Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Christian Museum of Lateran

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 9
Christian Museum of Lateran

by Maurice M. Hassett


Established by Pius IX in 1854, in the Palazzo del Laterano erected by Sixtus V on the part of the site of the ancient Lateran palace destroyed by fire in 1308. In 1843 the "profane" Museum of the Lateran was founded by Gregory XVI, in whose pontificate also was mooted the idea of establishing a museum of Christian antiquities in the same edifice. Nothing of consequence, however, was accomplished until Pius IX, at the date noted, entrusted the task to the two famous archæologists, Father Marchi, S.J., and Giovanni Battista de Rossi. To Marchi was assigned the work of collecting and arranging the sculptured monuments of the early Christian ages, to de Rossi all that concerned ancient Christian inscriptions; a third department of the museum consisted of copies of some of the more important catacomb frescoes. The larger part of the material for the new foundation was drawn from the hall in the Vatican Library set apart by Benedict XIV, in 1750, as the nucleus of a Christian monuments from the Capitoline Museum, while many others were recovered from convents, chapels, sacristies, and private collections. Plaster casts were also supplied of certain especially interesting monuments that could not be removed from their original location. The result has been eminently satisfactory, so much so indeed that the Christian Museum of the Lateran contains today a collection of monuments the study of which is indispensable to a proper appreciation of the earlier ages of Christianity. The section devoted to early Christian epigraphy, classified by de Rossi, begins with a collection of inscriptions relating to the most ancient basilicas, baptisteries, etc.; then follow in order the Damasan inscriptions, inscriptions with consular dates, those containing allusions to dogma, to the hierarchy, civil matters, and accompanied with such symbols as the anchor, dove, and monogram. Still another section is occupied by monuments with inscriptions classified according to their topography. The most interesting, perhaps, of all the inscribed monuments of the museum is that containing the famous epitaph of Abercius, one fragment of which was presented to Leo XIII by the Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the other by Professor (now Sir William) Ramsay. The sculptured monuments include a fine collection of fourth and fifth century sacrophagi, the statue of St. Hippolytus, and an admirable third-century statue of the Good Shepherd. The third section of the museum consists of copies, not always accurate, of some of the most interesting paintings discovered in the Roman catacombs.

MAURICE M. HASSETT