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Catacombs Uncovered: 10 Facts about Indy’s Historic Landmark
Easterseals Crossroads wants you take you underground to the creepiest, darkest, spookiest place Indianapolis has to offer – the City Market catacombs.
On Saturday, October 25 from 7:00 – 11:00 p.m., we are making it happen at our inaugural Hallow’s Eve: A Night for Ability event. Located in Indianapolis City Market, Hallow’s Eve will feature historic catacomb tours, delicious treats from a variety of food vendors, beer from Sun King Brewing, wine and entertainment from fire spinners, magicians, tarot card readers, palm readers, and a costume contest.
During Hallow’s Eve, we want to you to experience the scary 20,000 feet of musty, dusty, spooky, and scary space that is full of history and mystery. But for now, here are ten facts to uncover some of the unknown:
1. The Indianapolis City Market catacombs are over one hundred years old.
2. The catacombs are one of only a dozen catacomb sites in the United States today.
3. The catacombs are what are left of Tomlinson Hall, which was built in 1886. The hall used to hold 3,500 people.
4. In 1886, the City Market vendors served food in the catacombs.
5. The first basketball game ever viewed in Indianapolis was played at Tomlinson Hall.
6. One hundred years ago, the catacombs also served as a nightly homeless shelter to men and women to seek warmth during a bad Indianapolis winter.
7. Tomlinson Hall burnt down in 1958.
8. All that remains is limestone, brick archways, dirt floors, and deep, dark rooms.
9. According to Stevi Stoesz, City Market Executive Director, “There is a haunted chair in one of the rooms leading off of the catacombs. It don’t think it has been moved for years.”
10. To date, 700 people have toured the City Market catacombs through Indiana Landmarks.
Will you be one of them? Indiana Landmarks docents will provide information about the catacombs as you browse the space and visit the four psychic readers who will be waiting to tell your future.
Join us at Hallow’s Eve: A Night for Ability to uncover more of the creepy, dark, spooky, space the Indianapolis City Market has to offer. Purchase your tickets today at http://hallowseveability.eventbrite.com! Proceeds from the event support Easterseals Crossroads’ programs and services for children and adults with special needs, disabilities and challenges in central Indiana.
Check out this Historic Indianapolis video interview with Stevi Stoesz for more information about the catacombs:
Catacomb - History
In the first half of the second century, as a result of various grants and donations, the Christians started burying their dead underground. That is how the catacombs were founded. Many of them began and developed around family tombs, whose owners, newly converted Christians, did not reserve them to the members of the family, but opened them to their brethren in the faith. With the passage of time, these burial areas grew larger by gifts or by the purchase of new properties, sometimes on the initiative of the Church itself. Typical is the case of Saint Callixtus: the Church took up directly the organization and administration of the cemetery, assuming a community character.
With the edict of Milan, promulgated by the emperors Constantine and Licinius in February 313, the Christians were no longer persecuted. They were free to profess their faith, to have places of worship and to build churches both inside and outside the city, and to buy plots of land, without fear of confiscation. Nevertheless, the catacombs continued to function as regular cemeteries until the beginning of the fifth century, when the Church retumed to bury exclusively above ground or in the basilicas dedicated to important martyrs.
When the barbarians (Goths and Longobards) invaded Italy and came down to Rome,they systematically destroyed a lot of monuments and sacked many places, including the catacombs. Powerless in the face of such repeated pillages, towards the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth, the Popes ordered to remove the relics of the martyrs and of the saints to the city churches, for security reasons.
When the transfer of the relics was completed, the catacombs were no longer visited on the contrary, they were totally abandoned, with the exception of Saint Sebastian, Saint Lawrence and of Saint Pancratius. In the course of time, landslides and vegetation obstructed and hid the entrances to the other catacombs, so that the very traces of their existence were lost. During the late Middle Ages they didn’t even know where they were.
The exploration and scientific study of the catacombs started, centuries later, with Antonio Bosio (1575 – 1629), nicknamed the “Columbus of subterranean Rome”. In the last century the systematic exploration of the catacombs, and in particular of those of Saint Callixtus, was carried out by Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822 – 1894), who is considered the father and founder of Christian Archaeology.
Under the city of Rome lies a vast system of catacombs. The ancient Romans built these catacombs because they simply didn’t like death—they feared it and didn’t want to think about it. They wanted to push death out onto the margins, even out of sight, so they buried their dead underground.
