The most widespread and well-known symbol of Christianity is, of course, the cross. If you walk into a place of worship and there is a cross, you can be fairly certain that you are in the Christian space. This is why it may be surprising to learn that a network of ancient Jewish catacombs about a mile from Venosa, Italy, has crosses carved into the walls.

The burial sites in question are the Catacombs of Santa Rufina, part of a network of underground galleries set on the hillside on the outskirts of Venosa, a peaceful agricultural town that was once an important urban center and birthplace. by the Roman poet Horace. The precise date of construction of the catacombs is unknown, but it seems likely that they were built and used between the 4th and 6th centuries. In other words, they were used at a time when Christianity had strong roots and when the Roman Emperors actively supported the flourishing of the religion of Jesus.

Although less well known than their Roman counterparts, the Jewish catacombs of Venosa are unique both because of their better preservation and because they continued to be used until the 7th century, long after the Jewish catacombs of Rome have fallen into disuse. The fact that the epitaphs are painted directly on or near the tombs makes them a valuable repository of information on the previous occupants of the tombs. Giancarlo Lacerenza, professor of biblical and medieval Hebrew at L’Orientale University and leader of the Venusia Judaica research project, told me that the catacombs can provide us with valuable information about Italian Jews from late Antiquity to early Middle Ages.

The Catacombs of Santa Rufina themselves are a relatively straightforward affair: two parallel corridors about eight to nine feet high are connected by connecting passages. Funeral niches were carved out of soft rock and then sealed with plaster or brick. The graves of the less wealthy were painted or scratched on the plaster exterior, while the wealthy could have marble slabs or even a separate painted burial chamber. Unlike the Christian catacombs, which often had chapels attached for memorial services and meals, the Jewish catacombs may only have one room where the remains could be washed and prepared for burial.

The Venosa cemetery was first discovered in the 1850s. The use of the menorah and the Hebrew language in the works of art that accompany the graves makes them easily recognizable to us, but the inhabitants of the 19th century n did not immediately understand what they were looking at. An eyewitness recognized some symbols such as the palm tree but said the inscriptions were “indecipherable”. Some have speculated that it was a buckwheat site. Jessica Dello Russo, staff member of the Venusia Judaica project and co-editor of a volume recently published on the site, suggested that even if local residents couldn’t read the inscriptions, “they could have inspired the feeling that the caves had magical properties. or oracular powers.

The excavation of catacombs can be a dangerous business and, therefore, expensive. In the 1970s, archaeologist Cesare Colafemmina and his team gained access to a previously closed gallery that was still decorated with painted plaster walls and contained vaulted tomb niches, known as the arcosolie. The walls were adorned with menorah, lulav (a palm frond used on Sukkot), ethrog (a citrus fruit used during Sukkot), and a shofar, which are recognizable Jewish symbols. Although Jewish burials are straightforward and do not involve extravagant jewelry or burial items, this did not deter medieval looters. Although the popes of the 12th century banned the looting of Jewish graves and cemeteries, the catacombs of Santa Rufina were cleaned up in the Middle Ages and only bone fragments and works of art remain.


Italy Basilicata Venosa Jewish and early Christian catacombs, Tomb of Faustini Menorah

Really Easy Star / Toni Spagone / Alamy

In 1981, Eric Meyers, Bernice and Morton Lerner Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Duke University, led a dig funded by the World Jewish Congress and walked through the tunnels of Santa Rufina. He told the Daily Beast that they weren’t surprised to find crosses on the site. The same hillside housed members of various religious groups: Jews, Christians and polytheists. The proximity of the catacombs to Christian cemeteries and a church made it likely that this was some sort of shared space. The question is, what is the relationship between crosses and Jewish tombs?

One possibility, said Dello Russo, was that this may have been a sign of the catacombs being reused at a later time after the Jews left Venosa. The abandoned cemeteries were incorporated into a hospice site in medieval times and even, at one point, were used to house animals. The fact that the catacombs were exposed by a series of earthquakes both closed some of them and exposed others. A 16th-century commentator Jacopo Cenna notes that in his day people visited the site armed with torches and even lingered in the tunnels during the hot summer months when the catacombs provided a respite from the heat. Even a 17th-century bishop of Venosa, said Dello Russo, excavated and noted some eighty Hebrew inscriptions at the site. It was in this context, she says, that most crosses were carved on the walls of tombs.

Even though the crosses did crush the site’s Jewish identity, that doesn’t mean they were malicious. Dr Dorota Hartman, a member of the project at the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, told me that when the crosses were carved, the locals probably did not identify these catacombs as specifically Jewish. Dello Russo agreed, “I don’t necessarily see the crosses as ‘canceling’ the Jewish presence at the site with a hateful gesture. Although Jews have been caricatured in southern Italian folklore as an enemy of the Church, this does not necessarily inform about what is going on here.

One or two of the crosses, Lacerenza said, are older. Although he noted that the coexistence of Jews and Christians in the same catacomb remains to be proven, he suggested that perhaps older mixed religious imagery represents the social realities of a late-19th century society. Animated antiquity in which Jews and Christians were not separated, shared space, and perhaps even families: “The catacombs represent personal and private situations, not just public ones, and these family conditions, then like today, have maybe been complicated.

Findings like this are important because they can help us trace the social relationships and lived experiences of Jews living in Italy at a time when animosity toward them was growing. The 4th century inscriptions in the Jewish catacombs are written in Greek (60%), Latin (30%) and Hebrew (10%), which testifies to the use of several languages ​​in the same community. They provide archaeological evidence of the reality of religious and cultural pluralism in the region and of links with other communities. Names, places of origin, honorary titles of positions in local government, and an intriguing reference to messengers (apostolic, the same word we translate as Apostles) from the Middle East can flesh out our picture of Jewish life in Venosa.

Although much remains to be done, the fact that the slope has not been built means that the site can continue to be studied. In our time, as anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, the recovery and preservation of the history of the Jews of late Antiquity in Italy seems particularly important.

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