While excavating in the Catacomb of St. Thecla near the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Vatican archaeologists recently discovered some wall frescoes that included an icon of St. Paul—recognizable by his thin face and dark pointed beard, known from other early depictions. His likeness, with small eyes and furrowed brow, was painted against a vibrant red background with a circular gold border. Experts from the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, which has jurisdiction over Rome’s catacombs and subterranean Christian burial places, used fine lasers to remove layers of built-up limestone and clay from the frescoed walls to reveal the ancient paintings. They date the portrait to the early fourth century and say it is the oldest known image of the apostle.
Catacombs, underground passageways easily dug into Rome’s soft tufa bedrock, were used by early Christians as secret gathering places and burial chambers—especially during times of persecution by the Roman emperors. More than 40 catacombs have been discovered in Rome.