apostles 4 (Photo: Professor Fabrizio Bisconti shows the image of an unidentified person on the ceiling of the catacomb chamber, with the four portraits of Apostles in circles in the corners of the ceiling, 22 June 2010/Tony Gentile)

Archaeologists and art restorers using new laser technology have discovered what they believe are the oldest paintings of the faces of Jesus Christ’s Apostles.  The images in a branch of the catacombs of St Tecla near St Paul’s Basilica, just outside the walls of ancient Rome, were painted at the end of the 4th century or the start of the 5th century.

Archaeologists believe these images may have been among those that most influenced later artists’ 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 full-face 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.

apostles 5 (Photo: Wide shot of the catacomb chamber, showing other illustrations as well, 22 June 2010/Tony Gentile)

The paintings have the same characteristics as later images, such as St Paul’s rugged, wrinkled and elongated forehead and balding head and pointy beard, indicating they may have been the ones which set the standard.

The four circles, about 50 cm in diameter, are on the ceiling of the underground burial place of a noblewoman who is believed to have converted to Christianity at the end of the same century when the emperor Constantine made it legal.