The Catacombs of Priscilla

The Catacombs of Priscilla

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Visiting the Catacombs of Priscilla

It took me three trips to Rome to finally manage a visit to the Catacombs of Priscilla, the two previous attempts subverted by bad timing. It turns out that the Catacombs had been closed for five years for restoration work which was completed at the end of August, 2013. I had no idea the Catacombs had been closed for so long and how lucky I was to gain access shortly thereafter. I can say that by the third time I traipsed out to Via Salaria, I had the route down pat. Whether or not the waiting made my visit more precious, the site is indeed a marvel.

Dating back to the late second century C.E., the catacomb of Priscilla is the oldest Christian cemetery in Rome and best preserved. Though several legends suggest that the Priscilla from the New Testament, friend of the apostle Paul, was associated with the catacombs, scholars have debunked this myth. It takes its name from Priscilla, the mother of the Senator Pudens in whose house the apostle Peter, according to ancient tradition, found refuge. Priscilla likely donated a portion of her family land, once a stone quarry, as a burial place for the early Christian community. 40,000 tombs have been uncovered, many left undisturbed. On account of the fact that seven early popes and many martyrs were buried in the cemetery, it was known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” in antiquity.

It is a common myth that early Christians used the catacombs as a place of hiding. The poor lighting and lack of storage makes it unlikely they made the underground graveyards their hideouts.

Of greatest interest to me were the frescos.

The world’s oldest known image of Mary depicts her nursing the infant Jesus (3rd century C.E.) Image source

The most controversial fresco of the catacomb is the Fractio Panis. Some scholars believe that it illustrates a female priest breaking the Eucharist bread and giving it to the other women around the table. This is used as an argument for the ordination of female priests in the Catholic Church. Some believe that this represents a funerary meal instead. Others belive that all seven people seated at the table are men. The official guide book states that the gathering includes one woman.

Archaeologist Dorothy Irvin has studied the frescos of this catacomb extensively. She notes that the seven baskets lined up on either side of the central image were a common symbol of the Eucharist in the early church. Women were chastised by the Church Fathers for leading early Eucharists so the depiction of one is not unthinkable. In addition, there is no food on the table other than the bread, only eucharistic elements, therefore it could not be an agape meal open to the entire Christian community regardless of gender.

A close look at the fresco shows that the participants are all women.

“One wears a veil, and they are all characterized by upswept hair, slender neck and sloping shoulders, and a hint of earrings. The arrangement of the hair, in fact, in comparison with datable coins depicting emperors’ wives, has been an important factor in dating this fresco to the end of the first century AD, that is, to a time when the New Testament had not yet been completed” (Irvin, p. 83).

The person at the left end of the table is shown sitting rather than reclining like the others. She has both hands outstretched and appears to be breaking the bread (fraction pains). The modern discoverer of the Priscilla Catacomb, Josef Wilpert, understood this end figure to have a beard after cleaning the fresco of its encrusted mud and stalactites at the turn of the century. However, there is no beard now so it is hard to determine if he saw what he wanted to see since the principle celebrant seems to be presiding over the eucharist, a male only perrogative in our time. Irvin describes this figure further:

“The arrangement of the hair seems to be the same as that of the other definitely female figures, but it is the skirt length that is determinative. Skirt length for men at this period…was, for a working man, knee length or slightly shorter–top of kneecap–while ‘white collar’ length was below the knee, to the top of the calf. Women’s skirts were ankle length…The skirt of the left end person can be clearly seen, in the best photographs, to cover the calf, whose outline through the cloth is indicated…Thus the artist intended to paint here a woman.” (Irvin, p. 83)

In other words, early Christians did not exclude women from the priesthood and episcopate. Their exclusion would become a later development.

Another fresco in the catacomb has been described by some scholars as a “woman being celebrated, consecrated, blessed for some kind of leadership role” (Chris Schenk as quoted by Fincher).

“In the Catacomb of St. Priscilla, is a fresco, dated about 350 A.D. that depicts a woman deacon in the center vested in a dalmatic, her arms raised in the orans position for public worship. On the left side of the scene is a woman being ordained a priest by a bishop seated in a chair. She is vested in an alb, chasuble, and amice, and holding a gospel scroll. The woman on the right end of this fresco is wearing the same robe as the bishop on the left and is sitting in the same type of chair.” The woman in the center “depicts a woman deacon in the center vested in a dalmatic, her arms raised in the orans position for public worship.” (Meehan).

Not everyone agrees with this description of the fresco. Most commentators suggest that the three scenes depicted in this fresco represent three incidents in the life of a young woman: her marriage on the left, her life as a mother on the right and the woman after death in the center. I tend to agree that the Velatio fresco does represent the ordination of a woman to a church office since there are so many other archaeological examples of this practice in the early church. Here’s a list of examples.

