ROME -- The Vatican has ruled that a 4th century Roman wall graffito, which depicted Christ with donkey's ears, was not sacrilegious but a paganized form of devotion.

The subject of the mystery was a schoolboy named Alexander. In the way of youngsters through the ages, he vented his feelings with a caricature of Christ on the wall of the Paedagogium, the exclusive imperial college for affluent Roman heirs on Rome's Palatine Hill.

When archeologists discovered the graffito years ago, it was immediately interpreted as the scrawling of a juvenile to deride the Christians about A.D. 300.

The crucified Christ with donkey's ears and a schoolboy pointing a finger at him was thought to be the jocular gesture of an imperial youth taught to loathe the Christians who did not want to fight for the Roman Empire.

Not so, said the Vatican; what the boy really wanted to say was that he adored Christ.

In a thesis by Monsignor Mario Canciani published by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he argued that the donkey's ears were considered a symbol of wisdom and royalty during ancient times.

Canciani, an expert in the symbolism of animals, pointed out that such ears were often attached to the paintings of royal figures, even in the tombs of ancient Egypt. Far from denoting derision, they symbolized veneration and absolute subjugation.

In fact, the donkey's ears to honor Christ are described by the Carthagenian historian Tertulliano who found such pictures on Christian walls in A.D. 200. The donkey-eared Christ discovered then was reading a book and was dressed in a Roman toga. Even in medieval days, the ear decorations persisted, with Christ portrayed with the ears in the French cathedrals at Chartres and Nantes. Canciani said that later generations erased the symbols as offensive.

As a final proof that Alexander the schoolboy did not deride but venerated Christ, Canciani deciphered the Greek scribbling below the graffito. It said in Latin: "Little Alexander adores God."