Virgin and Child with Prophet
c. AD 230 - 240
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
Last month The Queen of the Catacombs, the Catacombs of Priscilla, on Rome`s Via Salaria reopened after a five year closure due to restoration
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi re-opened them and Google Maps now provides a virtual tour of the Priscilla complex
One of the highlights of a visit is to see the remains of the freco above depicting Mary and the baby Jesus together with a Prophet who is pointing out a star shining above Mary and Jesus
It is regarded as the earliest known depiction of Mary, the Blessed Virgin.
It dates from about AD 230 - 240
There is some controversy about the man or Prophet standing next to the holy family and pointing to the star
A number including the Priscilla website say that the Prophet is the Old Testament prophet Balaam
That is because he is pointing to a star and that the reference is to the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24 and in particular verses 15 - 17:
"“A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel”
The identification of Balaam is fraught with difficulty
Balaam was not a good man although God used him to make prophecy
In the New Testament, Balaam is vilified as an avaricious man who through bribery curses Israel
In Revelation 2:14 we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held the "teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication."
In both 2 Peter 2:15 and in Jude 1:11, Balaam is cited as an example of a false prophet motivated by greed or avarice.
It is therefore difficult to see why Balaam is depicted in a holy place
The star might be a reference to the star rising out of Jacob in Balaam`s prophecy but more convincingly could also be a reference to the star above the stable in Bethlehem housing the Nativity scene involving the Magi as narrated in Matthew 2
"1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,2 saying, “Where is the new born king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage. ...
9 After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star,11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
The star could also be a reference to the Star of David known in Hebrew as the Shield of David or Magen David. The term "Shield of David" is also used in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) as a title of the God of Israel.
In Europe many medieval cathedrals and churches display the Star of David: notably those in Burgos and Valencia Spain; Florence Anagni Aquileia and Orvieto Italy; and Brandenburg Stendal and Hannover Germany
The relationship between Mary and stars is also well known and dates from the earliest times
Revelation (12:1, 2 & 5) describes the Woman of the Apocalypse: And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars
The title of Mary as "Star of the Sea" is well known and of very long standing
Father Joseph Wilpert in his Die römischen Mosaiken und Malereien der kirchlichen Bauten vom IV. bis XIII. Jahrhundert (1903) rejects the identification with Balaam and proposes Isaiah as the prophet depicted
As does H. Thode in his Michelangelo: Kritische Untersuchungen über seine Werke`, vol. iii, Berlin, 1913