These catacombs play an interesting role in the history of Christianity. In the first few centuries after Christ, Christianity was at odds with the empire and Christians were marginalized, ostracized, and persecuted. Despite the opposition they faced, they found that they could worship freely in the catacombs. The Romans wouldn’t go down there but would send slaves to dig out the catacombs and bury their dead. So, the Christians were relatively free to worship there. They even sometimes built seats into the walls of these catacombs and also left behind paintings on the walls.
Another testimony to the practice of worshiping in the catacombs is the wonderful early Christian hymn called “O Gladsome Light”:
O gladsome light, O grace
Of God the Father’s face,
The eternal splendor wearing
Celestial, holy, blest,
Our Savior Jesus Christ,
Joyful in thine appearing.
This early Christian hymn goes on to say that “the day falls quiet and we see the evening light.” And they pour out their hymn to Christ. Can you see it in your mind? The Christians are gathering they have the light in the catacombs and they gather around the light to worship together and to sing their hymns of praise.
After Christianity was legalized and as it spread through the empire, catacombs became not only a place where Christians could meet they also became the place were Christians would bury their dead. We can learn about the lives of early Christians from the epitaphs that were left at a number of these catacombs. One of them simply says, “Here lies Quintilian, a man of God, a firm believer in the trinity, who loved chastity and rejected the allurements of the world.”
Another epitaph belongs to someone named Domitilla. It says, “Who believed in Jesus Christ, together with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Many of these early catacomb epitaphs reference Christians’ belief in the Trinity. It shows how important that doctrine was to the early church.
Another of these epitaphs reads, “Here I rest, free from all anxiety, what I awaited has happened, when the coming of Christ occurs I shall rise in peace.” This is a wonderful testimony to resting in Christ.
One of these epitaphs addresses the person directly. Her name was Aproniana, and she was only five years and five months old when she died. Her epitaph says, “Aproniana you believed in God, you will live in Christ.” This is a beautiful testimony to the hope of our salvation and the eternal life that we have in Christ.
Another of these epitaphs reads, “Now that I have received divine grace I shall be welcomed in peace.” This particular text is preceded by the early Christian symbol, the fish. One last epitaph simply says, “This person was a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
These epitaphs provide a beautiful witness to the lives and beliefs of early Christians.
The Catacombs of Priscilla don’t enjoy the same popularity among visitors as the catacombs at Via Appia. Yet, they are one of the most important ancient burial sites in Rome and one of my favorite places on Earth.
Known as Queen of the Catacombs since antiquity, the underground cemetery housed the bones of at least seven early popes and many Christian martyrs. They are also remarkable for the fine pieces of Christian art, including some of the first known Christian frescoes and controversial representations of women.
If you are the type of person that jumps in excitement with the idea of walking through the narrow corridors of an emblematic crypt, here’s all you need to know about the Catacombs of Priscilla.
The history of the catacombs
The Catacombs of Priscilla were used for Christian burials from at the least the 2 nd century until between the 4 th and 5 th century. Although no one knows for sure the origin of their name, some argue the catacombs were named after a devoted noblewoman who donated her land for the construction of a burial site for her family and other Christians.
Priscilla was the wife of Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio, an important man who was executed alongside many others accused of conspiring against Emperor Domitian. According to legend, Glabrio was an early convert to Christianity.
Catacombs of Priscilla by Boris Doesborg – Flickr
In 1888, a tomb belonging to the Acilii Glabriones family, of which Glabrio was part, was found near the Catacombs of Priscilla. At the time, experts affirmed the discovery confirmed that he was indeed an early Christian and that his wife would have truly inspired the name of the catacombs.
In 1931, however, studies pointed to the fact that the tomb did not belong to the catacombs complex, but rather to a different burial chamber destroyed after the 4 th century for the constructions of San Silvester’s Basilica, which kept the veracity of the legend unproven.
Archaeologists believe the catacombs held at least 40,000 tombs back in the day, including the tombs of seven popes and Christian martyrs, such as Pope Marcellinus (296-304) and Pope Marcellus I (308-309), and Saints Praxedes, Pudentiana and Philomena.
Saint Pudentiana. Fresco of the 15th century, from the church of Santa Pudenziana in Narni, Italy – WikiCommons
When the burial site fell into disuse, robbers and many Christians who believed the remains of martyrs performed miracles invaded the underground cemetery to collect items and bones from inside the tombs. The relics of saints were also removed by the Catholic Church to be placed in different churches. For those reasons, the crypt is nowadays empty.
