THE CHRISTIAN CATACOMBS
Origin of the catacombs
Characteristics of the catacombs
Catacombs in Italy and around the world
The art of the catacombs
The catacombs and the Mother of God
The Good Shepherd in the catacombs
The martyrs of the catacombs
The catacombs and the Fathers of the Church
The Pontiffs restore the catacombs
Origins 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 catacombs and the Mother of God. 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. 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.