The Vatican and Google are working together to bring to light early-century paintings found in ancient Christian catacombs in northeast Rome, depicting notable biblical events such as Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and also some paintings that raises questions on whether there were women priests in the early Church.
"This is perhaps the sign of the joining of two extremes, remote antiquity and modernity," Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi said at a news conference earlier this week at the Catacombs of Priscilla, Catholic News Service reported.
The restoration work inside the tomb used advanced laser techniques to uncover fourth-century paintings of famous scenes, such as Jesus and Lazarus, and St. Peter and Paul escorting Christians into the afterlife. It also contains one of the oldest known frescoes of the Madonna and the Child, dating back to 230 AD.
Google Maps is also extending the Street View feature into the Roman catacombs, meaning that online users will be able to take a virtual tour inside the ancient stone corridors and explore the Christian tombs – providing an even better, well-lit view from various angles than an in-person visit.
Google's Giorgia Abeltino noted that one drawback is that there is no underground map informing users which area exactly they are seeing, but for many this will be the only way to see the tombs, as they are privately owned and not open to the public.
The Vatican's secretary of archaeological commission Msgr. Giovanni Carru added that the restoration project makes Priscilla a "privileged course" for pilgrims to Rome, who will be able to appreciate the "dark places that were lit up by the emblematic and paradigmatic stories of salvation."
The website for the Catacombs of Priscilla noted that although many of the funerary inscription, sarcophagi, stone and bodies were taken away after the catacombs were re-discovered in the 16th century, the tombs preserve a number of beautiful and important paintings.
Reuters reported that some of the paintings depict women who appear to be praying like priests at Mass, which has led to suggestions from the Women's Ordination Conference and the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests that early century Christians ordained female priests.
The Vatican has denied this argument, however, and insisted that since all of Jesus' disciples were male, only men can serve as priests.
"This is an elaboration that has no foundation in reality," said Barbara Mazzei of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archaeology told Reuters.
"This is a fairy tale, a legend," added Professor Fabrizio Bisconti, superintendent of religious heritage archaeological sites owned by the Vatican, suggesting that such interpretations are "sensationalist and absolutely not reliable."
Further information and photos from the Catacombs of Priscilla are available on the official website.