The Early Christian catacombs are one of the most interesting and most popular sights in Rome. Forming an underground maze in the outskirts of the city, the catacombs provide a rare glimpse into the earliest centuries of Christianity. In addition to the countless burial chambers that line the tunnels, the catacombs are home to some of the earliest examples of Christian art.
History of Early Christian Catacombs
The burial custom of most ancient Romans tended to be cremation, with ashes stored in urns. But Christian belief in the bodily resurrection led the early Christians to reject this practice and bury their dead instead. This method requires significantly more space, of course, and the early Christians did not own much land. So the catacombs made a practical, even necessary, solution for burial of the faithful.
The catacombs had other advantages as well: they were an ideal way to strengthen the sense of Christian community (both in life and death) and they provided quiet, out-of-the-way places for memorial ceremonies and displaying Christian symbols.
The first large-scale Christian catacombs were excavated in the 2nd century AD. They were all located outside the city walls, as Roman law forbade burial within the city limits. In addition to burial, the catacombs were used for memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs.
Many modern depictions of the catacombs show them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution, but there is little evidence for this. It probably only occurred in exceptional cases during the persecutions, when the catacombs were the only safe place to celebrate the Eucharist.
After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire (381) and the cult of relics became an established part of Christian worship, the catacombs became a place of pilgrimage. But within a couple more centuries, the saints began to be buried in churches rather than catacombs and the faithful dead joined them in church cemeteries. By the 6th century catacombs were used only for martyrs’ memorial services. The Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards that sacked Rome also violated the catacombs, taking whatever valuables they could find.
By the 10th century the catacombs were mostly abandoned and they remained forgotten until their accidental rediscovery in 1578. Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his Roma Sotterranea (1632) and, two centuries later, the archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi(1822-1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. In 1956 and 1959 more catacombs were discovered near Rome.
Today some of the catacombs are open to the public and they are one of the most popular stops in Rome for tourists and pilgrims alike.
What to See at Early Christian Catacombs
There are 40 known underground cemeteries in Rome. Built along ancient Roman roads such as the Via Appia, the catacombs consist of vast systems of galleries and passages built on top of each other. The galleries lie anywhere from 7 to 19 meters (22-65 ft) below the surface and the passages are about 2.5x1 meters (8x3 feet) in size. Narrow steps join the multiple levels.
The early Christians bound the bodies of dead in linen and placed them in burial niches (loculi), which were sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death. Often Christian symbols such as the fish or chi-rho were included as well. These niches are about 40-60 cm (16-24 in) high and 120-150 cm (47-59 in) long.
Wealthier families were able to construct cubicula housing several loculi, with the ceilings and walls decorated with frescoes. These frescoes are some of the earliest examples of Christian figurative art in the world.
Some of best-known Christian catacombs in Rome are summarized below, with more detailed articles to replace them eventually.
One of the largest and most famous of the Roman catacombs, the Catacomb of San Callisto (St. Callixtus) consists of five levels of galleries between the Via Appia (along the north) and Via Ardeatina (to the south). It covers an area of 15 hectares and contains an estimated half-million tombs.
First excavated in the 2nd century and expanded in the following century, the Catacomb of St. Callixtus became the official burial place of the 3rd-century popes. It is named for Pope St. Callixtus (217-22), who was not buried here but oversaw the expansion and administration of the catacomb.
Further expansion took place under Pope Damasus (366-84) as part of an effort to increase veneration of Rome's martyrs. He ordered the construction underground basilicas to provide access to martyrs' shrines and places of worship for pilgrims. Damasus also built the main stairway into the Crypt of the Popes. By the 5th century, a large Christian complex had developed above ground as well, but almost none of this survives.
After Pope Paschal I (817-24) transferred its relics of saints and martyrs to churches in the city, the catacomb was completely abandoned. It lay hidden until its rediscovery by Giovanni Battista de Rossi in 1849. It was the first catacomb to be rediscovered in modern times. Excavations began in 1852.
The main sights in the Catacomb of San Callisto are the Crypt of the Popes, with an inscription by Pope Damasus and early Christian graffiti, various other important inscriptions, 3rd-century frescoes of Baptism and the Eucharist, and 6th-century frescoes of bishops.
