by Lori Pieper
“Kilroy was here” and he is a real folk hero.
The impulse to write your name on a wall is old as humanity. Many graffiti have been written as insults, others as political and social protest. Some are obscene, some witty, some merely banal or silly. City officials spend time and money year after year wiping them away, but they always appear again. For many people, graffiti are their art and their literature, their only way of expressing themselves for posterity.
Would it surprise you to learn that even God is a graffiti artist? One night, the book of Daniel tells us, when Belshezzar, the king of Babylon, was holding a banquet, “suddenly. . . the fingers of a human hand appeared, writing on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace” (Daniel 5:5). It was God’s warning to Belshezzar that his kingdom was about to fall.
I don’t know whether any graffiti artist has ever used God’s example as a justification, but graffiti have often had a religious purpose. The practice is far older than Christianity. In ancient Egypt, people who traveled to shrines or temples of the gods often wrote their loved ones’ names on the walls so that they too, could share in the spiritual benefits of the holy site.
Early Christians did the same. In the 1950’s, archaeologists discovered some graffiti written by early pilgrims on the stone remains of the 3rd century Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. One of the roughly scratched inscriptions said in Greek: Chaire, Maria, “Hail, Mary.” It is perhaps the oldest recorded use of the prayer, written in the very spot where the angel Gabriel first spoke the words to Mary.
During the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christians wrote graffiti on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Among them are some of the earliest examples of prayers to the saints. In the catacombs of St. Callistus, where many early martyrs are buried, including Pope Sixtus and St. Cecilia, pilgrims wrote prayers like these:
Pray, holy souls, that that Verecundus and his family may have a safe voyage.
Holy souls, remember Marcianus Successus Severus and all our brothers and sisters
St. Sixtus, remember Aurelius Repentinus in your prayers.
They also recalled their dead, for instance, “Leontus, may you live in eternal life,” “Dionysius, may you live in God.” Often the writing of the graffiti had a healing and renewing effect. In the same catacombs of Callistus, a Christian, grieving over the loss of a loved one, wrote her name all over the walls. He began by writing on the vestibule to the principal sanctuary, “Sofronia, may you live with your own,” then at the entrance itself, “Sofronia, may you live in the Lord.” His mood became more and more confidant and jubilant as he went into the holy place where the saints were buried. Near the main altar tomb in one chapel, he wrote the joyful affirmation: “Sweet Sofronia, you will LIVE forever in God!” And finally, underneath, like a triumphant echo, “Sofronia, YOU LIVE.”
Some other ancient graffiti found in Rome give us a vivid glimpse of the ridicule Christians often had to face from their pagan neighbors. Near the imperial palace, there was a building used as a school for the young slave boys destined to serve as pages in the Emperor’s household. The walls of the ruins are covered with graffiti by the boys complaining of the harshness of life in the school and celebrating their “graduation” into imperial service.
Several of the graffiti also show what life was like for the young Christian slaves there. In one, a student mockingly calls another boy “Libanus, the bishop.” The most famous is a drawing of a man with a donkey’s head nailed to a cross, with a young boy standing next to him. Underneath are the words, “Alexamenos is worshiping his God.” (For pagans, death on the cross, the punishment of slaves and traitors, was the greatest shame imaginable, and they constantly ridiculed Christians’ belief that Christ, a crucified criminal, could also be God). Another graffito nearby reads “Alexamenos, the faithful one.” Is this another insult or Alexamenos’ reply to his tormentors?
Religious graffiti dating from the Middle Ages have been found in churches all over Europe, including the porches of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The pillars of many medieval churches are covered with crosses drawn by pilgrims marking the beginning or end of their journeys to religious shrines. In the time of Charlemagne, priests who had the longed for privilege of celebrating Mass at the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter’s in Rome often wrote their names on the wall to record the event. In fact, scholars believe that the skill in writing and the knowledge of Latin displayed in medieval graffiti mean that the majority of them were probably written by priests.
Many of the visitors to English churches in the Middle Ages wrote their names, and sometimes verses from Scripture, on the walls. One such prayer, found in a convent church in Elstow, is the prayer of the Good Thief: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” A visitor to the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, wrote this somber meditation: “Death is like a shadow which always follows the body.”
In the Church of St. Margaret in Cowlinge, Suffolk, a devotee of Mary wrote a Latin poem, which translates as:
Whensoever you go by me
Whether man, woman or boy you be
Bear in mind you do not fail
To say in passing, “Mary, Hail.”
The medieval graffiti on the walls of Russian churches frequently express the humility and soul searching of the writer: “Lord, forgive me, thy sinful slave Stefan, more sinful than all men in word and deed and thought.” Or: “Vlas wrote this, wretched and rich in sin.” Some, less guilt stricken, could think of nothing better to write than “Ivan was here.”
Graffiti writing was practiced in the very highest places in Russia: in the section of the choir of the church of Santa Sophia in Kiev reserved for the royal family, one 12th century graffito reads: “Lord help thy slave Olisava, Sviatopolk’s mother, a Russian princess.” Many years later, Olisava’s young grandsons wrote their own names below hers.