Since I’m not Catholic or even Christian, I’m watching the debate over women’s ordination in the Catholic Church from the sidelines. But even from the sidelines I can see that an injustice has been done to religious women for centuries. Like the apostle Junia, early Christian women wielded a great deal more power and honor in the decades and centuries after Jesus’ death.


Christian missionaries have taught people in Papua, New Guinea who had many gods before their conversion to recite the Hebrew Shema announcing only ONE GOD. Watch the video below.




1. There were only 8 people in Noah’s Ark. T/F

2. Jonah was in the belly of the “whale” 4 days. T/F

3. The meaning in Hebrew of the word “day” always means a 24 hour period of time. T/F

4. All the names for our week days come from Roman and Norse/Anglo-Saxon gods. T/F

5. Jesus sent out 70 Disciples to preach His Good News.

The end of persecutions

On signing the Edict of Milan in the year 313, the persecution of Christians ceased, and they could begin to build churches and acquire land without fear of confiscation. In spite of this they continued to use the catacombs as cemeteries until the 5th century.

During the barbarian invasion of Italy in the 8th century many catacombs suffered continuous lootings, for which reason the Popes caused the still remaining relics to be transferred to the city's churches. After these transfers, some catacombs were abandoned completely and forgotten for centuries.

Early Western Christian Art during the IIIrd, IVth and Vth centuries: the paintings of the Catacombs

“Adam and Eve”, painting from the late third century (Cemetery of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome), already portraying the characteristics of this scene that will be subsequently represented by the Christian art: the tree in the middle of the couple who cover their bodies with grape leaves.

To start the description of the Christian art we must begin by studying the paintings found at the Catacombs of Rome. The first Christian communities lived and celebrated their worship in private buildings, which later will be known as the Roman tituli*.

Religious persecution and the impossibility of building were the main causes of the lack of a Paleo-Christian architecture during the early years of the Christian art but, on the contrary, funerary art experienced a completely different scenario. Families owned land outside the city walls where they had permission to bury their dead and was so that, by taking advantage of these spaces, several multiple galleries were dug underground as if they were truly “underground hives” that are now known as Catacombs. Pagan families allowed the burial of Christians there and was on their walls and with a purely funerary purpose that the first examples of early Christian painting appeared.

The Virgin and Child (or maybe just a devotee with her son), mid 3rd century (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome) Susana accused by the old men, and praying before Daniel, mid 3rd century (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome)

The largest number of Catacomb paintings made during the fourth century can be found in the cities of Rome, Naples and Sicily. The paintings of the Catacombs were also accompanied by the first attempts of an early Christian funerary sculpture, most of them located on the front of sarcophagi. So it was in painting and sculpture that the beginning of the early Christian iconography should be found and was in such iconography where the very own Christian symbolism developed along the III century and, especially, the IV century.

Veneranda and the martyr Petronilla, 4th century (Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome). Representations related to the cult of martyrs were among the oldest themes developed for the Christian iconography.

Early Christian painting began at the end of the second century or, more accurately, in the early third century while the boom of underground cemeteries or catacombs corresponds to the fourth century when the Church had fully developed the cult of martyrs.

The Good Shepherd (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome) from the 3rd century. This image, so often depicted in early Christian art, refers to Christ as “Shepherd of Souls”. This allegory originated in the image of the “Moschophoros” from the archaic Greek art.

The earliest examples of Christian painting are from the early third century and are exemplified by the Flavian hypogaea, in the Catacombs of Domitilla, the crypt of Ampliatus in the same catacombs, and the famous Capella Greca in the Catacombs of Priscilla. In these paintings, between lines framing walls and vaults, some symbolic figures appeared individually, including the Good Shepherd, the Prayer, and even images of Christ and devotees, thus initiating an iconography initially based on mythological themes as were the Christ-Orpheus, so prevalent in the third century, or the Christ-Sun, or just Apollo, riding on his solar chariot. In the Capella Greca we can see cherubs’ heads among foliage alongside scenes from the Old Testament, and for the first time we see a famous Eucharistic banquet or fractio panis. Sometimes, instead of figurative themes, there are ornamental elements similar to those found in certain pagan tombs, such as the paintings of the Isola Sacra at Ostia Antica, with birds, cherubs, representations of the seasons -a very prevalent theme in the pagan funerary iconography especially in sarcophagi-, etc. The third century was rich in Catacomb paintings.

The Prayer, 3rd century (Cubicle of the “Velatio” in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome). One of the oldest Christian representations of the “Eucharistic banquet” (Eucharist) or “Fractio panis” from the “Capella Greca” in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, from the late 2nd century. Note that in early Christian art only 7 participants were represented at the banquet.

At around the mid-3rd century, art tended more toward classical forms as can be seen in the beautiful heads of the Apostles from the tomb of the Aurelii, showing fine modeling and dated around 240 after Christ. The same style and quality is found in the famous Prayer from the cubicle of the Velatio in the Catacomb of Priscilla represented as an spherical volume and painted between a figure of the Virgin and Child, and a “master”.