Early Christian Art
Despite being empty, visitors still have a lot to see at the Catacombs of Priscilla, notably the frescoes that decorate the walls and ceiling.
Virgin and Child with Balaam the Prophet – WikiCommons
The painting of Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus is one of the most important pieces of art in the burial site – and in the world. It is the earliest known representation of the Virgin Mary with Child, and one of the rare remaining Madonna Lactans (Nursing Madonna) from before the Middle Ages.
Greek Chapel by Steven Zucker – Flickr
At the Greek Chapel, a squared chamber named for two Greek inscriptions on the wall, visitors are amazed by rich frescos in Pompeian style representing episodes from the Old and New Testaments, including Noah on the ark and the resurrection of Lazarus.
The chapel also houses the polemic Fractio Panis, a fresco that portrays seven people at a table sharing bread, probably performing the Eucharist during a Mess. The panting dragged the attention of scholars and stirred up controversy because the figures in the picture seem to be women, which suggests women could have had a much more active and leading role in the Early Church – can you imagine female priests?
Fractio Panis – WikiCommons
While some scholars believe six men and one woman sit around the table, others argue the table is fully composed by women, given their hairstyle and clothes. Part of the head of the central figure is missing, which some believe to be the result of an intentional intervention to make the central figure look like a man. On the left side of the picture, sitting at the extremity of the table, is what seems to be a man with a long beard breaking bread, as in the Eucharist. This character’s gender is also highly debated as some argue the beard was also the result of manipulation.
Veiled woman by Steven Zucker – Flickr
Besides the Fractio Panis, other frescos in the Catacombs of Priscilla illustrate mysterious female characters in positions usually reserved to men. The Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, as the name suggests, houses a picture of a veiled woman raising her arms in prayer. On the woman’s left and right sides, there are images that do not refer to any passage of the Bible and are different from other Christian frescos found in Roman catacombs. This has led archaeologists to conclude that the figures surrounding the woman are episodes of her life, although no one knows who she was.
Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman by Boris Doesborg – Flickr
Visit the catacombs
The Catacombs of Priscilla are open from 9 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 5 pm, except for Mondays, when the catacombs are closed. The last visit in the morning starts at 11:30 am and the last visit in the afternoon starts at 4:30 pm.
Tickets are sold at the catacombs’ ticket office for € 8.
Children aged 7 to 16 Elementary and High School students on school trip students of Archaeology, Architecture, Art History and Cultural Studies and priests, religious, seminarians and novices, have access to discounted tickets.
Discounted tickets cost € 5.
Children up to 6 years of age people with disabilities and their assistant students from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology professors, teachers and catechists accompanying groups certified tour guides and researchers who issue a request to the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, enter for free.
Entry of the catacombs at Via Salaria, 430 by Andy Rusch – Flickr
The Catacombs of Priscilla are located at Via Salaria, 430
If you are heading to the catacombs by bus, take the lines 63 and 83 from the city center, or lines 92 and 310 from Roma Termini station.
The burial site is a short walk away from S. Agnese Annibaliano and Libia metro stations.
Oh, and don’t forget to take a jacket with you. The temperature inside the catacombs is about 13°C.
Mariana is a journalist passionate about the world and the history of humanity. For her, Rome is an endless source of inspiration where people become as eternal as the city. She is always wandering around its ruins, catacombs, monuments, museums and art galleries, and loves writing about what she sees. At night, she can be easily spotted bar hopping, always with a good Italian beer in hand.
The Word “Catacombs”
Most Christians are surprised when I tell them that there is no mention of the catacombs in the writings of the early Christians. That’s because the early Christians didn’t refer to these burial places as the “catacombs.” They simply called them “cemeteries.”
You’re no doubt wondering: “So where did the word “catacombs” come from?” It originally was simply a geographic term, not having anything whatsoever to do with the early Christian cemeteries. Ancient maps carried the notation, “ad catacumbas,” for an area around the Appian Way where the land dipped down, where there were hollows. Ad catacumbas is simply Latin for “near the hollow.” The name for the region was there before the early Christians built their underground burial chambers.
Now, not too far from the Catacomb of St. Callistus, there is another underground cemetery named after a saintly Christian called Sebastian. Well, in the late 4th and the 5th centuries, a lot of pilgrims came to Rome to view these underground burial chambers. And maps and guides were made for these pilgrims. In these guides and other documents, the Sebastian cemetery was given this name: “Cymiterium Catcumbas ad sanctum Sebastianum via Appia.” This name was merely giving the location of this cemetery, being one of the cemeteries located in the catacumbas region along the Appian Way.
