Those boys and girls who love their Bibles are fond of Bible pictures. Even tiny children delight to see a picture of Jesus Christ holding the little ones in His arms; and how sad children feel when they are shown a painting or engraving of the Saviour led away to die!
We have learnt much now of the Bible, and of how the Old and New Testaments were written, but who first thought of making pictures from the Bible?
We shall see.
A few miles from the city of Rome, deep, deep underground, are those wonderful networks of galleries and chambers called 'The Catacombs.'
'Catacomb' means 'scooped out.' Miles and miles of passages are there, some low and narrow, others wide and lofty; they cross and re-cross each other, like the streets of a town, and all are scooped out of the solid earth.
On either side of every gallery are almost endless rows of spaces hollowed out in the walls, one above another like the berths on board ship. For the most part they are open and empty, but a few are still closed. Above some of them words are faintly traced on stone slabs; a man or woman's name perhaps, oftener still the Latin words, 'In Pace' -- that is, 'In Peace.'
For all this great underground city is in reality one huge cemetery: the quiet resting-place where the first Christians of heathen Rome buried their dead, where the martyred bodies so cruelly tortured by Nero were laid at last. In pace, in peace.
How wonderful to read the names of those who loved Christ and suffered for His sake so long, long ago! Their very names speak to us of the courage and joy which, in spite of torture, Christ had brought into their lives.
[Illustration: TWO EMPTY TOMBS IN THE CATACOMBS, THE LOWER ONE SHOWING PART OF THE COVERING SLAB WITH A ROUGH CARVING OF THE MARTYRS' PALM OF VICTORY]
'Rest,' 'Constancy,' 'God's will.' Many names have meanings like these. Sometimes a simple picture of a victor's crown or martyr's palm-branch is placed beside them; sometimes a few words are added. Latin is a dead language now, but in those days it was the everyday language of Rome, so most of these inscriptions are in Latin.
Some of them are sorrowful, for the mourners grieve to think that the loved one will open his eyes on earth no more; but in all the hope of eternal life is sure and certain. Our beloved mother, our little child, our dear brother is with Christ; the parting is only for a time. Yonder, in our beautiful Heavenly Home, we shall meet once more.
How different from the words carved over heathen tombs! We know what these were like, for not very far away is a heathen catacomb.
'Valeria dormit in pace.' Valeria sleeps in peace. So the Christian woman was laid to rest.
'I lift up my hands against God, who snatched me away.' We can still read these despairing, rebellious words on a heathen tomb.
'Spare your tears, dear husband and daughter, and believe that it is forbidden to weep for one who lives in God.' How beautiful to know that we shall one day meet the woman in Heaven of whom these words are written!
Now, about the time of Nero's cruel persecution, the Christians of Rome began to use the Catacombs for meetings and services. Their heathen tormentors had a horror of death, and therefore among the quiet dead the Christians were safe for a while.
So they met deep underground in the dim galleries, their little oil-lamps twinkling like stars, and there they listened to the Word of God, and prayed and sang together.
Many touching stories are told of these days; and of the meetings held underground in these Catacombs, where the living were surrounded by the bodies of the martyred dead.
Now, these first Christians loved the Bible with all their hearts, and just as you like to see hanging in your room the picture of the Good Shepherd with the little lamb, so they began to long for pictures from their Bible. Every heathen Roman had his house decorated with pictures and carvings from his pagan religion, but it was in the dim underground galleries that the first Bible pictures appeared.
Some of the subjects were taken from the Old Testament, some from the New. Only Bible pictures interested the first Christians.
Noah and the Ark was a very favourite subject. 'Noah was safe in the ark,' they said, 'although thousands perished. So will God keep safe all those who trust in Him.'
There are many pictures of Jonah and the whale, and one of the three children in the burning fiery furnace, for this had special messages for the martyrs as we can well understand.
[Illustration: ONE OF THE FIRST PICTURES EVER MADE OF 'CHRIST, THE GOOD SHEPHERD.' FOUND IN THE CATACOMBS, THE FIRST CHRISTIAN CEMETERY]
Another very touching picture is of the raising of Lazarus. The artist who carved this had once been a heathen; perhaps in former days he had made and sold idols, but now all his life and talents were consecrated to God.
And here carved in stone, is the Good Shepherd, Christ bearing the lost lamb on His shoulder, just as He does in the picture you love so well at home; Christ, the Good Shepherd of your life, just as surely as He was the Saviour and Friend of these men and women who fell asleep so long ago!
Here is a picture of Jesus feeding the five thousand with the loaves and fishes; in this carving He is changing the water into wine; here, carved on a small panel, let into a tomb, is a Roman soldier crowning our Lord in mockery; and here is Pilate washing his hands in the vain hope that he could wash away his responsibility.
Now, there is one very wonderful thing about all these pictures: although so many martyrs lie buried here, nearly all the pictures and inscriptions are cheerful!
The heathen Roman writers tell a great deal about the dreadful sufferings of the Christians, but there is very little said about it on the tombs of the martyrs themselves. In peace; they are at peace: the torture, the shame is over for ever; the life of love and joy and victory is all before them.
How thoroughly these first Christians knew their Bible! How they loved to picture its scenes. Had all the writings of the New Testament been lost, we should have known the most important events of our Lord's life on earth from these faded paintings and worn carvings alone.
Love, joy, peace; the love of Christ from which nothing can separate us; the joy which even the fires of martyrdom cannot quench; the peace which the world does not give, and cannot take away. This is the message which these first Bible pictures bring to us all. For to the early martyrs the Bible was what God intends it should be to us -- a living power, a Divine Voice, a constant source of strength and inspiration on the heavenward journey.