View of the Catacomb of Via Latina (Rome) from the second half of the 4th century with paintings belonging to the “fair style” that included pagan themes.

In the second half of the fourth century other art forms developed as the so-called stile bello*(or “fair style”) “beautiful style”, especially represented in the paintings of the Catacombs of Via Latina. The narrative cycle had in these paintings a unique beauty, a particular characteristic theme prevalent on the second half of the fourth century was the story of the “chosen people”.

“Cleopatra with the asp in a field of wheat and poppies”, second half of the 4th century (Catacombs of Via Latina, Rome). Hercules killing the Hydra, second half of the 4th century (Catacombs of Via Latina, Rome)

In the late fourth century appeared the triumphal themes that will be more frequent later and displayed in large format paintings and monumental mosaics. The theme of the traditio legis (“handing over the law”), or Christ the lawgiver, a plastic manifestation of the divine root of the Church, was a frequently represented topic. The images of Christ among the Apostles were also extremely common. Christ was represented enthroned, triumphant, accompanied by the Mystic Lamb. This iconic image later known as Christ in Majesty* (or Christ in Glory, Majestas Domini) became, even to present days, the very Western Christian image of Christ, seated on a throne as ruler of the world, always seen frontally in the center of the composition, and often flanked by other sacred figures. The finest example of this composition coming from the early times of the Christian art is found in a fresco from the catacombs of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus.

Christ between Saint Peter and Saint Paul, above four martyrs worshiping the Mystic Lamb, 4th century (dome of the Catacombs of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome).

Christ in Majesty: Christ in Majesty or Christ in Glory is the Western Christian image of Christ seated on a throne as ruler of the world, always seen frontally in the center of the composition, and often flanked by other sacred figures. The image developed from the Early Christian art, which directly borrowed the formula from depictions of the enthroned Roman Emperor.

Roman tituli: Before the legalization of Christianity in Rome the Roman tituli were private buildings used as Christian churches (also called domus ecclesiae or “house churches”) and took the name of the owner of the building, either a wealthy donor, or a presbyter appointed by the church to run it.

Stile bello: Term coined by archaeologists to indicate the style of Attic red-figure pottery and later adopted to describe works of art with similar stylistic features.

Catacomb of Priscilla

Our tour boarded a small air conditioned van and took a quick drive to the Catacombs of Saint Priscilla. It is one of the least visited catacombs in Rome, perhaps due to its distance from the city center. However, it is a highly important historical site to visit in Rome and I highly recommend that you check it out.

Furthermore, I suggest that you book this Rome catacombs tour and visit the catacombs with a guide. If I didn&rsquot take this Rome underground tour with our knowledgeable guide, I wouldn&rsquot have learned about any amazing historical facts or details.

Also, the numerous tunnels of the catacomb make it very easy to get lost. Who knows, I might have been lost in the catacombs! We were the only visitors viewing the catacombs at this time, and it was nice to have the place to ourselves.

History of These Roman Catacombs

The Catacomb of Priscilla has about 13km of galleries at various depths. They were used for Christian burials from the 2nd to 4th century.These galleries are dug out of tuff, a soft volcanic rock used to make bricks and lime. The first level of galleries that we visited was the most ancient and was the only one to contain &ldquocubicula&rdquo (bed chambers), small rooms for the tombs of wealthier families and martyrs.

We also discovered &ldquoarcosolia&rdquo, tombs of upper class families that included religious paintings. Some early popes were also buried here, including Pope Marcellinus and Pope Marcellus I.

Most of the tombs throughout the catacomb were the &ldquoloculi&rdquo, as pictured above. The bodies were laid within the loculi, directly on top of the dirt. Then, they were wrapped in a shroud, sprinkled with lime to restrain the decaying process, and closed in with tiles. Sometimes there were inscriptions written by the tombs or small objects were placed to help identify the remains.

What This Tour of Roman Catacombs is Like

I immediately noticed that the loculi were mostly empty. You could see narrow spaces in the dirt stacked one on top of the other, yet there were rarely bones or remains to be seen. Many marble tiles or frescoes that would have once been displayed on the walls or the tombs were smashed or had vanished completely. You could see fragments of tile now and again, particularly terracotta tiles.

Vandals in the past had struck the catacombs, and in one instance, had done so by the demands of the Vatican. Pope Innocent X and Pope Clement IX sent treasure hunters into the depths of the catacombs in the 17th century. Another theory as to why the catacomb was plundered was due to the belief that it was haunted and cursed.

Christians weren&rsquot the only ones buried here. It was a Christian belief that it was every person&rsquos right to have a burial. This was the final resting place of all people, no matter their religion or status. There were many small chambers for children. It&rsquos possible that unwanted children that died from exposure had a proper burial here. It&rsquos a sad fact we learned on this tour of Rome catacombs.

Oldest Known Image of the Virgin Mary

The Catacomb of Priscilla is highly notable as it contains the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary.

