A SKETCH of the present state of knowledge about the Roman catacombs, considering the high religious interest of the subject. may fairly be expected in a work like the present. We shall briefly describe their position, explain their origin, and trace their history; then, after describing the catacomb of San Callisto as a model of the rest, we shall show, so far as our limits allow, what a powerful light the monuments of the catacombs supply in illustration of the life, and in evidence of the faith, of Christians in the primitive ages.
The word "catacomb" had originally no such connotation as is now attached to it; the earliest form, catacumbae (kata, and kumbe, a hollow)-probably suggested by the natural configuration of the ground was the name given to the district round the tomb of Caecilia Metella and the Circus Romuli on the Appian Way. All through the middle ages "ad catacumbas" meant the subterranean cemetery adjacent to the far-famed basilica of St. Sebastian, on the region above mentioned; afterwards, the signification of the term was gradually extended, and applied to all the ancient under-ground cemeteries near Rome, and even to similar cemeteries in other places, at Paris, for instance. The bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul were believed to have rested here nearly from the date of their martyrdom to the time of Pope Cornelius, who translated them to where they are now (Bed. "De Sex AEt. Mundi:" "corpora apostolorum de catacumbis levavit noctu"); it was therefore most natural, apart from the sacred associations which the memorials of other martyrs aroused, that for this reason alone pilgrims should eagerly visit this cemetery.
I. Some twenty-five Christian cemeteries are known, and have been more or less carefully examined; but there are many others, which, either from their having fallen into ruin or being blocked up with earth and rubbish, remain unexplored. Those that are known and accessible are found on every side of Rome, but they are clustered most thickly at the southeast corner of the city, near the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina. The most noteworthy of all, the cemetery of San Callisto, is close to the Appian Way; near it are those of St. Praetextatus, St. Sebastian, and St. Soteris. Passing on round the city by the east and north, we find the cemetery of Santi Quattro, near the Via Appia Nova, that of St. Ciriacaon the road to Tivoli, the extremely interesting catacomb of St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana, and that of St. Alexander, farther out from Rome on the same road. Next comes the cemetery of St. Priscilla, on the Via Salaria. Continuing on, past the Villa Borghese, we come upon the valley of the Tiber, beyond which, on the right bank of the river, we find in succession the cemeteries of Calepodius and Generosa Crossing again to the left bank, we come upon the cemetery of St. Lucina on the Via Ostiensis, that of SS. Nereo et Achilleo (known also by the name of S Domitilla) on the Via Ardeatina, and, finally, that of St. Balbina between the last-named road and the Appian Way.
II. The origin of the catacombs is now thoroughly understood. It was long believed that they were originally mere sand-pits, arenariae, out of which sand was dug for building purposes, and to which the Christians resorted, partly for the sake of concealment, partly because the softness of the material lent itself to any sort of excavation. This was the view of Baronius and of scholars in general down to the present century, when the learned Jesuit, F. Marchi, took the subject in hand. He made personal researches in the catacomb of St. Agnes. and gradually the true origin and mode of construction of these cemeteries broke upon his mind. His more celebrated pupil, the Commendatore de' Rossi, aided by his brothers, continued his explorations, and has given to the world a colossal work on the Roman Catacombs, which Dr. Northcote and Mr. Brownlow made the foundation of their interesting book, "Rome Sotterranea." Padre Marchi drew attention to the fact that among the volcanic strata of the Roman Campagna. three deposits are especially noticeable -a hard building stone called the tufa litoide; A soft stone, the tufa granolare; and a sandstone of scarcely any coherency, called pozzolana. The sandpits. arenariae of course occur in beds of this pozzolana; and if they had been the origin of the catacombs, the latter would have been wholly or chiefly excavated in the same beds. But in point of fact the catacombs are almost entirely found in the tufa granolare, which exactly suited the purposes which the early Christians had in view. In the first place, they were obliged by the imperial laws to bury their dead outside the walls of the city. Secondly, they naturally would not place the cemeteries at a greater distance than they could help; and in fact all the catacombs above named, except that of St. Alexander, are within two miles and a half of the city walls Thirdly, the tufa granolare, being softer than the tufa litoide, the necessary galleries, chambers, and loculi (receptacles for the dead) could more easily be worked in it, while, on the other hand, it was sufficiently coherent to allow of its being excavated freely without danger of the roof and sides of the excavations falling in or crumbling away. The pozzolana was softer, but from its crumbling nature narrow galleries could not be run in it, nor loculi hollowed out, without the employment of a great deal of masonry for the sake of security, as may be seen in the two or three instances of arenariae turned into catacombs which do exist; thus greater expense and trouble would arise in the end from resorting to it than from excavating in the tufa granolare.
