A spotlight illuminates the icon of the apostle John discovered with other paintings in the St Tecla catacomb in Rome. Photograph: Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Archaeologists exploring a Christian catacomb under a residential Roman street have unearthed the earliest known images of the apostles Andrew and John.
Using a newly developed laser to burn away centuries of calcium deposits without damaging the paintings beneath, the team found the late 4th-century images in the richly decorated tomb of a Roman noblewoman.
“John’s young face is familiar, but this is the most youthful portrayal of Andrew ever seen, very different from the old man with grey hair and wrinkles we know from medieval painting,” said project leader Barbara Mazzei.
Discovered in the 1950s and as yet unseen by the public, the St Tecla catacomb is accessed through the unmarked basement door of a drab office building, beyond which dim corridors packed with burial spots wind off through damp tufa stone.
The catacomb is close to the basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, where bones discovered in a sarcophagus have been dated to the first or second century and attributed to St Paul.