Most people who pilgrimage to Rome do so to see the Vatican and the wonderful old churches throughout the city. So my pilgrimage was a little different this summer, a kind of treasure hunt to experience the ancient relics that have become so meaningful to my study of the first two centuries of early Christianity, including the various Gnostic groups. Here are candid shots of my journey to the mystery hot spots of antiquity.
Relic One: After a week of touring, we finally found the tombstone of Sophe Flavia in one of the four National Museums in Rome. It is right across the street from Termini station, on the top floor of the museum. Wade flagged it down with a yell, "Here it is!" I was so thrilled (and relieved) to have finally found it and see it with my own eyes. It is lovely. This is the front of it. Sophe was a Valentinian Gnostic Christian and it commemorates her death as a sacred marriage. It was written by her husband. The front reads (my translation):
"Sophe, my dear sister and bride, you yearn for the light of the Father. You have been anointed with immortal holy oil in the baths of Christ. You have sought eagerly to gaze upon the divine faces of the aeons, upon the great angel of the great counsel, the true Son. You have gone to the bridal chamber and ascended to the house of the Father."
To my knowledge, this is the earliest Christian artifact known. It dates to the late second century from Rome. It is Gnostic.
Relic Two: Here I am in the Mithraeum in Ostia Antica below the Mithraic baths. I have been told that there are 15 Mithraeum in Ostia but we only found four in the time we had and with the maps we had. Why so many? Ostia, just outside of Rome, was a defensive port city with many soldiers. The population of soldiers meant that the MIthras mysteries were popular here since they were an exclusive club for soldiers wishing to become the unconquerable Sun.
The first time we went to this spot, we were on top where there was eventually built a Christian basilica (the sacred place always remains while the gods change). We were so hot and tired tramping around with no success at finding the Mithraeum that was supposed to be there, so we took a lunch break. After lunch we went back and found an underground chamber beneath the old church. Mithras/Perseus is slaying Taurus. The original statue stands in the Ostia Museum. My understanding is that in front of the statue lay a mirror on the stone pillar. When the sun streamed through the skylight, it hit the mirror and bounced up onto the face of Mithras, illuminating it like the Sun. Wow. Incredible.
Relic Three: Pompeii was hot and steamy. The train ride from Naples out to the ancient site was long and packed. We were like sardines packed into the back of the train. We spent the day wandering around Pompeii being totally amazed at the size of the city. It is huge. We probably could have spent three days there to see everything.
Of course the place I wanted to see the most was the Villa of Mysteries which is way on the far end of the city, almost out in the suburbs of ancient Pompeii. And I wasn't disappointed. The villa was amazing. Very intact. And the frescos are the originals. They were not moved to the Napolini Archaeological Museum with the rest of Pompeii's frescoes. So here I am in complete ecstasy in front of the dining room that sports the frescoes of scenes from the initiation ceremonies of the mysteries of Dionysus, which included everything from recitation from sacred books, to music and dance, to dramatic reenactment of the myth, to revelation of the phallis, and sacred marriage. At least that is what I saw on the walls of that old gorgeous dining room.
Relic Four: We made it to the Priscilla Catacomb because there are some very old Christian frescoes there, one of a woman standing with her arms outstretched in prayer posture. This image was unbelievable, much better preserved in real life than in any photo I have ever seen of it. Seeing the real thing, I am not so sure that we should interpret it as a woman priest, as some have been wont to do.
It looks to me like a panel depicting the life of the deceased woman, her marriage (and role as wife) and her child (and her role as mother), while she stands devoted in prayer to God. We were taken to see several other fantastic frescoes including the earliest depiction of the virgin Mary holding Jesus. The frescoes throughout the catacomb were very consistent and repetitive, suggesting to me that there must have been a shop where the Christians went to purchase the scenes they wanted painted on their relatives' tombs. Popular were the story of Jonah being spit out of the mouth of the whale, Jesus as the good shepherd, and Jesus raising Lazarus.