Catacombs of Rome: Introduction
The type of burial originally carried out from the 3rd century in the catacombs was a space-saving and cost-effective solution developed by Christians, heathens and Jews in order to use the area below graveyards to meet the increased demand for graves. The Christian religion banned cremation, which increased the requirement for space even more.
The early Christian catacombs were legally recognized grave sites which were given the Greek name coemeteria (final resting place), Up to the beginning of the 9th century, the coemeteria with the graves of martyrs were revered, and large numbers of bones were transferred to other churches as relics. Then the grave sites fell into disrepair, and even the old name was forgotten. The current name goes back to a grave site in the district near San Sebastiano known as Catacomba.
Scholarly exploration began at the end of the 16th century and became a point of honour for the church. The latest research has determined that the catacombs served only as grave sites and for requiem services, not as a hiding place for Christians or for normal church services. The layout is very simple: narrow passages with several long recesses in the walls, one above the other, to hold the bodies; non-Christians used the recesses to store urns containing ashes; marble and terracotta tablets sealed the recesses. The decoration, consisting of paintings and occasionally sculptures, is based on the style of heathen art of the same period and mainly symbolic in content: the sacrificial lamb and the fish, for which the Greek word »ichthys« represents the initial letters in Greek of Jesus Christ, the son of God and redeemer. The early illustrations of the Last Supper and the Virgin Mary are also impressive.
Catacombs of Rome: Catacombs of St. Domitilla (Catacombe di Domitilla)
With a network of tunnels over 15km/9mi in length, the Domitilla Catacombs form the largest subterranean cemetery in Rome. Initially, both heathen and Christian Romans found there final resting place here, provided they did not prefer to be buried by the main arterial roads of Rome. Flavia Domitilla was the niece of Emperor Domitian, who had her husband put to death in the year 95 and Domitilla herself accused of godlessness and Jewish practices, and then exiled. The reason for this was probably that both of them were Christians.
The main purpose in constructing large catacombs was the burial of martyrs. After Christianity was officially recognized by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, the faithful began to revere the graves of martyrs, and thus more and more people wanted to be buried as close to these graves as possible. The Domitilla Catacombs contain the Basilica of St Nereus and Achilleus, a highly impressive subterranean church with columns and marble fragments. From the basilica, visitors enter the tunnels with the burial chambers and wall recesses where well-preserved paintings with Christian themes such as The Good Shepherd, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Christ with his Disciples can be seen.
The Domitilla Catacombs Opening times: Feb-Dec Wed-Mon 8.30am-noon and 2.30pm-5pm, in summer until 5.30pm.
The Domitilla Catacombs Photo Gallery:
Catacombs of Rome: Catacombs of Priscilla (Catacombe di Priscilla)
The oldest catacombs in Rome probably got their name from Priscilla of the house of Acilia, who had become a Christian and was therefore put to death by order of Emperor Domitian.
The catacombs are home to several murals with saints and early Christian symbols. The burial chamber of the Vclatio contains frescoes of The Veiling, The Sacrifice of Abraham and a depiction of Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace of Babylon. The elaborately decorated Greek chapel, a square structured by an arch, is especially noteworthy. Here are frescoes with biblical scenes from the 2nd century, including The Miracle of Moses Striking the Rock, The Healing of the Lame Man, Noah in the Ark, The Resurrection of Lazarus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, and, above the apse, a depiction of The Last Supper. Close by, a mural from the early 3rd century shows Mary with her child and the prophet Balaam, the oldest depiction of the Mother of God not related to the subject of the adoration of the magi.
Catacombs of Priscilla Photo Gallery:
Catacombs of Rome: Catacombs of Callixtus (Catacombe di San Callisto)
The Catacombs of Calixtus at Via Appia Antica 110 were called the most exalted and famous in Rome by Pope John XXIII. There is no doubt that this subterranean cemetery beyond the second milestone San Callisto of the Via Appia Antica is the oldest Christian catacomb in Rome.
The grave site extends over an area of 300 x 400m/980 x 1310ft and forms a dense network of burial chambers and passages hewn into the soft tufa stone. Approximately 20km/12mi of theses passages have been explored to date; the number of graves is estimated to be around 170,000. In the catacombs, six sacramental chapels from the period between 290 and 310 with heathen Roman and early Christian paintings can be visited. The highlight is the »Crypt of the Popes« with twelve loculi and four alcoves for sarcophagi. Most of the martyr popes of the 3rd century are buried here, as can be seen from the Greek inscriptions for Urban I, Pontius, Anteros, Fabianus, Lucius, Sixtus II and Eutychianus. On the left a narrow passage leads to the crypt of St. Cecilia with wall frescoes from the 5th to 9th centuries, which are unfortunately poorly preserved.
Today, the relics are kept in the church Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. The Cubicula of the Sacraments, six small burial chambers from the first half of the 3rd century with expressive biblical scenes, are also fascinating. The scenes that can be seen include the miracle of Moses striking the rock, the story of Jonah, the baptism of Christ by John with a dove as the symbol of the holy spirit, and the resurrection of Lazarus.
Catacombs of Calixtus Photo Gallery:
Opening times: March-Jan Thu-Tue 8.30am-noon and 2.30pm-5pm.
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