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Book Review: The Art of the Roman Catacombs: Themes of Deliverance in the Age of Persecution by Gregory S. Athnos

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One would think that by reading a book about the art which adorns the Roman catacombs, one would purely concentrate on analyzing the style and technique of the ancient artists. However, author Gregory S. Athnos presents his thoughts on the subject from a unique and fascinating angle. The Art of the Roman Catacombs: Themes of Deliverance in the Age of Persecution is not your typical Sunday school lecture.

The Art of the Roman Catacombs is an amazing journey into the subterranean world of early Christian tomb frescos. While Athnos does make distinction between the rudimentary plaster scratchings and the sarcophagi carvings, he focuses mostly on the main themes of the artwork and how they differ from our current day Christian emphasis. Specifically, we tend to center our minds on the sacrifice – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – when practicing Christianity. Athnos shows through example after surprising example that early Christians didn’t include crosses or any references to sacrifice or death in their art. Instead, they emphasize the resurrection and the newfound power over death. The messages they left were of hope, of deliverance, and of eternal life.

I found the first appendix at the end of the book to be especially interesting. Athnos uses recorded astrological events, historical data, and seasonal information to pinpoint Jesus’ birthday…and it’s not what you think. I grew up believing what he explains although I only had the “shepherds couldn’t have been out in the fields at night in December” reasoning. Athnos not only presents this appendix with ample information to back up his theory but can even utilize the catacomb art to further justify it. I was simply blown away.

Athnos writes with an authoritative tone, speaking with intelligence and eloquence. His style is straightforward and organized which gives the book a sense of direction and flow. He also succeeds in imparting his enthusiasm on the subject to his readers. Overall, I found his novel way of interpreting the tomb art to be absolutely captivating. I think this would be a fantastic book for not only Bible historians but for small group Bible studies. Further, tourists looking to tour the catacombs would enjoy reading the book before visiting; I know I would have loved to have this before my travels there. It truly gives a fresh perspective on traditional Christianity.

The Art of the Roman Catacombs  represents a thirst for greater knowledge, empathy for those early Christians living during the Age of Persecution, and a hope that those reading will have a better understanding of what the emphasis was in the religion’s beginnings.

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