The image is likely from the 3rd Century, depicting a veiled woman holding a baby. The fresco is quite small and placed in a very strange location, up high on the side of the vaulted ceiling. Other sections of the fresco have crumbled away over time, though the image of Mary holding the baby Jesus partially remains.


The area is often called the ‘Queen of the catacombs’ because it features burial chambers of popes and a tiny, delicate fresco of the Madonna nursing Jesus dating from around 230 to 240 AD - the earliest known image of the Madonna and Child.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister, opened the ‘Cubicle of Lazzaro’ which is a tiny burial chamber featuring 4th century images of biblical scenes, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and one of the early Romans buried there in bunk-bed-like stacks as was common in antiquity.

A fresco depicting women celebrating the Eucharist is pictured inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. The catacomb, used for Christian burials from the late 2nd century through to the 4th century, reopened on Tuesday to the public after years of restoration

The 230-240 AD frescoes, found in the Catacombs of Priscilla of Rome, were unveiled by the Vatican this week

Proponents of a female priesthood say frescoes prove there were women priests in early Christianity. The Vatican says such assertions are 'sensationalist fairy tales'


The catacombs of Priscilla, on Rome's Via Salaria, have been fully reopened after a five-year project that included laser technology to clean some of the ancient frescoes and a new museum to house restored marble fragments of sarcophagi.

Dug from the second to fifth centuries, the catacoms are a complex labyrinth of underground burial chambers stretching miles beneath the northern half of the city.

The area is often called the ‘Queen of the catacombs’ because it features burial chambers of popes and a tiny, delicate fresco of the Madonna nursing Jesus dating from around 230-240 AD - the earliest known image of the Madonna and Child.

More controversially, the catacomb has two scenes said by proponents of the women's ordination movement to show women priests.

One fresco in the ochre-hued Greek Chapel features a group of women celebrating a banquet, said to be the banquet of the Eucharist.

Another image, in a room called the 'Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman,' shows a woman whose arms are outstretched like those of a priest saying Mass.

She wears what the catacombs' Italian website calls 'a rich liturgical garment'. She also wears what appears to be a stole, a vestment worn by priests.

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests holds the images up as evidence that there were women priests in the early Christian church - and that therefore there should be women priests today.

But Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of the Vatican's sacred archaeology commission, said such a reading of the frescoes was pure ‘fable, a legend.’

Even though the catacombs' official guide says there is ‘a clear reference to the banquet of the Holy Eucharist’ in the fresco, Bisconti said the scene of the banquet wasn't a Eucharistic banquet but a funeral banquet.

A marble low-relief decorating a sarcophagus is pictured inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome

The Vatican has restricted the priesthood for men, arguing that Jesus chose only men as his apostles. Here a man's face from the Roman catacombs is pictured

He said that even though women were present they weren't celebrating Mass.

Bisconti said the other fresco of the woman with her hands up in prayer was just that - a woman praying.

‘These are readings of the past that are a bit sensationalistic but aren't trustworthy,’ he said.

Asked about the scenes, Ravasi professed ignorance and referred comment to Bisconti.

A skull is pictured inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Lost for centuries after its entrances were sealed in ancient time, the catacombs were re-discovered in the 16th century and plundered of many gravestones, sarcophagi and bodies

Google Maps has, for the first time, gone into the Roman catacombs, providing a virtual tour of the Priscilla complex available to anyone who can't visit the real thing

The Vatican has restricted the priesthood for men, arguing that Jesus chose only men as his apostles.

Google Maps has, for the first time, gone into the Roman catacombs, providing a virtual tour of the Priscilla complex available to anyone who can't visit the real thing.

Lost for centuries after its entrances were sealed in ancient time, the catacombs were re-discovered in the 16th century and plundered of many gravestones, sarcophagi and bodies. Excavations in modern times began in the 19th century.

The catacombs of Priscilla, on Rome's Via Salaria, have been fully reopened after a five-year project that included laser technology to clean some of the ancient frescoes

Dug from the second to fifth centuries, the catacoms are a complex labyrinth of underground burial chambers stretching miles beneath the northern half of Rome

Restored Rome catacomb frescoes add to debate on women priests

ROME (Reuters) - Proponents of a female priesthood say frescoes in the newly restored Catacombs of Priscilla prove there were women priests in early Christianity. The Vatican says such assertions are sensationalist “fairy tales”.

The catacombs, on Rome’s Via Salaria, have been fully reopened after a five-year project that included laser technology to clean some of the ancient frescoes and a new museum to house restored marble fragments of sarcophagi.

Art lovers and the curious around the world who cannot get to Rome can join the debate by using a virtual visit to the underground labyrinth by Google Maps, a first-time venture mixing antiquity and modern high technology.

Built as Christian burial sites between the second and fifth centuries and meandering underground for 13 km (8 miles) over several levels, the Catacombs of Priscilla contain frescoes of women that have provoked academic debate for many years.

