Fractio Panis (The Breaking of Bread)
AD 100 - 150
The Greek Chapel (Capella Graeca), The Catacomb of Priscilla, Via Salaria Nova, Rome
From Father Joseph Wilpert SJ, Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms (Tafeln) (1903) (plate xv, vol. I)
The fresco is the earliest depiction of the celebration of the Eucharist
It was only discovered by Fr Joseph Wilpert SJ, the noted archaeologist and religious art historian in 1893
The Eucharistic feast is depicted at the moment that the President or Bishop breaks the bread
There are seven persons at the table, six men and one woman
Except for the President, the others are reclining as the Romans did in classical times
Beside the bread there is a two handled cup
There are two large plates: one has bread (five loaves), the other fish (two)
On the ground there are seven baskets filled with bread
The depictions in art of the celebration of the Eucharist have varied in time dependent on the state of knowledge and theology at the time
In a six-part lecture series entitled Past Belief: Visions of Early Christianity in Renaissance and Reformation Europe at The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, Professor of History Anthony Grafton of Princeton University focuses on the efforts of artists and scholars to recreate the early history of Christianity in a period of crisis in the church from the 15th to the 17th century.
It is part of The Sixty-Third A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts
The first lecture (30th March 2014) How Jesus Celebrated Passover: The Jewish Origins of Christianity in podcast form is here
He explores how the pictorial form of the Last Supper, a central theme in art, was radically transformed after the beginning of the Reformation in 1517.
He shows how writers with great archaeological and historical learning delved into Roman antiquities and Jewish texts from the time of the origins of Christianity in order to bring back the world in which the Last Supper actually took place.
One of the works that the learned Professor cites and discusses is the Annales Ecclesiastici (full title Annales ecclesiastici a Christo nato ad annum 1198; "Ecclesiastical annals from Christ's nativity to 1198"), consisting of twelve folio volumes, a history of the first 12 centuries of the Christian Church, written by Caesar Cardinal Baronius (1538 – June 30, 1607)
It is the official answer to the anti-Catholic history, the Magdeburg Centuries.
It was a time of dispute about the nature of the sacrament of the Eucharist and whether it was a sacrament at all
Interestingly it would appear that Baronius made a number of "discoveries" (or rather recovered what had already been known)
He consulted Jewish scholars, a very radical approach for those times
It was a time of great interest in the Classics (Greek and Latin) and the rediscovery of the Classics and of Roman customs and way of life
It was also the time of the rediscovery of the catacombs and the churches and tombs and works of early Christian art discovered therein
Baronius showed that the roots of the Sacrament were in the Passover Seder from all of these sources and thus set off new ways of depicting Holy Thursday and the Last Supper and the sacrifice at the heart of the Catholic religion
It is noteworthy that his conclusions appear only to be vindicated by the discovery of this fresco more than four hundred years after his death
An extremely interesting lecture which is recommended for this time of Passiontide