St. Paul’s ancient face at long last revealed

The light reveals Christ the master, the healed cripple and Lazarus and Daniel among the lions, but the real revelation is that of the first recognized depiction of St. Paul’s face.

laser cleaning

It is to be found at Santa Tecla in an ancient roman road, via Ostiense, hidden in an underground cubicle where the temperature is about 14 degrees and the humidity reaches 98%. This catacomb, rediscovered in 1720, now exhibits effigies of four apostles dating back to the end of the fourth century. Biblical scenes and faces have once again coming to light thanks to the work of the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra, presided over by Fabrizio Bisconti, with director Barbara Mazzei in the role of project coordinator.

Alma Ortolan, from the town of Vittorio Veneto in the Province of Treviso, a professor of restoration at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, was charged with the restoration of the cubicle, the removal of thousands of years worth of calcigenous layers hiding testimonies to a time in which Christianity was establishing itself in the Roman empire, and it was professor Ortolan who was amongst the first people to rediscover the ancient face of he who converted the very last pagans to Christianity. In the square cubicle there are three arcosolia, architectural structures typically found in roman catacomb mausoleums, and it is in one of these that one is able to see a noblewoman, elegantly dressed and adorned with jewels. The study suggests that this painting dates back to the end of the fourth century, when according to Gianfranco Ravasi in his presentation of his book published by the Pontificia Commissione and dedicated to the apostles’ cubicle in the roman catacombs of Santa Tecla, “St. Girolamo gave life to Marcella’s social circles and those of other roman noblewomen, who having chosen chastity, meditation and ascension, closing themselves in their palaces on Aventino”. The portrait of the noblewoman Marcella and her daughter at Santa Tecla recalls the time in which even the last representations of the roman aristocracy had forgotten Jupiter and Minerva, in order to become pilgrims in the apostolic memory of Christianity.

In order to remove the last layer of calcium carbonate, a calcigenous block preventing one from being able to make out images and colors, a laser on loan from the Istituto di Fisica Applicata Nello Carrara del CNR di Firenze was used. This idea was first conceived in Veneto when Alma Ortolan and her restoration group carried out a project using medical lasers for the ablation of incrustations, an innovative technique that has enabled us to see St Paul’s face in the first visual testimony of the worship of the apostles. 


(from La Nuova di Venezia, by Aldo Trivellato 12/08/2010)

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