If it be asked why the Roman Christians did not bury their dead in open-air cemeteries, the answer is twofold. In the first place, the Church grew up amid persecution, and the Christians naturally strove to screen themselves and their doings from public observation as much as possible. in the burial of their dead as in other matters. The sepulchral inscriptions and decorations which they could safely affix to the graves of their beloved ones in the subterranean gloom of the catacombs, could not with common prudence have been employed on tombs exposed to public view. In the second place, the needs of prayer and the duty of public worship were in this manner reconciled with the duty of sepulture to an extent not otherwise, under their circumstances, attainable. The relatives might pray at the tomb of a departed kinsman; the faithful gather round the "memory" of a martyr; the Christian mysteries might be celebrated in subterranean chapels, and on altars hewn out of the rock, with a convenience, secrecy, and safety, which, if the ordinary mode of burial had been followed, could not have been secured. Nor was the practice a novelty when the Christians resorted to it. Even Pagan underground tombs existed, though the general custom of burning the dead, which prevailed under the emperors before Constantine, caused them to be of rare occurrence; but the Jewish cemeteries, used under the pressure of motives very similar to those which acted upon the Christians, had long been in operation, and are in part distinguishable to this day.
The modus operandi appears to have been as follows. In ground near the city, obtained by purchase or else the property of some rich Christian, an area, or cemetery "lot," was marked out, varying in extent, but commonly having not less than a frontage of a hundred and a depth of two hundred feet. At one corner of this area an excavation was made and a staircase constructed; then narrow galleries, usually little more than two feet in width, with roof flat or slightly arched. were carried round the whole space, leaving enough of the solid rock on either side to admit of oblong niches (loculi) -large enough to hold from one to three bodies, at varying distances, both vertically and laterally, according to the local strength of the material-being excavated in the walls. After burial, the loculus was hermetically sealed by a slab set in mortar, so that the proximity of the dead body might not affect the purity of the air in the catacomb. Besides these loculi in the walls, cubicula, or chambers, like our family vaults, were excavated in great numbers; these were entered by doors from the galleries, and had loculi in their walls like the galleries themselves. There were also arcosolia-when above the upper surface of a loculus containing the body of a martyr or confessor, the rock was excavated, so as to leave an arched vault above, and a flat surface beneath on which the Eucharist could be celebrated -and "table-tombs," similar in all respects to the arcosolia except that the excavation was quadrangular instead of being arched. Openings were frequently made between two or more adjoining cubicula, so as to allow, while the Divine Mysteries were being celebrated at an arcosolium in one of them, of a considerable number of worshippers being present. When the walls of the circumambient galleries were filled with the dead, cross galleries were made, traversing the area at such distances from each other as the strength of the stone permitted, the walls of which were pierced with niches as before. But this additional space also became filled up, and then the fossors were set to work to burrow deeper in the rock, and a new series of galleries and chambers, forming a second underground story or piano, was constructed beneath the first. Two, three, and even four such additional stories have been found in a cemetery. Another way of obtaining more space was by lowering the floor of the galleries, and piercing with niches the new wall surface thus supplied. It is obvious that expedients like these could only be adopted in dry and deeply-drained ground, and accordingly we always find that it is the hills near Rome in which the cemeteries were excavated-the valleys were useless for the purpose; hence, contrary to what was once believed. no system of general communication, between the different catacombs ever existed. Such communication. however. was often effected, when two or more cemeteries lay contiguous to each other on the same hill, and all kinds of structural complications were the result; see the detailed account in "Rome Sotterranea" of the growth and gradual transformation of the cemetery of San Callisto.
III. With regard to the history of the catacombs, a few leading facts are all that can here be given. In the first two centuries, the use of the catacombs by the Christians was little interfered with; they filled up the area with dead, and decorated the underground chambers with painting and sculpture, much as their means and taste suggested. In the third century persecution became fierce, and the Christians were attacked in the catacombs. Staircases were then destroyed, passages blocked up, and new modes of ingress and egress devised, so as to defeat as much as possible the myrmidons of the law; and the changes thus made can in many cases be still recognized and understood. On the cessation of persecution. after AD 300, the catacombs, in which many martyrs had perished, became a place of pilgrimage, immense numbers of persons crowded into them; and different Popes - particularly St. Damasus, early in the fifth century - caused old staircases to be enlarged, and new ones to be made, and luminaria (openings for admitting light and air) to be broken through from the cubicula to the surface of the ground, in order to give more accommodation to the pious throng. These changes also can be recognized. Burial in the catacombs naturally did not long survive the concession of entire freedom and peace to the Church; but still they were looked upon as holy places consecrated by the blood of martyrs, and as such were visited by innumerable pilgrims. In the seventh and eighth centuries Lombard invaders desecrated, plundered, and in part destroyed the catacombs. This led to a period of translations, commencing in the eighth century and culminating with Pope Paschal (AD 817 ), by which all the relics of the Popes and principal martyrs and confessors which had hitherto lain in the catacombs were removed for greater safety to the churches of Rome. After that, the catacombs were abandoned, and in great part closed; and not till the sixteenth century did the interest in them revive, The names of Onufrio Panvini, Bosio, and Boldeni are noted in connection with the renewed investigations of which they were the object; and since the appearance of the work of the Padre Marchi already mentioned, the interest awakened in all Christian countries by the remarkable discoveries announced has never for a moment waned.