Somehow, during the Middle Ages, primarily through ignorance, people started referring to all of these underground cemeteries as “catacombs.” And that’s how the name got started.
CD: The Truth about the Catacombs
70 min. Audio Compact Disc
David Bercot Did the early Christians really meet in the catacombs? Did they hide there during persecution? Why were the catacombs built? What do the paintings on the walls of the catacombs tell us? In this audio cd, Bercot cuts through popular misinformation about the catacombs and answers the questions most people ask about the catacombs. 70 min. Audio Compact Disc
A brief history of the Catacombs of Paris
Have you ever heard of the Catacombs of Paris before? Chances are you have if you’ve stumbled upon this article! The Catacombs have a pretty creepy reputation, as they are, after all, a massive burial ground for Parisians that have died in the city over the years.
The Catacombs are located beneath the city of Paris, and are a massive maze of old bones, secret chambers and ancient tunnels. Paris is a beautiful place, but the city also has a bit of a macabre side to it. There aren’t many places in the world that have turned an underground cemetery into a tourist attraction!
Today I’m going to be telling you all a bit more about the history of the Paris Catacombs. So, if you like history, Paris and cemeteries…you’ve come to the right place!
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING THE CATACOMBS
ENTRY FEE: 13 EUROS
OPENING HOURS: EVERYDAY EXCEPT MONDAYS 10AM-8:30PM
ADDRESS: 1 AVENUE DU COLONEL HENRI ROL-TANGUY, 75014 PARIS
METRO STATION: DENFERT-ROCHEREAU / MOUTON-DUVERNET
Why were the Catacombs constructed?
Engraving depicting the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris, around the year 1550 by
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – WikiCommons
Paris hasn’t always been the chic cosmopolitan city that it is today. In general, major European cities of yesteryear were known for being dirty and crowded. But, if you wanted to find a job in France in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, you had to make your way to the capital. Interestingly enough, this notion is still fairly true today.
By the time the 18th century rolled around, even the cemeteries in Paris were beginning to get overcrowded. Doctors began to realize that they were even responsible for many different diseases that were popping up around the city.
The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery posed the most problems, as it was located in the center of the city and was Paris’ largest cemetery at the time. It was also the oldest cemetery in Paris, and had often been used as a mass grave. That meant that there were a ton of decomposing bodies in there. I don’t want to get that graphic with you all, but can you imagine the stench that must have emanated from the site?! Yuck.
As a way to relieve the city of the oder and the disease that was coming out of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, the city of Paris came to the conclusion that the cemetery needed to be shut down. Now the question became, “where do we put all of these bodies?” The answer came in a system of old quarries, located in a town outside of Paris called Montrouge. The quarries extended into a bunch of tunnels that were located beneath Paris.
And so in 1785 a massive project to transport the bodies from the cemetery into the quarries began. In order to prevent upsetting city dwellers, most of the project was carried out at night. There was a small break in the transfers during the French Revolution, but the project went on until 1814.
The Catacombs are opened to the public
The Catacombs of Paris (Catacombes de Paris) by Jorge Láscar – Flickr
There’s just something about Parisian architecture that is so iconic with the city. Wait, it isn’t just something, it’s true! Paris boasts a very particular architectural style, which is called Haussmannian.
In 1840, Napoleon III decided to embark on a project that would change the face of Paris forever. He enlisted the help of the prefect of Seine, Baron Haussmann (which explains the name of the style of architecture), and together they renovated the city. That meant that large boulevards were installed, new buildings were built and new cemeteries were installed.
Although the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery had been closed for years at this point, there were still some bodies that needed to be removed and placed in the quarries. In 1860, the new city was named the “Paris Municipal Ossuary,” and was dubbed the “Catacombs,” thanks to the recent discovery of the Roman Catacombs in Italy.
Well before Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s remodel, in 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment only. But, before the site could be opened, a lot of work needed to be done in order to make it safe to enter. As you can imagine, when the old bones were first transferred to the quarries, they were dumped there in a fairly haphazard way.
We can thank an inspector named Héricart de Thury for the improvements. In 1810 Thury redesigned the Catacombs, turning the site from an underground graveyard to a monument that Parisians and tourists alike could visit. Today, the Catacombs are completely open to the public and do not require a special appointment.