One, in a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman,” shows a woman whose arms are outstretched like those of a priest saying Mass. She wears what the catacombs’ Italian website calls “a rich liturgical garment”. The word “liturgical” does not appear in the English version.

She also wears what appears to be a stole, a vestment worn by priests. Another fresco, in a room known as “The Greek Chapel,” shows a group of women sitting around a table, their arms outstretched like those of priests celebrating Mass.

Organizations promoting a female priesthood, such as the Women’s Ordination Conference and the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests, have pointed to these ancient scenes as evidence of a female priesthood in the early Church.

But the Vatican contests these interpretations which have also appeared in books on women in Christianity, such as the “The Word According to Eve” published in 1998.

“This is an elaboration that has no foundation in reality,” Barbara Mazzei of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archaeology told Reuters at the presentation of the restoration on Tuesday.

“This is a fairy tale, a legend,” said Professor Fabrizio Bisconti, superintendent of religious heritage archaeological sites owned by the Vatican, including numerous catacombs scattered around Rome.

He said such interpretations were “sensationalist and absolutely not reliable”.

Bisconti said the fresco of the woman in a gesture of priest-like prayer was “a depiction of a deceased person now in paradise,” and that the women sitting at the table were taking part in a “funeral banquet” and not a Eucharistic gathering.

The Church teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles.

Giorgia Abeltino, head of public policy at Google Italy, said special instruments and smaller cameras were developed for the virtual tour project, which is similar to Google’s street view except that it explores the bowels of ancient Rome.

The Catacombs of Priscilla are also famous for a fresco which experts believe is the oldest known image of the Madonna and Child, dating to about 230 AD.

Lost for centuries after its entrances were sealed in ancient time, the catacombs were re-discovered in the 16th century and plundered of many gravestones, sarcophagi and bodies. Excavations in modern times began in the 19th century.

Art History Presentation Archive

Burial sites are often the first buildings constructed by civilizations and religions. These places vary from simple graves, marked with wood and stone, to huge monuments lasting thousands of years. Despite these differences, all burial places reveal facts about the lives and beliefs of the people that rest there. One such type of burial place are the underground complexes of natural and man-made caves called catacombs the preservation of these places due to their location makes them a valuable resource. Little historical information exists on early Christians, so looking to the images, inscriptions, and layout of the oldest and largest Christian catacomb in Rome, the Catacombs of Priscilla, reveals much that would otherwise be unknown about the early Christians. The knowledge learned from the Catacombs of Priscilla can be used to explain reasons behind the rise of Christianity.

Before the significance of the Catacombs and their relationship to the early Christian movement can be discussed the layout, style of artwork, and important images will be described. The Catacombs of Priscilla are located on Via Salaria by Piazza Crati, well outside the walls of Rome in antiquity. They are first mentioned in the document Depositio Episcoporum, describing the burial of St. Sylvester in the “Cemetery of Priscilla.” Burial inscriptions in the catacombs indicate the Priscilla for whom the catacombs are named after was a member of the senatorial family achilis. She likely donated a portion of her family land, once a stone quarry, as a burial place for the early Christian community. The presence of area similar to the basement of a Roman Villa, the cryptoportico displayed in Figure 1, indicates the catacombs were part of a residence.

Early Christians used the Catacombs of Priscilla as a burial ground starting in the 2nd century until the late 5th century AD. The notation of being buried next to well known martyrs such as St. Sylvester, Felix and Philip made the catacombs a very popular burial place. According to the guides giving tours into the catacombs over 40,000 tombs, including tombs for seven popes, have been found. It is common myth that early Christians used the Catacombs as a place of hiding these are based upon stories of Christians hiding in the graveyards. In antiquity most of the city of Rome was surrounded by graves and tombs meaning that early Christians “in the graveyards” could just simply be hiding outside the city. Furthermore the architecture of the catacombs, poor lighting, and lack of storage space does not support their use as a hideout. After the 5th century, the catacombs ceased to be places of burial but remained a popular destination for pilgrimage during the next few centuries. The decision to stop using the Catacombs as burial grounds may have been a result of the successive waves of Germanic invaders. The loss of the security in the countryside, along with the depopulation of Italian cities, made urban burials much more practical. Many catacombs, including Priscilla, had basilicas built ad corpus (on top of) the underground cites to facilitate worship. Eventually the instability in Italy caused by invasions and the Greco-Gothic war made these catacombs very difficult to maintain. Most of the remains of the martyrs and saints were taken to urban churches when the catacombs were abandoned. The catacombs remained forgotten until Antonio Bosio rediscovered the Catacombs of Priscilla during the Renaissance. The Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi conducted most of the initial scholastic survey in the 19th century.

The development of underground complexes for burial was not a new phenomenon in Italy underground burial places called hypogea had been used in since the time of Etruscans. The volcanic rock called tufa, which occupies much of central Italy, was very easy to dig and strong enough to support underground structures. Wealthy pagan families often commissioned hypogea as family tombs.