But Russians did not write devotional graffiti only in churches. The remains of the 12th century Golden Gate in Vladmir are covered with crosses drawn by soldiers, invoking God’s help as they stood there to defend the city in battle.
Some of the most fascinating and historically important religious graffiti were discovered in 1941, during excavations under St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, by archaeologists searching for the tomb of the first Pope. Under the high altar, they found what they believed to be Peter’s original earth grave, erected beside the Circus of Nero where he had met his death by crucifixion. It was in the middle of a first century cemetery, surrounded by both Christian and pagan tombs.
Next to the original shrine of Peter was a plaster wall covered with graffiti scratched by the faithful. Most of them wrote their names or the names of friends and relatives. But the excavators were surprised to find that Peter’s name was never written in full on the wall, though it could be found in other ancient graffiti in Rome. Professor Margherita Guarducci, who studied the inscriptions, finally unlocked the secret: Peter’s name was there, but had been overlooked: the apostle was represented by the mysterious symbol . It was made up of the first two letters of Peter’s name, and also resembled a key a sign of the “keys of the kingdom” given to him by Jesus.
Scholars believe that because Christians were afraid that Peter’s tomb might be desecrated or destroyed by pagans during the persecutions, they had to keep its location a secret. So the faithful were careful never to write his name on the wall. They resorted to the symbol of the key instead.
During the early 4th century, when many of these graffiti were being written, thousands of Christians died under the cruel persecution of Diocletian. But then everything changed abruptly when Diocletian abdicated. Constantine, who had been proclaimed emperor by his troops, was facing a decisive battle with Maxentius, his rival as emperor, at Milvian Bridge, not far from the Vatican. The night before the battle, he had a vision of the Chi Rho sign, a symbol of Christ, accompanied by the words “By this sign, conquer.” He had the sign painted on his soldiers’ shields and won the battle. Constantine converted to the faith, and gave freedom of worship to Christians. Some time later, Christians were thrilled by the announcement that the Emperor would build a magnificent basilica over Peter’s grave.
The jubilation felt by Christians at the end of nearly three centuries of persecution is clearly visible in the graffiti under St. Peter’s. One of the graffiti on the wall near Peter’s tomb records the beginning of the sentence “By this sign, conquer” and the Chi Rho sign seen by Constantine.
Another sign of the new freedom is a graffito found on the tomb of the Valerii family, about 30 feet from the place where the apostle was buried. It was a crude drawing in red lead and charcoal of the heads of Christ and St. Peter, and scrawled beside it were the words “Peter, pray to Christ Jesus for the pious Christians buried near your body.” Professor Guarducci believes that it was probably drawn shortly before construction of the basilica began, probably by some Christian member of the Valerii family who wanted to offer a prayer for his relatives buried close to the apostle’s tomb. He was finally able to do freely what many had longed to do write Peter’s name near his grave.
Other graffiti from a time of persecution have been preserved in the Tower of London, where many Catholics and Protestants were imprisoned for their religious beliefs in the 16th century. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Bl. Philip Howard, the first Earl of Arundel, spent ten years imprisoned in the Tower for refusing to give up his Catholic faith. He died of prison hardships in 1595. Two graffiti he wrote on the walls of his cell in 1587 still survive. One reads:
The more suffering for Christ in this world
The greater glory with Christ in the world to come
You have crowned him Lord, with glory and honor,
The just man will be remembered forever.
The other says:
Just as it is a disgrace to be bound because of sin, so, on the contrary, to suffer the bonds of captivity for Christ’s sake is the greatest glory.
Elizabeth died in 1603, but the persecution of Catholics continued. In 1612, Father Robert Fisher was imprisoned in the Tower, and used a nail to write this message on the wall:
While robed in the sacred vestments and administering the sacred mysteries, I was taken and held in this narrow cell. R. Fisher.
Memories of these persecutions continue to have a special meaning for us today, when modern day martyrs still suffer and die for Christ all over the world and when many have also experienced the joy of victory for faith and freedom.
For more than 30 years, the Berlin Wall was the world’s best known symbol of oppression. When at last, in November 1989, the East German government declared free passage to the west and announced that the wall would come down, there was jubilation throughout the city and the world. East and West Berliners, as well as visitors from all over the world, wrote their hopes and dreams for the future on the wall: peace and freedom, not only for Germany, but for all nations.
Among the peace signs, the requests for nuclear disarmament, the quotations from John Lennon’s “Give peace a chance,” and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, there were those who recorded prayers, and their belief that faith could overcome the most serious world problems. One of them wrote Christ’s commandment “Love your neighbor.” Someone else wrote a very appropriate verse from Scripture: “And the people let out a loud shout and the wall fell down and the people entered the city” (Joshua 7:20).”
One long inscription read, in part:
Brothers and sisters of the wall, you have lit the flame…
There is still much to do before we are all truly free.
Below this, someone else, who must have been a real Scriptural scholar, wrote in Greek a quotation from 2 Cor. 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Of course, none of this means that today’s Christians should go out and start writing their prayers on public property. But it does raise the question: two thousand years after your death, will anything lasting be left from your life to show that you were here and that you were a Christian?
This article first appeared in the Catholic Digest, May 1992.