What did Parisians think of the Catacombs?
Famous Parisian photographer Nadar’s self-portrait in the Catacombs, 1861 by Nadar – WikiCommons
The Catacombs became a popular destination for Parisians and tourists as soon as it was opened to the public. In the beginning, only the most privileged Parisians could enter the site. In 1787, the Count of Artois (who would go on to become King Charles X of France) paid a visit to the Catacombs!
After renovations had been completed, the public could visit within opening hours starting from 1815 onwards. The Catacombs were an instant hit! In fact, in 1830 the visits by appointment only rule was reinstated, due to the damage that all of the visitors in the last 15 years caused.
The Catacombs closed for 17 years from 1833-1850, because the Church was opposed to displaying human remains. The Parisians were not very happy with this initiative, and in 1850 the site reopened, but only 4 times a year.
Due to growing public demand, in 1867 the government decided to open the Catacombs once a month for visitors. In 1874, the numbed was bumped up to bi-weekly visits, and then the site was opened once a week during the 1878, 1889 and 1900 World’s Fairs that took place in Paris. Not long after the 1900 World’s Fair, the Parisian monument was reopened to daily visits. People really couldn’t get enough of the Catacombs!
Are the Catacombs worth visiting today?
Map of the visitable Catacombs, drawn by the IGC (Inspection Générale des Carrières) in 1858 – WikiCommons
The short answer here is yes, the Catacombs are worth visiting today! I really hesitated to go down there myself for the first time, as I am not the biggest fan of small spaces, the dark and walking amongst bones. But I’m here to tell you that if I (the biggest wimp ever) enjoyed visiting the Catacombs, anyone will!
Even though the Catacombs have turned into a major tourists destination, it’s important to remember that it is indeed a graveyard. That’s another reason to go: to pay homage to all of the people who have found their resting place there.
You should definitely consider visiting the Catacombs with one of our expert local guides. We offer a specialty Catacombs of Paris skip-the-line walking tour , where you can explore the Paris Catacombs and the bones of the 6 million Parisians resting underground. Thanks to your guide, you’ll be able to skip the long lines. You’ll also have access to all of the places that are open to the public in the Catacombs.
In addition to other things, you’ll find out why in a city known for its cemeteries, these skulls and bones are piled up underground by the millions, and you’ll learn how Paris has handled the dead over 2,000 years!
I hope you all have enjoyed learning more about the history of the Catacombs of Paris! Like so many things in this city, there is a story behind it that deserves to be told.
If you’re interested in joining another one of our walking tours, click here to see all of the options and to make your reservation!
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Molli is a writer who lives and breathes Paris. When not writing, you can find her in a cafe with a coffee in her hand and her nose in a book. She also enjoys reading and long walks on the beach as she actually grew up on the seaside!
An Ancient City Beneath Rome: Visiting The Catacombs of Priscilla
Any visitor to Rome will want to see and explore the popular historical and cultural sites - the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and, of course, the Vatican. But a large part of the city's ancient history actually lies underground in the tomb-lined tunnels or catacombs that weave beneath the streets of Rome.
The city has more than 40 catacombs that extend over hundreds of kilometres and they tell us about the customs and funereal traditions of the ancient Romans and early Christians. Many of these catacombs are open to the public, including the Catacombs of Priscilla.
The word catacomb was used by archaeologists to describe the extensive underground cemeteries and cubicula or small rooms that are found along their galleries and branching passageways. It is also thought that catacomb refers to a place near the Appian Way called Catacumbus, which means “near the hollows”.
The catacombs were carved out of tufa - a soft and porous volcanic stone that is surprisingly strong. From the early 2nd century to the 5th century CE, fossores or specialized workers built these subterranean wonders that became the final resting place for many Christian martyrs, as well as Jewish and pagan citizens.
Rome's underground necropolises were forgotten by the Middle Ages due to the practice of blocking the entrance ways to prevent theft by relic hunters. They were rediscovered in the 16th century CE when the Maltese-born archaeologist, Antonio Bosio (1576 – 1629 CE), realized the significance of an entrance way stumbled upon along the Via Salaria in 1578 CE.
In 1593 CE, Bosio descended into the labyrinth of the Catacombs of Domitilla making him the first person to systematically explore Rome's catacombs. He has been called the “Columbus of the Catacombs”, and his book Roma Sotterranea, which was published posthumously in 1632 CE, established the discipline of Christian archaeology. Unfortunately, some of the catacombs he explored have since been destroyed.
