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The early-Christian inscriptions (3rd-6th centuries) are marked by strong vitality and a rich variety of forms. It is as if these social rebels were eschewing the stagnant formalism of the dying empire, for a more immediate type of expression. It is also likely that declining literacy and economic factors contributed to this regressive period.

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A wellhead, with details, from the cloisters of San Giovanni in Laterano.

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There is no lack of opportunity to study early-Christian inscriptions in Rome. Ancient headstones are displayed like venerable relics in most of the churches, and especially in the catacomb centers, where over 700,000 of the faithful were interred before the barbarian raids of the 7th-8th centuries. These inscription-studded walls are at the catacombs of San Sebastiano on the old Appian Way.

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A stone on display at the cloisters of San Paolo fuori le Mura. This major basilica was built over the necropolis where St. Paul had been buried, and where thousands of followers subsequently chose to be laid to rest. This cloister, as well as the adjacent Benedictine monastery serve to house much of the Vatican Museums' early-Christian epigraphy collection.

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This stone (photographed under very low light, causing such pronounced graininess) is from an inscription on display in the cloisters of the Church of Santi Quattro Coronati al Laterano, and is an especially good example of the naive vitality of  early-Christian lettering.

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This inscription is also on display in the cloisters of San Paolo fuori le Mura, detailed below from left to right. It seems that the stone carver was working faster and sloppier towards the end!

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The early-Christian tomb iconography is another source of fascination for me. The bird is a symbol of the freed soul and was often carved or scratched along with the simple epigraphs. In the future I'd like to do a more in-depth study of bird images as found on inscriptions. Here are a few from the lower church of Santa Cecilia.

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