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Catacombs of Rome

The Catacombs of Rome are ancient catacombs, or underground burial places under or near Rome, Italy, of which there are at least forty, some discovered only in recent decades. Though most famous for Christian burials, they include pagan and Jewish burials, either in separate catacombs or mixed together. They began in the 2nd century, as much as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land as they were to satisfy the need for persecuted Christians to bury their dead secretly. The soft volcanic tufo rock under Rome is highly suitable for tunnelling, as it is softer when first exposed to air, hardening afterwards. Many have kilometres of tunnels, in up to four stories (or layers).

The Catholic catacombs are extremely important for the art history of early Christian art, as they contain the great majority of examples from before about 400 CE, in fresco and sculpture. The Jewish catacombs are similarly important for the study of Jewish art at this period.

History

Precursors

The Etruscans, like many other European peoples, used to bury their dead in underground chambers. The original Roman custom was cremation, after which the burnt remains were kept in a pot, ash-chest or urn, often in a columbarium. From about the second century AD, inhumation (burial of unburnt remains) became more fashionable, in graves or sarcophagi, often elaborately carved, for those who could afford them. Christians also preferred burial to cremation because of their belief in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming.

Christian catacombs

The first large-scale catacombs were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. Originally they were carved through soft rock outside the boundaries of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits. At first they were used both for burial and the memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs (following similar Roman customs). They probably were not used for regular worship. Many modern depictions of the catacombs show them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution.

There are forty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome. They were built along Roman roads, like the Via Appia, the Via Ostiense, the Via Labicana, the Via Tiburtina, and the Via Nomentana. Names of the catacombs – like St Calixtus and St Sebastian, which is alongside Via Appia – refer to martyrs that might be buried there.

Christian excavators (fossors) built vast systems of galleries and passages on top of each other. They lie 7-19 meters (22-65 ft) below the surface in area of more than 2.4 km² (600 acres). Narrow steps that descend as many as four stories join the levels. Passages are about 2.5x1 meters (8x3 feet). Burial niches (loculi) were carved into walls. They are 40-60 cm (16-24 in) high and 120-150 cm (47-59 in) long. Bodies were placed in chambers in stone sarcophagi in their clothes and bound in linen. Then the chamber was sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death. Fresco decorations were typically Roman. The catacomb of Saint Agnes is a small church. Some families were able to construct cubicula which would house various loculi and the architectural elements of the space would be a support for decoration. Another excellent place for artistic programs were the arcosoliums.

Decline, sack and rediscovery

In 380, Christianity became a state religion. At first many still desired to be buried in chambers alongside martyrs. However, the practice of catacomb burial declined slowly, and the dead were increasingly buried in church cemeteries. In the 6th century catacombs were used only for martyrs’ memorial services. Apparently Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards that sacked Rome also violated the catacombs, possibly looking for valuables. By the 10th century catacombs were practically abandoned, and holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas.

In the intervening centuries they remained forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1578, after which Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his volume, Roma Sotterranea (1632). Archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. In 1956 and 1959 Italian authorities found more catacombs near Rome. The catacombs have become an important monument of the early Christian church.

Today

Currently maintenance of the catacombs is in the hands of the Papacy which has invested in the Salesians of Don Bosco the supervision of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus on the outskirts of Rome.

Typology

Roman catacombs are made up of underground passages (ambulacra), out of whose walls graves (loculi) were dug. These loculi, generally laid out vertically (pilae), could contain one or more bodies. Another type of burial, typical of Roman catacombs, was the arcosolium, consisting of a curved niche, enclosed under a carved horizontal marble slab. cubicula (burial rooms containing loculi all for one family) and cryptae (chapels decorated with frescoes) are also commonly found in catacomb passages. When space began to run out, other graves were also dug in the floor of the corridors - these graves are called formae.

Reception

They have frequently been a topic in classical music, featuring in one of Respighi's Pini di Roma and in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

List of catacombs in Rome

The Roman catacombs, of which there are forty in the suburbs, were built along the consular roads out of Rome, such as the Appian way, the via Ostiense, the via Labicana, the via Tiburtina, and the via Nomentana.

Christian catacombs

Responsibility for the Christian catacombs lies with the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology (Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra), which directs excavations and restorations.

Catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro

Catacombs of Domitilla

Close to the Catacombs of San Callisto are the large and impressive Catacombs of Domitilla (named after Saint Domitilla. They have the address of via dent Sette Chiese 280.

Catacombs of Commodilla

These catacombs, on the Via Ostiensis, contain one of the earliest images of a bearded Christ. They originally held the relics of Saints Felix and Adauctus.

Catacombs of Generosa

Catacombs of Prætextatus

These are found along the via Appia, and were built at the end of 2nd century. They consist of a vast underground burial area, at first in pagan then in Christian use, housing various tombs of Christian martyrs. In the oldest parts of the complex may be found the "cubiculum of the coronation", with a rare depiction for that period of Christ being crowned with thorns, and a 4th century painting of Susanna and the old men in the allegorical guise of a lamb and wolves.

Catacombs of Priscilla

The Catacomb of Priscilla, situated at the Via Salaria, in front of the Villa Ada, derives its name probably from the name of the landowner on whose land they were built. They are looked after by an order of nuns.

Catacombs of San Callisto

Sited along the Appian way, these catacombs were built around the end of the 2nd century, with some private Christian hypogea and a funeral area directly dependent on the Roman church. It takes its name from the deacon Saint Callixtus, proposed by Pope Zephyrinus in the administration of the same cemetery - on his ascession as pope, he enlarged the complex, that quite soon became the official one for the Roman Church. The arcades, where more than fifty martyrs and sixteen pontiffs are buried, form part of a complex graveyard that occupies fifteen hectares and is almost twenty km long.

This catacomb's most ancient parts are the crypt of Lucina, the region of the Popes and the region of Saint Cecilia, where some of the most sacred memories of the place are preserved (including the crypt of the Popes, the crypt of Saint Cecilia, and the crypt of the Sacraments); the other regions are named the region of Saint Gaius and the region of Saint Eusebius (end of the 3rd century), West region (built in the first half of the 4th century) and the Liberian region (second half of the 4th century), all showing grandiose underground architecture. A modern staircase, on the site of an ancient one, was built by Pope Damasus I, giving access to the region of the Popes, in which is to be found the crypt of the popes, where nine pontiffs and, perhaps, eight representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy had been buried - along its walls are the original Greek inscriptions for the pontiffs Pontian, Anterus, Fabian, Lucius I and Eutychian. In the far wall Pope Sixtus II was also buried, after he was killed during the persecution of Valerian; in front of his tomb Pope Damasus had carved an inscription in poetic metre in characters thought up by the calligrapher Furius Dionisius Filocalus.

In the adjoining crypt is the grave of Saint Cecilia, whose relics were removed by Pope Paschal I in 821: the early 9th century frescoes on the walls represent Saint Cecilia praying, the bust of the Redeemer and Pope Urban I. A short distance away, an arcade dating to the end of the 2nd century gives access to the cubicula of the sacraments, with their frescoes from the first half of the III century hinting at baptism, the Eucharist and the resurrection of the flesh; in the region of Saint Militiades next door, a child's sarcophagus has a front sculpted with biblical episodes. In the region of Saints Gaius and Eusebius are some crypts set apart, opposite each other, with the tombs of Pope Gaius (with an inscription) and Pope Eusebius, who died in Sicily where he had been exiled by Maxentius and whose body was translated to Rome during the pontificate of Militiades; on a marble copy of the end of the 4th century (of which fragments may be seen on the opposite wall) may be read of an inscription by Damasus on the schism provoked by Heraclius over the matter of the lapsi.

Joining onto the arcade itself are, in succession, the crypt of the martyrs Calogerus and Parthenius and the double cubiculum of Severus, which contains a rhythmic inscription (dated to no later than 304) in which a bishop of Rome (at that time Marcellinus is first called pope and first openly professes belief in the final resurrection. In a region further from there is the burial of Pope Cornelius, whose tomb still has its original inscription giving him the title of martyr and, on its sides, splendid paintings with figures in 7th and 8th century Byzantine style representing popes Sixtus II and Cornelius and the African bishops Cyprian and Ottatus. In a nearby cubiculum are some of the most ancient burials, of the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century, with Roman frescoes of (on the ceiling) the Good Shepherd and orantes and (on the far wall) two fish with a basket of loaves behind it, a symbol of the Eucharist.