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WHY WERE THE CATACOMBS BUILT?
In the 2nd century CE, Rome faced the dual problems of overpopulation and a shortage of land. The city was being built upwards and many buildings were four or five stories high. Burials were not permitted within the city walls and the early Christians did not agree with the pagan custom of cremating the bodies of their dead, so communal underground cemeteries offered a practical solution.
The soft tufa meant that multi-levelled catacombs were relatively easy to construct. The undergrown cemeteries could be built to reach a height of five meters and with thousands of horizontal niches or loculi to accommodate bodies. Loculi were stacked one above the other in the tufa walls.
For wealthy Roman citizens, cubicula could be excavated for a family to be buried together. Within the cubicula, recessed tombs in the wall could be decorated with frescoes.
One of the first and most ancient catacombs to be rediscovered in the 16th century CE is the Catacombs of Priscilla. These catacombs are known as the regina catacumbarum, or the queen of the catacombs, due to the great number of martyrs and popes buried there.
THE CATACOMBS OF PRISCILLA
The Catacombs of Priscilla is the best preserved early Christian cemetery in Rome and was originally dug from the 2nd to 5th centuries CE. They are located under the expansive Villa Ada Park on Via Salaria, an ancient road leading north out of Rome.
The modern entrance to these catacombs is down a winding marble staircase in the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla. The wealthy Christian noblewoman Priscilla (1st century CE) was a benefactor to the Christian community and donated the land, originally a tufa quarry, under which the catacombs were excavated.
Priscilla was the wife of the Roman consul, Manius Acilius Glabrio (91 CE), and mother of the Roman senator Saint Pudens. All three are said to have been Christian martyrs: Glabrio was forced to fight a lion on the orders of Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 CE) and was later executed, Saint Pudens was martyred under Nero (r. 54-68 CE), and Priscilla was also martyred for her Christian faith and buried on the land the convent now occupies.
In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan that permanently established religious tolerance for Christianity. From the 4th century CE, there was a great desire to be buried with the martyrs in the catacombs. Pope Marcellinus (r. 296-304 CE) lies in the Priscilla catacombs - another victim of persecution under Diocletian - along with Pudenziana, daughter of Saint Pudens. Although it has been suggested that Pudenziana refers to the house of Pudens, rather than a specific Christian martyr.
EARLY CHRISTIAN ICONOGRAPHY
The Priscilla catacombs are a network of dimly-lit tunnels that stretch over eight kilometres underneath Villa Ada Park. Around 40,000 tombs are stacked and, at some points, these catacombs reach three stories.
After making your way down the marble staircase, the first thing you notice is the cool, musty air as you enter a narrow passageway that leads into the catacombs. The ceilings are low and the earthen floor is rough in places. Light bulbs are strung along the length of the ceiling and have been known to flicker on and off. In fact, power can be disrupted leaving you in utter darkness - quite an eerie feeling! If you do not like confined spaces, then perhaps enjoy a day out in beautiful Villa Ada Park instead.
There are no bodies or bones in these catacombs. In the mid-17th century CE, both Pope Innocent X (r. 1644-1655 CE) and Clement IX (r. 1667-1669 CE) sent treasure-hunters in to plunder the tombs. They were not as thorough as perhaps hoped for because a large white and brown onyx cameo pendant was found on the third floor in 2018 CE. The cameo has been dated to the 4th century CE and shows the profile of a woman wearing a draped, embroidered gown.
On the first level, empty loculi are to the left and right of the passageways, with the smaller niches being for children. Sometimes the passageways are so tight that your shoulders will touch the tufa walls on both sides.
Loculi were the most common type of tomb and were principally for the poor. The bodies were laid within them, wrapped in a shroud and sprinkled with lime to slow the normal process of decay and to control odours. The tomb was then closed up using marble, terracotta tiles or plaster.
Also on this level are cubicula and arcosolia, as well as the tombs of martyrs. The oldest Christian art can be found here as there are many stone inscriptions marked with the Greek word for fish - Ichthys - a symbol used by the early Christians. Ichthys is an acronym, a word formed from the first letters of several words, and it stands for "Jesus Christ God's Son Saviour”. You will also find many touching inscriptions left by the ordinary citizens of Rome in memory of a departed loved one. One such inscription reads: “You were a sweet son”.
