The collections of the Pius Christian Museum include thirty-four full-scale reproductions of ancient paintings associated principally with decorations in the catacombs of suburban Rome.
The painting copies—sometimes reaching monumental sizes—were made in the mid-nineteenth century with tempera and oil on paper and canvas. Specialized artists would endure the uncomfortable underground spaces of the catacombs in order to work from the originals, as photography did not yet exist. Torches were their only source of light. These artistic reproductions were the only way to enable scholarly and public “participation” in the artistic heritage that emerged from the archeological explorations of the underground cemeteries. Without these artists, these paintings would have remained inaccessible to the layman given the extreme difficulties involved in encountering the artworks face-to-face.
These beautiful copies of the catacombs paintings are the only ones documented of their kind. They are linked to the first Christian archeological discoveries thanks to the work of the Jesuit Fr. Giuseppe Marchi and his brilliant pupil, Giovanni Battista de Rossi. When Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) entrusted to Marchi the responsibility of founding a “Christian Museum” in the Lateran Palace, Carlo Ruspi and other specialists of the same artistic sector were subsequently commissioned to execute in situ copies of the catacombs paintings. The Pius Christian Museum, named after its creator, was launched in 1854 with a section specifically dedicated to the grand facsimiles of the catacombs frescoes. Unfortunately, when the archeological collections of the Lateran Museum were moved to the Vatican in 1963, the painted copies did not find space within the setup and were moved to storage. Here, they were essentially forgotten until their recent rediscovery.
In recent years, the renewed awareness of these precious documents, currently exhibited in the Pius Christian Museum, has prompted the restoration of some of the paintings. A fourth painting of large scale is currently located in the Painting Restoration Laboratory of the Vatican Museums. The success of the initial restoration initiatives have encouraged the initiation of a collective restoration of the paintings in order to enrich the Museums and give visitors a patrimony of great aesthetic and documentary value.
Thanks to the contribution of the California Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, it was possible to complete the preliminary conservative interventions in the years 2014 and 2015, which included the disinfestations, cleaning, and securing a proper mounting for the painting reproductions. In 2017, Arizona Chapter Patrons funding also provided for the restoration of the group of five paintings that were in the most fragile conditions. By 2020, restorers plan to complete the restoration of a new set of eleven additional paintings.