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Swastikas in the Roman Catacombs

Although the cross is one of the most universally recognized symbols of Christianity, other symbols were widely used in the early years. In times of fierce persecution, as under the Roman Emperors Decius and Diocletian, symbols needed to be more allusive. What might seem to be a Swastika on first inspection here in fact turns out to be a Gammadion [Latin, Crux Gammata]. It later came to be known as the Crux Dissimulata, ‘the allusive Cross’. Some years before Bishop Clement of Alexandria had left instructions to the faithful to use such devices as the Dove, the Anchor and the Fish – a symbol that survives to this very day!

For convenience the term Gammadion will be used in this article to evaluate the occurrences of this device in both Greek and Roman contexts. Where did it come from? Most likely it was first formed from the juxtaposition of four capital Greek gammas. We find both sacred and secular usage of the Gammadion in the Roman Catacombs. It is likely however that the Gammadion was in regular use before its adoption there as a variant of the Christian cross.

The Gammadion motif was closely associated with a number of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. It was linked to Artemis and Diana as the goddesses of hunting, as exemplified in the mosaic of the Great Hunt in Piazza Armerina in central Sicily. It appears on images of Aphrodite and was probably regarded as a symbol of fecundity. As a solar symbol it is linked to Apollo and it was also certainly regarded as a symbol of devotion to Gaia, the Earth Goddess.

Our principal concern here is to review its use in sepulchral contexts. In the mausoleum of S. Sebastiano there is a sequence of five Gammadions, four of which are verso [crampons turning to the left] and only one of which is recto [crampons turning to the right]. These decorative elements almost certainly pertain to the pagan burial of Marcus Clodius Hermes dating from the time of Emperor Hadrian [76-138AD]. Altars of dedication and gravestones have also been found near Hadrian’s Wall in England, sometimes with the verso form of the Gammadion and sometimes with the recto form.

Variant forms of the Gammadion may be found; sometimes occurring as part of a composite motif, and often incorporating the Xhi Rho and the Alpha and Omega. In the Via Latina there is a catacomb painting depicting Moses and the Escape from Egypt with a Gammadion on his tunic. However the use of the Gammadion is not restricted to the Christian catacombs alone; it also appears in the Jewish catacomb at the Villa Torlonia, a district of Rome.

This and other devices were placed in the catacombs to create an atmosphere of conviction that Christ was alive, and that believers would also enter their heavenly rest. A number of inscriptions from the catacombs of San Callisto and Domitilla, in conjunction with the Gammadion, offer an assurance of Episcopal blessing now and eternal life hereafter.

We find a similar usage on a fresco that decorates an ‘arcosolium’ in the cemetery of Generosa. An arcosolium had two parts, the lower of which was the actual sarcophagus on which a marble slab was placed. On this fresco is depicted the ‘Good Shepherd’ with the Gammadion in the verso form on both the right and left of his tunic.

There is also an example of the Gammadion appearing on the clothing of a ‘fossor’ or grave-digger. The picture of Diogenes decorates the principal arcosolium in the cemetery of Domitilla, towards the end of the Fourth century when Damasus was Pope. The forms are both recto and verso. In the following century Pope Leo I gave the Church of S. Susanna an altar frontal with four Gammadions embroidered upon it.

Other examples on gravestones from the Roman Empire have been found in Anatolia and elsewhere in those early centuries. We find both pagan and Christian influences at work in Anatolia. Artist-sculptors of different backgrounds shared a common store of iconographic motifs. Christian art differed mostly from its pagan counterpart in the choice and interpretation of these motifs.

On gravestones the imagery was clearly eschatological [dealing with ‘the last things’] as the very function of sepulchral art demanded that its contents should reflect eternal values. In the Phrygian period it was not unusual for these stelae [Latin for ‘upright stone slabs’] to be cut in the form of a door, clearly representing the passage from this life to the next.

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