Along the passageways and tunnels, there are also niches that would have contained oil lamps to light the way for workers and visiting families.
Biblical scenes can be seen on some of the walls and ceilings, particularly in a square chamber called Capella Greca or the Greek Chapel, known for its Pompeian-style paintings, faux marble and stucco work. The Greek Chapel has three niches for sarcophagi and a long seat for funeral banquets, which were held at the tombs in honour of the dead. These feasts were called refrigeria or agapae.
commonswiki (Public Domain)
There is a controversial fresco in this chapel that dates back to the first half of the 2nd century CE. Fractio Panis (or 'The Breaking of the Bread') is the name of this rich illustration that shows seven figures seated at a long table laden with bread and fish. The fresco is found on the face of the arch above the altar tomb and is reminiscent of The Last Supper. The assumption has long been that the figures depicted are male, but recently, this has been called into question by Nicola Denzey Lewis, a professor of religious studies at Rhode Island's Brown University.
Denzey Lewis suggests that the figures are wearing female clothing and that the middle figure is leading a religious ceremony or funeral banquet. This would imply that women played a larger role in the early church than previously assumed.
commonswiki (Public Domain)
The Priscilla catacombs are also believed to have a 3rd century CE fresco of the Virgin Mary, which is considered to be the oldest known Marian painting still in existence. Dated from between c. 230 and c. 240 CE, the fresco depicts Mary who appears to be nursing the infant Jesus on her lap. It is the only Marian image that pre-dates the 431 CE Council of Ephesus, which officially recognized Mary as the mother of God.
One of the most informative scenes is that of The Good Shepherd (c. 225 CE). We are familiar with the image of Christ as a humble shepherd or protector watching over his flock, as it is an established part of Christian art. But there are also pre-Christian images that show a man with a goat or ram slung across his shoulders. The early Christians adapted this imagery, and in a shallow dome of a ceiling in the catacombs of Priscilla, you will see this early adaptation in a large painting that shows Christ surrounded by three goats. He carries one of the goats over his shoulders and it has been suggested that the painter was familiar with Roman sculpture because Christ's stance is contrapposto. This term refers to a pose where one leg holds the body's full weight and the other leg is relaxed, while the hips and shoulders rest at opposite angles, giving a slight S-curve to the torso. A painting or representation of a man carrying a goat or ram is referred to as criophore or kriophoros.
The Good Shepherd painting also displays paradise imagery with two doves clutching olive branches (representing peace and the Holy Spirit) and the peacock, which was an early Christian symbol of resurrection, renewal, and immortality. Ancient legend said that the flesh of a peacock did not decay and so it represented eternal life.
This early Christian art focused on the teachings of Christ and adapted from pagan art the notion of a shepherd guarding his flock. It is only from the 4th century CE that we start to see artwork showing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
A final stop on any visit to the catacombs of Priscilla is the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman. In this room, there is a fresco (250 CE) on a back wall showing a woman wearing a rich purple garment and a veil, with her hands raised in the position used by priests for public worship. The garment is similar to a liturgical gown and once again raises the issue of the role of women priests in the early church.
HOW TO GET TO THE CATACOMBS OF PRISCILLA
There are a number of ways to reach these beautiful and peaceful catacombs. You can travel by underground on metro line B from Stazione Termini (Termini Station) and stop at Annibaliano. It is just a few minutes' walk from the station to the Priscilla catacombs.
If you would like to make a day of it, you can travel to Bologna, which is the third stop on metro line B from Termini. This is not to be confused with the city of Bologna in the north of Italy. Have a look around the town and its piazza or town square before walking for approximately 2.5 miles via Circonvallazione Nomentana to the catacombs.
To travel by bus, you would take line 86, 92 and 310 from Termini or 63 from Piazza Venezia / Largo Argentina / Barberini.
You are not allowed to take photos in the catacombs and you should note the two important words on the sign at the entrance to the Catacombs of Priscilla – Silenzio, and Rispetto. Silence, and Respect.
TAKE A VIRTUAL TOUR
No need to go to Rome though. You can enjoy a virtual tour of the Catacombs of Priscilla, thanks to Google Maps.
Roman Catacombs: the history
But the catacombs are so much more than this: they stand as a testimony to the faith of the very first Christians, who sought to immortalize their favorite passages of the Bible in beautiful fresco paintings that we can still admire in the decorations of the so called cubicula.