IV. Having thus attempted to sketch the origin and trace the history of the catacombs, we proceed to describe what may now be seen in the most important portion of the best known among them all -the cemetery of San Callisto. Entering it from a vineyard near the Appian Way, the visitor descends a broad flight of steps, fashioned by Pope Damasus from the motive above mentioned, and finds himself in a kind of a vestibule, on the stuccoed walls of which, honeycombed with loculi, are a quantity of rude inscriptions in Greek and Latin, some of which are thirteen and fourteen centuries old, scratched by the pilgrims who visited out of devotion the places where Popes and martyrs who had fought a good fight for Christ, and often their own kinsfolk and friends, lay in the peaceful gloom, awaiting the resurrection. By following a narrow gallery to the right, a chamber is reached which is called the Papal Crypt; for here beyond all doubt the bodies of many Popes of the third century, after Zephyrinus (203-217) had secured this cemetery for the use of the Christians and committed it to the care of his deacon Callistus, were laid, and here they remained till they were removed by Paschal to the Vatican crypts. This is proved by the recent discovery, in and near the Papal Crypt, of the slabs bearing the original inscriptions in memory of the Popes Eutychian, Anteros, Fabian, and Lucius. A passage leads out of the crypt into the cubiculum of St. Caecilia, where, as De' Rossi has almost demonstrated, the body of the saint, martyred in the first half of the third century, was originally deposited by Pope Urban, though it was afterwards removed by Paschal to her church in the Trastevere, where it now lies under the high altar. In this cubiculum are paintings of St. Caecilia and of Our Lord, the latter "according to the Byzantine type, with rays of glory behind it in the form of a Greek cross." But these paintings are late-not earlier than the tenth century. Besides the Papal Crypt and the chamber of St. Caecilia, there are in this part of the cemetery "several cubicula interesting for their paintings, chiefly referable to Baptism and the Eucharist, the fish being the principal emblem of the latter. In one of these crypts is a painting of four male figures with uplifted hands, each with his name, placed over an arcosolium; in another are representations of peacocks, the emblem of immortality; in a third, Moses striking the rock, and ascending to the mount; in a fourth, a grave-digger (fossor) surrounded with the implements of his trade; in a fifth, the Good Shepherd, with the miracle of the paralytic taking up his bed; in a sixth, a banquet of seven persons, supposed to be the seven disciples alluded to in the twenty-first chapter of St. John's Gospel. These paintings, as well as the greater part of the catacomb, are referred to the last half of the third century."
V. For a detailed answer, accompanied with proofs, to the question, what testimony the catacombs bear to the nature of the religious belief and life of the early Christians, the reader is referred to the pages of "Rome Sotterranea," or to the larger work of De' Rossi. He will there find sufficient evidence to convince him of the truth of two main propositions (1) that the religion of those Christians was a sacramental religion; (2) that it was the reverse of puritanical: that is, that it disdained the use of no external helps which human art and skill could furnish, in the effort to symbolize and enforce the spiritual truth. With reference to the first proposition, let him consider how the sacrament of Baptism is typically represented in the catacombs by paintings of Noe in the ark, the rock smitten and water gushing forth, a fisherman drawing fish out of the water accompanied by a man baptizing. and the paralytic carrying his bed ("Rome Sotterranea," p. 265); and also how the mystery of the Eucharist is still more frequency and strikingly portrayed by pictures in which baskets of bread are associated with fish, the fish being the well-known emblem of Our Lord. The second proposition is so abundantly proved by the remains of Christian art of very ancient date still to be seen in the catacombs, in spite of the havoc and ruin of fifteen centuries, that it would be a waste of words to attempt to establish it at length. Adopting the general forms and methods of the contemporary Pagan art, but carefully eliminating whatever in it was immoral or superstitious, we find the Christian artists employing Biblical or symbolical subjects as the principal figures in each composition, while filling in their pictures with decorative forms and objects-such as fabulous animals. scroll-work, foliage, fruit, flowers, and birds-imitated from or suggested by the pre-existing heathen art. A type for which they had a peculiar fondness was that of the Good Shepherd. The blessed Virgin and Child, with a figure standing near supposed to be Isaias, is represented in an exceedingly beautiful but much injured painting on the vaulted roof of a loculus in the cemetery of St. Priscilla. De' Rossi believes this painting "to belong almost to the apostolic age" ("Rome Sotterranea,' p. 258). Another favorite type of Our Lord was Orpheus, who by his sweet music drew all creatures to hear him. The vine painted with so much freedom and grace of handling on the roof of the entrance to the cemetery of Domitilla is also, in De' Rossi's opinion. work of the first century. ("Roma Sotteranea," Northcote and Brownlow; Murray's "Handbook of Rome.")
Return to Contents
Return to Home Page