation of whether the catacomb brotherhood believed more (according to the Judaeo-Christian conception) in the resurrection of soul and body as an entity ... or more (following the Hellenistic trend) in a liberation of the soul from the body and the grave ... before a reunion with the resurrected body" (p. 39). Since assumptions about the unanimity of the brotherhood both precede and result from observation of the paintings, the reasoning throughout is circular.

Bargebuhr is not the only scholar to perceive a unified program in these pictures. Unitary (Christian) readings have been offered by Walter Schumacher (1971) and Josef Fink (1978, 1980); they were tartly and hostilely rebuffed by Josef Engemann in 1983.2 Obviously, Bargebuhr did not benefit from Engemann's critique, and a fair assessment of his essay would have to disregard everything published since his death or even in the decade preceding it, as he states that his manuscript was nearly finished at the appearance of André Grabar's Christian Iconography in 1968 (p. 56 n. 112; cf. p. 58 n. 117). It is an index of the value of this posthumous publication that the question most appropriate to it: is this a helpful contribution by the standards of 1968? is an idle one. Inevitably we will judge it by the standards of 1992.

Although his one visit to the catacomb seems to have made a deep affective impression (pp. 14-17), Bargebuhr's interpretation of the paintings comes entirely from reading texts. It is revealing that his survey of Old Testament subjects (pp. 58-76) proceeds in Bible order, without reference to the locations of the paintings on the walls. There is no groundplan. The reader who does not know the catacomb will have no idea of its unusual lay-out, nor of the relative distribution of pagan and Christian images. The two do not mingle, and any interpretive venture must account for that.3 The pagan subjects, dominated by the labors of Hercules, are concentrated in one large cubiculum. The pattern of distribution suggested to the catacomb's first interpreter, Antonio Ferrua, that the sponsors of the paintings were "great families, some members of which had already professed Christianity while others remained pagan; each had his own cubiculum decorated according to his faith."4 Bargebuhr's Christian "brotherhood" is -- and again one would not necessarily discern this from his text -- an alternative to Ferrua's reconstruction, asserted rather than argued, so its justification remains covert. As far as I can tell the reasoning is this: "existing non-Christian catacombs never show biblical motifs" (p. 35), therefore this catacomb must be Christian; Christians used catacombs for prayer (p. 19), therefore the catacomb must have belonged to a "brotherhood united by a cult" (p. 91). Perhaps one could make a case that it was a brotherhood (a funerary sodalitas) rather than a family or families that owned and painted the catacomb, but this is hardly the way to do it. There is another possibility, originally proposed by F.W. Deichmann and recently endorsed by William Tronzo, that the catacomb was a commercial venture, its cubicula sold separately to families who might otherwise have had nothing to do with one another.5 The implications of this hypothesis for the unitary reading of the paintings are even more threatening than Ferrua's.

Also central and unexamined is the question of the paintings' date. Without explanation, Bargebuhr ascribed all of them to "around A.D. 360" (p. 14; but cf. p. 65 and the cryptic last paragraph on p. 91), but in fact they are of several moments. Tronzo's analysis defined four phases spanning most of the fourth century, and his masterful comparison of some of the paintings with others executed later allowed him to reconstruct equally distinct ambient situations -- involving, in Bargebuhr's terms, more than one Lebensgefühl -- which are inaccessible to Bargebuhr's purely literary tactic of interpretation.

It is the mode of interpretation that most markedly dates this essay. Repeatedly the author invokes a "preacher", who would have devised the paintings' program (p. 92) and who equally could explain it to the brotherhood once it was on the walls (p. 59 ). It is clear that the preacher Bargebuhr imagined is himself (p. 52: "we could easily devise a sermon... "). This is like the old art history, which promised unmediated access to images' intentions for the fortunate interpreter with the industry and skill to find and read the right texts. Only the most unregenerate art historians still believe this, and for the rest, survivors of the discipline's less sophisticated past excite embarrassment or exasperation. But this is not Frederick Bargebuhr's fault. In 1968 he had some very respectable company.

Nevertheless, he did not publish this book. Although he may well have "hoped to be able to present his interpretations of the New Catacomb frescoes to a wider public" (p. 10, editor's preface), the fact is that he left his work in typescript for ten years, from 1968 until his death. He knew it was not satisfactory.


  • [1] F.P. Bargebuhr, The Alhambra: A Cycle of Studies on the Eleventh Century in Moorish Spain (Berlin 1968); O. Grabar, The Alhambra (Cambridge MA 1978) 15, 212, 213.
  • [2] J. Engemann, "Altes und Neues zu Beispielen heidnischer und christlicher Katakombenbilder im spätantiken Rom," Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 26 (1983) 141-51.
  • [3] See the useful diagram in Engemann 142 fig. 1 (after Schumacher).
  • [4] A. Ferrua S.I., Le pitture della Nuova Catacomba di via Latina (Vatican City 1960) 94; Engemann 141 n. 114.
  • [5] F.W. Deichmann, "Zur Frage der Gesamtschau der frühchristlichen und frühbyzantinschen Kunst", Byzantinische Zeitschrift 63 (1970) 51-52. W. Tronzo, The Via Latina Catacomb. Imitation and Discontinuity in Fourth-Century Roman Painting (University Park and London, 1986) 21.