Catacombs of San Lorenzo

Catacombs of San Pancrazio

Catacombs of San Sebastiano

One of the smallest Christian cemeteries, this has always been one of the most accessible catacombs and is thus one of the least preserved (of the four original floors, the first is almost completely gone). On the left hand end of the right hand wall of the nave of the primitive basilica, rebuilt in 1933 on ancient remains, arches to end the middle of the nave of the actual church, built in the 13th century, are visible, along with the outside of the apse of the Chapel of the Relics; whole and fragmentary collected sarcophagi (mostly of 4th century date) were found in excavations.

Via a staircase down, one finds the arcades where varied cubicula (including the cubiculum of Giona's fine four stage cycle of paintings, dating to the end of the 4th century). One then arrives at the restored crypt of S. Sebastiano, with a table altar on the site of the ancient one (some remains of the original's base still survive) and a bust of Saint Sebastian attributed to Bernini. From here one reaches a platform, under which is a sandstone cavityad catacumbas which once may have been named "ad catacumbas", thus giving this and all other tombs of this type their name. 3 mausolei of the second half of the 2nd century (but also in later use) open off the platform. The first one on the right, decorated on the outside with paintings of funereal banquets and the miracle of the calling out of Cerasa's demons, on the inside contains paintings (including a ceiling painting of a Gorgon's head) and inhumation burials and has a surviving inscription reading "Marcus Clodius Hermes", the name of its owner. The second, called by some "tomb of the Innocentiores" (a burial club which owned it), has a refined stucco ceiling, Latin inscriptions in Greek characters, and a graffito with the initials of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour". On the left is the mausoleum of Ascia, with an exterior wall painting of vine shoots rising from kantharoi up trompe-l'œil pillars.

A room called the "Triglia" rises from the platform, roughly in the middle of the basilica and cut into from above by the present basilica. This covered room was used for funereal banquets; the plastered walls have hundreds of graffitoes by the devotees at these banquets, carved in the second half of the 3rd to the beginnings of the 4th century, with appeals to the apostles Peter and Paul. From the "Trigilia" one passed into an ancient ambulatory, which turns around into an apse: here is a collection of epitaphs and a model of all the mausolei, of the "Triglia" and of the Constantinian basilica. From here one descends into the "Platonica", a construction at the rear of the basilica that was long believed to have been the temporary resting place for Peter and Paul, but was in fact (as proved by excavation) a tomb for the martyr Quirinus, bishop of Sescia in Pannonia, whose remains were brought here in the 5th century. To the right of the "Platonica" is the chapel of Honorius III, adapted as the vestibule of the mausoleum, with interesting 13th century paintings of Peter and Paul, the Crucifixion, saints, the Massacre of the Innocents, Madonna and Child, and other subjects. On the left is an apsidal mausoleum with an altar built against the apse: on the left wall a surviving graffito reading "domus Petri" either hints at Peter having been buried here or testifies to the belief at the time the graffito was written that Peter was buried here.

Catacombs of San Valentino

Catacombs of Sant'Agnese

Catacombs of via Anapo

On the via Salaria, the Catacombs of via Anapo are datable to the end of the 3rd or the beginning of the 4th century, and contain diverse frescoes of biblical subjects.

Jewish catacombs

In Rome there also exist Jewish catacombs like those of Vigna Randanini and Villa Torlonia.

Catacombs of the Villa Torlonia

The Jewish catacombs were discovered in 1918, and archaeological excavations continued there for twelve successive years after that. The structure had two different entrances, one on via Syracuse and the other inside Villa Torlonia. They extend for more than 13,000 square metres, and date back to the period between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and possibly remained in use until the 5th century. There are almost a century of epitaphs, but these do not show any examples of a particular relief, beyond some rare frescoes showing the classic symbols of the Jewish religion. The catacombs is still not open to the public, because of the instability of the structure and the presence of radon.

Gallery of paintings from the catacombs of Rome

See also

  • Antonio Bosio, (c. 1575-1576 – 1629) was an Italian scholar, the first systematic explorer of subterranean Rome

References

External links


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