The Catacombs of Priscilla contain 3 levels of tombs with a total of thirteen kilometers of tunnels. These galleries contain multiple loculi, individual niches just large enough to fit one body, stacked vertically to a structure called a pilae. The top level of the Catacombs has a very irregular structure since it was once part of a marble quarry the bottom two levels were built later and contain a more symmetric, fishbone-like layout. Within each loculus a body was placed and closed with a piece of terracotta sometimes juxtaposed with marble often containing a simple epigraph or fresco. These epigraphs briefly describe the deceased, serve as a warning to potential grave robbers, and contain references to Christianity. Among the most popular references include the engraving of a fish—the Greek word for fish IXΘYS is an acronym for Jesus Christ son of God and Savior. Two other commonly found symbols are the superimposed letters Chi Rho, symbolizing the name Jesus Christ and the Greek letters Alpha Omega, symbolizing god. Linked with these long galleries are small rooms containing open wall space and fewer loculi called cubicles. These cubicles often contain marble sarcophagi as well as relatively elaborate frescos depicting scenes from someone’s life or biblical stories.

Almost all paintings in the Catacombs of Priscilla were done on wet lime surfaces known as frescos. One of the most famous examples of a fresco inside the Catacombs is in the cubicle known as the The Velatio this fresco depicts a woman in three stages of her life: marriage (left), childbirth (right), and the ascension of the soul to heaven (center). The upper walls of the room adjacent to The Velatio contain the stories of the three Hebrew youths in a Babylonian furnace and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. On the ceiling there are images of the doves, peacocks, and pheasants circling the depiction of Christ as the Good Sheppard at the center. Figure 3 is a view of the ceiling and upper walls of the cubicle containing The Velatio.

Located close to The Velatio is the earliest known depiction of the Virgin Mary and the newborn Jesus (The Madonna shown in Figure 4). In this image Mary suckles the infant Jesus next to the Prophet Balaam.

In addition to these, a large cubicle known as the Greek Chapel next to the cryptoportico contains more examples of early Christian frescos in a similar style to The Velatio. These frescoes tell the story of the salvation of Susanna by Daniel, the resurrection of Lazarus, and the story of Moses striking water from a rock among others. Next to the entrance of the Greek Chapel there is an image of a phoenix on pyre as well. A view into the entrance of the Greek Chapel is shown in Figure 5.

This style of fresco is known as the Pompeian style: the frescos utilize green and red lines to separate its respective stories and creates the impression of architecture by imitating marble. The final major addition to the catacombs was a large basilica constructed outside of the catacombs by St. Sylvester in the 4th century AD to serve as a place to recognize the martyrdom of Felix and Phillip.

The catacombs illustrate the importance of community for early Christians as well as the value placed on the concept of the eternal life and happiness promised to pious Christians. In his book The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire Edward Gibbon described early Christian communities as “societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman Empire were united only by the ties of faith and charity. Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitutions (Gibbon, 250).” The layout of the design of the individual graves is egalitarian in nature and reflects the equality felt in early Christian communities. Most loculi contain barely enough room for an individual body and are undistinguishable from each other. Pagan tombs, on the other hand, were only for members of one family and often consisted of fewer, more distinguishable graves. The exposed tufa at the end of the many chambers in almost all catacombs (including Priscilla) indicates the pragmatic nature of their construction. As more loculi were needed more galleries were dug and extended. This is different from previous types of hypogea where all walls of the tomb where covered in frescos or marble and the tombs appear finished. While the majority of graves consisted of simple loculi, some wealthier families and groups constructed their cubicles and used marble sarcophaguses. These burial sites, such as the cubicle containing The Velatio, are separated from the rows of loculi in the galleries. However, they are still relatively simplistic in nature, using red and green lines to represent a more complex architecture. Most of the surviving art in these rooms paid homage to Christianity instead of the individual family buried there, making it very difficult to distinguish the family buried in the cubicle.

Furthermore, no visible hierarchy of wealth exists in the catacombs cubicles and wealthy sarcophagi are inter-dispersed throughout the long winding galleries and are also in close proximity to the egalitarian loculi. This could perhaps be indicative of the structure of the early Christians, where the rich and poor were drawn together by faith in Jesus and God. The very compact style of burial, evidence of continual expansion, and the locality of the wealthy with the poor demonstrate that the catacombs catered to the need of close autonomous early Christian communities to find a place to exclusively bury their dead in a way that reflected their life.