The Catacomb of San Callisto can be visited on guided tours, with reduced tours during the busy summer to preserve the site.
The Catacomb of San Sebatiano, founded in the 3rd century, is located beneath a church of the same name on the Via Appia Antica, beyond the Catacomb of San Callisto. It was dug out in a rock quarry in a valley, and was thus referred to by the description in catacumbas from the Greek word for "sunken valley." Since this was the only underground cemetery to be maintained after ancient times, all other ones came to be called "catacombs" when they were discovered.
The quarry site was first used for burials in the 2nd century by pagan Romans. It came into Christian use in the 3rd century; in 258 it even temporarily hosted the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul during persecutions under Valerian. The complex included some above-ground structures from the beginning, and in the early 4th century these were replaced by a large funerary hall under Constantine the Great (306-37). From the 3rd to 9th centuries, the Church and Catacomb of San Sebastiano was one of the most important pilgrimages sites in Rome. A pilgrim's guide written in 638 describes the site as follows:
The Church of San Sebastiano has been in continous use ever since. It was restoredy by Pope Hadrian I (772-95) and remodeled in the 12th or 13th century. Excavations of the catacombs were undertaken from 1892 to 1961.
The Catacomb of Domitilla, located along the Via delle Sette Chiese just west of Via Ardeatina, is named after the owner of the land in which the catacomb was dug. Domitilla was a member of the Roman imperial family and was not a Christian; nor does the catacomb date from her lifetime.
In the 2nd century, Domitilla's descendants built a series of pagan catacombs on her land and in the 4th century they were reused by Christians. Linked with an existing Christian catacomb, the whole complex become known as the Catacomb of Domitilla.
In the early 4th century, the martyrs Nereus and Archilleus were buried in a cubiculum on the third level of the catacomb. Their tombs attracted many pilgrims, and Pope Damasus (366-84) enlarged the cubiculum to make room for them.
After the early 5th century, pilgrims also venerated the tomb of St. Petronilla, who was believed to be St. Peter's daughter. Beginning in about 600, a major construction project created an underground basilica by hollowing out the area around the tombs of Nereus and Archilleus.
The Catacomb of Domitilla remained in use until the early 9th century, after which the saints' relics were transferred to the Church of Sant'Adriano in the Forum. The catacomb was then abandoned until its rediscovery in 1873.
A cubiculum in the Catacomb of Domitilla contains a fresco that is the earliest known depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Other notable artworks include a late 4th-century relief of the martyrdom of St. Achilleus and a 4th-century fresco of a deceased woman named Veneranda being led into Paradise by St. Petronilla.
There is also an important 4th-century mosaic of the Raising of Lazarus, the Three Hebrews in the Furnace, and Christ Enthroned between Sts. Peter and Paul. Mosaics are very rarely found in the catacombs, and this one is important not only for its images but for the inscription accompanying the portrait of Christ: "You who are called the Son are found to be also the Father." This may reflect the sect (later declared a heresy) called Modalism, which explains that God is one being who variously expresses himself as Father, Son and Spirit.
The Catacomb of Domitilla can be visited on guided tours, with reduced tours during the busy summer to preserve the site. Unfortunately the parts with the most frescoes can only be visited with special permission.
The Catacomb of Comodilla is located near that of Domitilla on Via delle Sette Chiese. Also named for the landowner, it contains an underground church built by Pope Siricius (384-99) with many important frescoes. Admission is by special permission only.
Quick Facts on Early Christian Catacombs
|Early Christian Catacombs
|2nd-5th century AD
|Visitor and Contact Information
|41.858889° N, 12.511111° E
|San Callisto: Via Appia Antica, 110/126 - 00179 Rome Italy
|0039 06 513 01 51
|San Callisto: daily except Wed 9am-noon, 2-5pm
Closed Dec 25, Jan 1, Jan 27-Feb 24, 2010, Easter
|View hotels near Early Christian Catacombs
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001), 224-48.
- The Christian Catacombs of Rome - official website
- Catacombs of Rome - Wikipedia
- Photos of Early Christian Catacombs - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Early Christian Catacombs
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