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INSULA SACRA - The Domus-Ecclesia

Following an unbroken sequence of occupation, the insula sacra underwent major changes in the late fourth century A.D. First of all, insula n. 1 was set apart from the rest of the village through the construction of an impressive enclosure wall encompassing a perimeter of 112.25 m. The area enclosed by the wall was roughly square in ground plan and was entered from two doorways respectively near the SW and NW corners of the enclosure wall. An additional screen wall in a NS direction departed from the SW entrance.

domus-ecclesiae

The transformed house of Peter in a "domus-ecclesiae"

The construction of the enclosure wall brought about the destruction of some houses. At the same time room n. 1 became the focal point of the reshaped insula sacra and underwent significant changes. To start with, the inner space of room n. 1, measuring 5.80 by 6.45 m, received a new polychrome pavement. An arch spanning from N to S across the middle of the chamber was added in order to subdivide the space in two units. The N wall of the room was rebuilt, whereas the remaining three walls were left standing. A new roof made up of strong mortar replaced the old one. Finally an E atrium with white plastered pavement and a NE side-chamber were added. Both the inner walls and the newly built arch in the centre of the room were plastered.

It is significant that in due time the piers of the central arch received two superimposed coatings of painted plaster; whereas three successive layers are preserved along the old walls of the room. This observation leads us to the conclusion that the inner walls of room n. 1 were plastered at least once before the fourth century. This conclusion is in line with the palaeographic study of the graffiti the oldest of which are dated by Fr. Testa in the early third century A.D.

graffiti

Graffiti from the domus-ecclesiae

Different colours were used to decorate the plastered walls, namely red, pink, brick-red, yellow, dark brown, green, blue and white. The geometric decoration is made up of rectangular panels, lozenges, circles, floral crosses etc. Floral motifs are also recognisable, such as branches, small trees, flowers, figs and pomegranates. Apparently no human or animal representations were allowed.

Last but not least, several graffiti, monograms and symbols were found. The languages used in the graffiti are Greek (151 samples), Paleo-Estrangelo (13), Aramaic (9) and Latin (2).

This precious material was studied and published by Fr. E. Testa. Although the interpretation of the inscriptions is far from easy, due to the fragmentary and precarious state of preservation, yet some very important conclusions are beyond any reasonable doubt.

The Christian character of the domus-ecclesia is clearly vindicated. In fact the name and the monogram of Jesus occur in several graffiti. Jesus is called the Lord, Christ, the Most High, God. Some liturgical expressions, such as Amen, Kyrie eleison, etc. are also present. A fairly long inscription in Paleo-Estrangelo seems to refer to the Eucharist. The plurality of languages strongly suggests that the domus-ecclesia was visited not simply by local worshipers, but by pilgrims as well. On palaeographic grounds, the graffiti can be dated from the beginning of the third century to the early fifth century A.D. This conclusion, coupled with the late first century plastered pavements previously described, suggests that room n. 1 was changed into a domus-ecclesia by the first generations of Christians in Capharnaum.

The cult centered of course on the person of Jesus. Yet, it is not surprising to find some graffiti bearing the name of Peter. From the strictly archaeological point of view, the enlarged domus-ecclesia of the fourth century constitutes a unique discovery. It is a tripartite structure having the atrium to the E and the focal point to the W; furthermore the building is set apart from the rest of town by an enclosure wall. These basic elements are strongly reminiscent of the general plan of the Temple in Jerusalem. Such similarities cannot be interpreted as accidental, especially when we think that Christians from Jewish stock lived in Capharnaum in the first four centuries of the Christian era.

hooks

Metal hooks found in the polychrome pavement of the "domus-ecclesiae"

The fourth century domus-ecclesia was described by Egeria in these terms: "In Capharnaum autem ex domo apostolorum principis ecclesia facta est, cuius parietes usque hodie ita stant, sicut fuerunt", i. e. "The house of the prince of the Apostles (St. Peter) in Capharnaum was changed into a church; the walls, however, (of that house) are still standing as they were (in the past)". This precious passage of Egeria reached us through Petrus Diaconus (1137) and is important for several reasons. Egeria does not speak of a common church, but of a house changed into a church. To stress this point, Egeria underlines the fact that the walls of the old house were still standing as in the past. Secondly, this change of a private house into a place for religious gatherings took place in the past (facta est). Finally the house converted into a church was nothing less than the house of the prince of the Apostles, i. e. of Simon Peter. Nobody can miss the striking accuracy of Egeria's description in the light of our archaeological discoveries.




© copyright 2001. Text written by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda ofm. Reproduction, retrieval or redistribution of this material is not permitted without prior permission of the author reachable at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (sbfnet@netvision.net)



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