Eternal life after death for those who accept Jesus as lord and savior is a central theme in Christianity. Gibbon took note of this in the following quote:

Death was seen not as an ending but rather as a transition into eternal happiness. According to Gibbon, this concept of eternal life and happiness was one of most important beliefs of earlier Christians. It should come as no surprise the catacombs, serving as a place of burial where “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7)”, are decorated with early Christian imagery. The most famous of these are the first know image of The Madonna. The Madonna was a powerful symbol as the fresco included two of the most venerated and populist characters in Christianity: Jesus and Mary. The idea of purity is manifested in this fresco as Mary is considered by many to be born without sin and Jesus is the son of God. The image of The Velatio conveys many prominent Christian stories as well as pagan symbols adopted for Christian use. In the fresco depicting the three stages of a woman’s, the most prominent stage is of the woman with her arms raised in the position of the Orant. The Orant is a pagan symbol for the soul in the Christian context it symbolizes the soul achieving oneness through God and internal glory after death. The prominence of this symbol and its central location indicates the importance of the afterlife and faith in god. All three of the figures in the picture of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace are in the Orant position this adoption of the Orant illustrates the concept of salvation as the protection of God saved the three youths. Also included in the cubicle ceiling are the traditionally pagan images of peacocks and doves. The Peacock is a bird sacred to the Roman goddess Hera, but in Christian imagery it serves as a sign of immortality. The dove with an olive branch is a bird with many purposes in both Roman and Greek mythology it is associated with Athena in paganism and the Holy Spirit in Christianity. The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd can be found in Isaiah 40:11 and John 10:11-18 this image depicts Christ as a very caring and amiable leader of his flock of believers. The position of Christ at the apex of the ceiling emphasizes his importance as the centerpiece of the Christian faith as well as the provider of salvation, eternal life, and happiness after death for Christians.

Like The Velatio, the Greek Chapel is composed of a variety of Christian themes. These stories belong to three different themes: resurrection, salvation, and baptism. The theme of resurrection is manifested by the story of Lazarus who was resurrected by Jesus after his death. After Jesus resurrected Lazarus he said to his followers “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).” Making the story of Lazarus a very direct reference to eternal life promised to all Christians. The presence of the Phoenix, originally a Pagan symbol, is another reference to resurrection. The theme of Salvation is expressed in the stories of Susanna’s rescue from accusations of adultery by Daniel. In Susanna’s story Virtue triumphs over extortion and wickedness. In a time of Christian persecution and rivalries with Paganism, the triumph of Christian virtue over evil would be an important theme in the faith of the early Christians. The fresco of Moses striking water from a rock depicts Moses procuring water from a rock for his parched people. The water symbolizes that God is with his believers and later would be incorporated into the Christian symbol of baptism. These three themes — resurrection, salvation, and baptism—are three core tenets of Christianity. These tenets are especially relevant with regards to death the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives Christians a thorough belief in Christ and the experience of salvation of their sins and suffering after death. To experience this one must enter the religion through the ritual of Baptism. The almost exclusive presence of Christian art, as seen in The Madonna, The Velatio, and the Greek Chapel, indicate the importance of Christianity in death. Furthermore, the adoption of pagan symbols such as the peacock, phoenix, and Orant could potentially explain the Christian concept of eternal life after death to those who are not as well versed in Christianity.

The function of the catacombs gives historians some clues to what factors attributed to the growth of Christianity. The egalitarian nature of the catacombs—a mixture of rich and poor—and a focus on the beliefs of the members rather than individual merit support the notion of a community built with the virtues of independence and equity Gibbon described. The Roman Empire, during the era of early Christianity, was a vast empire containing many different types of people and Pagan Pantheons. In an essay describing the rise of Christianity for the Public Broadcasting Service Frontline sociologist Rodney Stark describes the religious and cultural identity of the Roman Empire as “utter chaos”. No one god could be identified for all people even within a single city. According to Stark’s essay, early Christianity provided a religion that could be universal to those across all ethnic and economic groups. People would be attracted to these early Christian groups due to the benevolence offered to those from all walks of life. The catacombs are an embodiment of this contribution to the rise of Christianity.

A second major theme seen in the catacombs is the promise of eternal life and happiness after death. As mentioned earlier, Gibbon describes the zeal in which early Christians awaited a better life after death. He also states a well defined and universally accessible afterlife was a great improvement than the pagan concept of the afterlife “scarily considered among the devout Polytheists of Greece and Rome as a fundamental article of faith (Gibbon, 250).” In a time when life was nasty, hard, and short the prospect of a glorious afterlife through simply believing and living the tenets of Christianity was very attractive indeed.

Perhaps the most the most interesting thing about the Catacombs of Priscilla is how they contain many of the first images of some of the most popular themes of Christian arts. These images were to be replicated in all art forms for the next two millennia. The Madonna has been the subject of almost a countless number of paintings by such painters like Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Titian. The symbol of the peacock is a very prevalent Christian symbol in many Christian cities like Venice. It is utterly amazing to think that many of the most endearing symbols of Christianity began as hastily painted frescos in an underground cemetery. The Catacombs of Priscilla, one of the earliest purely Christian facilities, reveal so much about the quasi-mythic period of early Christianity. From the barely legible inscriptions on the slabs inclosing the loculi, to the fresco imagery, to the layout of the catacombs one can speculate what was important to early Christians: the concepts of community and eternal life after death. Perhaps now one can begin to see how this movement, intensely persecuted from its inception, could spread to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the predominant religion in the Western World.

