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Christian Catacombs


Roma, Catacomb of Priscilla. Arenario gallery
Origin of the catacombs

The catacombs originated in Rome between the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries A.D., under the papacy of Pope Zephyrin (199-217), who entrusted to the deacon Callixtus, who would later become pope (217-222), the task of supervising the cemetery of the Appian Way, where the most important pontiffs of the third century would be buried. The custom of burying the dead in underground areas was already known to the Etruscans, the Jews and the Romans, but with Christianity much more complex and larger burial hypogea originated in order to welcome the whole community in only one necropolis. The ancient term to designate these monuments is coemeterium, which derives from the Greek and means “dormitory”, thereby stressing the fact that for Christians, burial is just a temporary moment while they wait for the final resurrection. In antiquity, the term catacomb, extended to all the Christian cemeteries, only defined the complex of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way.



Characteristics of the catacombs

The catacombs are, for the most part, excavated in tuff or in other easily removable but solid soils so as to create a negative architecture. For this reason, the catacombs are found especially where there are tufacious types of soil: that is, in central, southern and insular Italy. The catacombs entail the presence of ladders that lead to ambulatories which are called galleries, as in mines. In the walls of the galleries the “loculi” are arranged: that is, the burial places of ordinary Christians that are made lengthwise. These tombs are closed with marble slabs or bricks. The loculi represent the humblest and most egalitarian burial system in order to respect the community sense that animated the early Christians. In any event, in the catacombs more complex tombs are also found, such as the arcosolia, which entail the excavation of an arch on the tuff casket, and the cubicula, which are real and proper burial chambers.



Catacombs in Italy and around the world

Most of the catacombs are found in Rome where they number nearly sixty, while the same number can be counted in Latium. In Italy, the catacombs developed especially in the South where the soil consistency is harder but at the same time more ductile for excavation. The northernmost catacomb is the one that developed on the Island of Pianosa, while the southernmost cemetery hypogea are the ones in northern Africa and especially at Hadrumentum in Tunisia. Other catacombs are found in Tuscany (Chiusi), Umbria (near Todi), Abruzzi (Amiterno, Aquila), Campania (Naples), Apulia (Canosa), Basilicata (Venosa), Sicily (Palermo, Siracusa, Marsala and Agrigento), and Sardinia (Cagliari, S. Antioco).




The art of the catacombs
CAL_x Orante
Roma, Catacomb of St. Calixto. Deceased-woman prayer

From the end of the second century, an extremely simple art developed in the catacombs which is in part narrative and in part symbolic. The paintings, mosaics, reliefs on the sarcophaguses and minor arts recall stories from the Old and New Testaments, as if to present the examples of salvation from the past to the new converts. This is why Jonah is often depicted who was saved from the belly of the whale where he remained for three days, which re-evokes Christ’s Resurrection.

There are also representations of the young people of Babylonia rescued from the flames of the furnace, Susan saved from the snares of the elders, Noah who escaped the flood, and Daniel who stayed unharmed in the lions’ den.

From the New Testament, the miracles are chosen of healing (the blind man, the paralytic, the hemorrhaging woman) and resurrection (Lazarus, the widow of Naim’s son, Jairus’ daughter), but also other episodes, such as the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well and the multiplication of the loaves.

The art of the catacombs is also a symbolic art in the sense that some concepts which are difficult to express are represented in a simple way. To indicate Christ a fish is depicted; to signify the peace of heaven a dove is represented; to express firmness of faith an anchor is drawn. On the closing slabs of the loculi, symbols with different meanings are often engraved. In some cases, a tool is depicted which indicates the dead person’s trade in life. Some symbols, such as glasses, loaves of bread and amphorae, allude to the funeral meals consumed in honor of the deceased, the so-called refrigeria. Most of the symbols refer to eternal salvation, such as the dove, the palm, the peacock, the phoenix and the lamb.

The catacombs and the Mother of God
LAU_34 Due Magi
Roma, Catacombs of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, Virgin Mary with the Child and two magicians

In the Roman catacombs the most ancient image is preserved of Our Lady who is depicted in a painting in the cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria. The fresco, which can be dated back to the first half of the third century, depicts the Virgin with the Child on her knees in front of a prophet (perhaps Balaam or Isaiah) who is pointing to a star to refer to the messianic prediction. In the catacombs other episodes with Our Lady are also represented such as the Adoration of the Magi and scenes from the Christmas crib, but it is thought that prior to the Council of Ephesus, all these representations had a Christological and not a Mariological significance.


The Good Shepherd in the catacombs

One of the images represented the most in the art of the catacombs is the Good Shepherd. While the model is taken from pagan culture, it immediately takes on a Christological significance inspired by the parable of the lost sheep. Christ is thus represented as a humble shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders as he watches over his little flock that is sometimes made up of only two sheep placed at his sides.

The martyrs of the catacombs
DOM_B5 Basilica
Rome, Domitila's catacomb. Basilica of Saints Nereo and Achilleo

In the catacombs, the martyrs are buried who were killed during the cruel persecutions willed by Emperors Decius, Valerianus and Diocletian. Around the tombs of the martyrs, a form of devotion developed rapidly among the pilgrims who left their graffiti and prayers at these exceptional burial places. The Christians tried to arrange the burial places of their deceased as close as possible to the martyrs’ tombs because it was thought this would also establish a mystical nearness in heaven.


The catacombs and the Fathers of the Church

Between the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, the Fathers of the Church described the catacombs. St. Jerome was the first to recount how as a student he would go on Sundays to visit the tombs of the apostles and the martyrs together with his study companions: “We would enter the galleries dug into the bowels of the earth…Rare lights coming from above land attenuated the darkness a little…We would proceed slowly, one step at a time, completely enveloped in darkness”. The Iberian poet, Prudentius, also recalls that in the early years of the fifth century, many pilgrims would come from around Rome and even from the surrounding regions to venerate the tomb of the martyr Hippolitus who was buried in the catacombs on the Via Tiburtina.


The Pontiffs restore the catacombs

In the second half of the fourth century, Pope Damasus began the search for the tombs of the martyrs located in the different catacombs of Rome. After the tombs were found, he had them restored and had splendid praises engraved in honor of these first champions of the faith. In the sixth century, Popes Vigilus and John III also restored the catacombs after the incursions due to the Greek-Gothic war. Subsequently, between the eighth and ninth centuries, Popes Hadrian I and Leo II also restored the martyrs’ shrines in the Roman catacombs. After a long period of oblivion, the rediscovery of these hypogea in the sixteenth century offered valuable testimonies of the first Christians’ genuine faith that were used by the Counterreformation movement. Finally, in the nineteenth century, Pope Pius IX created the Commission for Sacred Archaeology in order to preserve and study in a fitting way the places of early Christianity.

To know more purchase: The Christian catacombs of Rome