What are the orantes in the catacombs?

There are orante figures depicted on the walls of the very earliest Christian catacombs of Rome. The orantes are praying females or males. (Century and number of images of orantes: first: 0, second: 5, third: 57, fourth: 92, later: 3)* What are the orantes in the catacombs?

Orante figure on right, Catacomb of Callixtus, 3rd Century
Orante figure on right, Catacomb of Callixtus, 3rd century. Public domain.

I suggest that the orantes represent people who were devoted to a religious life, over and beyond the ordinary congregant. They chose to be represented to the living visitors to the catacombs in the attitude of prayer. I suggest that some of the orante figures were the “consecrated virgins” or pious widows or deacons of the congregations. (There are not yet monastic orders–at least in Rome–so a devoted religious person cannot represent themself by a distinctive costume.)

Stone table with carved orante, Catacomb of Domitilla
Orante, Catacomb of Domitilla. Dnalor 01, Wikimedia Commons, (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Perhaps also, pious people who had not made their wishes for representation known were depicted as orantes.

It is interesting that the orante image is a graven image. That is, it represents a real human person. I suggest that the orantes derive from the Roman custom of representing real persons (mainly in sculpture) on tombs, or the Egyptian custom of representing real persons in tomb paintings. I suggest that the popularity of the orante image tracked directly with the number of Gentile-born members of the Roman congregations. I suspect that Judean-ethnic members would have still felt that such images were not appropriate for them.


*Lamberton, Clark D. “The Development of Christian Symbolism as Illustrated in Roman Catacomb Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology 15, no. 4 (1911): 507-22. DOI: 10.2307/497187.

revised January 25, 2021

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