Carletti, Sandro. Guide to the Catacombs of Priscilla. Vatican City: Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, 2005.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. New York, Modern Library: 1932.

Emick, Jennifer. “Ancient Pagan Symbols.” Available Online Jul 10 2008.

Lamberton, Clark. “The Development of Christian Symbolism as Illustrated in Roman Catacomb Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology. 15.4 (1911): 507-522.

New International Version Bible. 1996. IBS-STL Global. Available Online Jul 10 2008.

Nicolai, Vincenzo Fiocchi Bisconi, Fabrizio, and Danilo Mazzoleni. The Christian Catacombs of Rome. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 1999.

The Catacombs of Priscilla - History

Beneath the city streets that travellers walk on each day, dark labyrinths of underground catacombs are passageways to the past, to a time when the ghostly tunnels served as burial grounds for millions of people.

The catacombs of Rome, which date back to the 1st Century and were among the first ever built, were constructed as underground tombs, first by Jewish communities and then by Christian communities. There are only six known Jewish catacombs and around 40 or more Christian catacombs.

In Ancient Rome, it was not permitted for bodies to be buried within the city walls. So while pagans cremated their dead, Christians, who were not legally allowed to practice their religion, turned to underground cemeteries, built beneath land owned by the city’s few rich Christian families. The Jewish population was already implementing this practice when Christians began doing so around the 2nd Century.

The use of catacombs in Rome expanded during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, as the illegal religion of Christianity grew in popularity. Some areas of the tunnels even became shrines for martyrs buried there. But after Christianity was legalized in 313 AD, funerals moved above ground, and by the 5th Century, the use of catacombs as grave sites dwindled, though they were still revered as sacred sites where pilgrims would come to worship.

The Rome catacombs then fell victim to pillaging by Germanic invaders around the early 9th Century. As a result, relics of Christian martyrs and saints were moved from the catacombs to churches in the city centre. Eventually, the underground burial tunnels were abandoned altogether – only to be rediscovered via excavations in the 1600s.

Today, travellers from all over the world visit Rome to explore its 600km network of catacombs, spread out over five storeys underground near the Park of the Tombs of Via Latina. Dedicated to Christian saints, they are adorned with some of the earliest Christian artwork in the world, dating back to the 2nd Century, featuring paintings on the tunnel walls that depict ancient life. Sacred catacombs open to the public include the Catacombs of Priscilla (Via Salaria, 430), the Catacombs of St Callixtus (Via Appia Antica, 110-126) and the Catacombs of St Agnes (Via Nomentana, 349). The Vatican provides details on how to visit these and other holy burial sites. A few Jewish catacombs, including the catacombs on the Vigna Randanini and those in the Villa Torlonia, are also open to the public -- though some by appointment.

Centuries later in Paris, catacombs emerged as a creative and discreet solution to a dire public health problem. In the late 1700s, mass graves in the Les Halles district, such as those in the now closed Saints Innocents Cemetery, were overcrowded with improperly disposed of bodies , creating unsanitary conditions that led to the spread of disease. Saint Innocents was shut down, and in 1786 the Paris police moved all the remains buried in the cemetery to an underground network of ancient limestone quarries – the now infamous Catacombs of Paris, located south of the former city gate near Place Denfert-Rochereau.

The eerie tunnels -- a significant portion of which is open to the public as a museum -- took on other uses over the course of history. During World War II, for instance, some sections became hideouts for French Resistance fighters, while other areas were converted by German soldiers into bunkers. Today, Paris’s nearly 300km of catacombs lie 30m under the ground’s surface and still house the remains of around six million people.

The world’s longest network of underground tunnels, extending more than 2,400km, can be found in Odessa, Ukraine, where the catacombs were formed around the 1830s as a result of limestone mining. As in Paris, the tunnels were used as bunkers and hideouts by soldiers during World War II, and a portion of the catacombs is open to the public via the Museum of Partisan Glory.

The catacombs of Malta are designated as a World Heritage Site for their role in Paleochristian history. Carved from the rock underneath the city of Rabat, likely beginning around the 3rd Century, the tunnels show how rural family burials took place among Christian, Jewish and Pagan communities. The complex network of passageways provided graves for 1,000 people and extended over about 5,700sqkm. Heritage Malta provides information on visiting St Paul’s Catacombs located near St Paul’s Church and Grotto.

In Alexandria, Egypt, the Catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa were originally built for just one rich family around the 2nd Century, but eventually housed more 300 mummies. Open to the public, the three-story tomb about 30m under the ground, features elaborate carvings illustrating scenes from Egyptian mythology, including one relief depicting the jackal-headed god, Anubis.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

Watch the video: Man Gets lost in the Catacombs of Paris Part 1 of 2 (May 2022).


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