The cubicula (literally "rooms") are the funeral chapels that we often encounter when we visit the catacombs. These special rooms, deeply excavated from the rock, were probably more expensive than the other areas of the catacombs - their floors were often paved with marble (such as in the so-called Cubicula of the Sacraments in the catacomb of St. Calixtus), whilst paintings embellished the walls even the graves themselves were often elaborately designed, complete with arches.
It is in these beautiful chapels that we find the most significant paintings, amongst the most ancient in the entire history of Christianity. But what can we see in these very first Christian images? What do they depict?
Given the peculiar nature of the catacombs, one might expect to find dark and funereal images, referring to ideas of death and grief interestingly enough, however, it is quite the opposite. The walls of the catacombs were often painted in white, to help reflect and amplify the scarce light of the torches lit by occasional visitors, and amongst the paintings we often find plants, flowers and birds. Communicating a sense of peace and tranquility, they probably allude to the bliss of souls living their eternal life in Paradise, surrounded by every possible delight.
Inside the catacombs, buried history ties Jews to ancient Rome
ROME — Aristocratic Roman families have chosen the scenic environs of the Via Appia to build their villas for centuries. Shrouded by lush gardens and trees, the mansions near the 2,000-year-old road connecting Rome with Southern Italy still stand majestically. The ancient neighborhood is surrounded by archeological sites, lawns littered with remains of columns and ruins of timeworn buildings.
In 1859, then-owners of one estate, the Randanini family, made an extraordinary discovery while preparing to plant a vineyard — an ancient catacomb from Roman times.
Catacombs (underground cemeteries) are quite common in the area of the Via Appia. The very word “catacomb” derives from the Latin expression ad catacumbas, “to the caves,” that originally designated the nearby Christian underground cemetery that came to be known as San Sebastiano Catacomb.
But the Catacombe di Vigna Randanini is unique compared to the dozens of Christian catacombs in the city: only a few meters into the site, in a cramped, painted chamber, a large brick-red menorah is silhouetted against the upper part of the wall in stark contrast to the stone and earth surroundings.
To reach the menorah’s chamber, visitors must descend into the ground. With flashlights as the only source of illumination, the small staircase that separates the bright summer day from the dark, cold gallery is like a time machine to Ancient Rome.
Over the centuries, robbers and explorers have stripped this catacomb of most its content — the bones of those who were buried here, the decorations, the objects left by the mourners. But the hundreds of loculi (burial niches) excavated in the walls are still in situ, together with dozens of inscriptions, fragments of artifacts, and evocative frescoes which bear witness to how Roman Jews lived and died 1,800 years ago.
“The chamber with the painted menorah was the private chapel of a prominent family. There used to be a sarcophagus for the head of the family,” caretaker Alberto Marcocci tells The Times of Israel.
Marcocci is 84 years old. He spent 40 years working at the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, with a specialty in the field of catacombs. Since his retirement in 1992, he has taken care of the Vigna Randanini Catacombs on behalf of the Marquis del Gallo di Roccagiovine. The family, who can number Napoleon Bonaparte among their ancestors, currently owns the catacomb as well as the estate above, under the oversight of the Superintendence in collaboration with the Jewish Community of Rome.
At the time of its discovery, the Vigna Randanini site was the second Jewish catacomb to be unearthed in Rome. Later on, more Jewish catacombs would come to light, but of the six found, only two are still accessible.
Marcocci knows every corner of the Vigna Randanini catacomb and takes care that the structure remains solid. He also accompanies visitors. But the site, which numbers around 2,000 tombs, is not easily accessible. It can accommodate only small groups of people (not more than 10 at a time), the ground is uneven and there is no lighting system.
While those who are interested are able to book a visit around once a month, in honor of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy decreed by Pope Francis, the catacomb was opened for two extra days in May and June, thanks to the efforts of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Superintendence and the Jewish community.
The organizations are planning more open days in September and October as part of the program of the Jubilee Cultural Routes.
Upon deeper exploration, a few meters past the painted chamber — one of four that can be found in the catacomb — is another powerful symbol of the catacomb’s Jewish origin.
“Here was buried a four-year-old girl, Neppia Marosa,” Marcocci explains, pointing out a marble plaque. “Look at the carved symbols: there is a menorah, the small oil jug to refill it, a palm tree, an etrog, a shofar.”
Rome’s contemporary Jews recognize the importance of these symbols.
‘The Jewish catacombs are a source of pride since they attest to our presence in Rome since far-off times’
“The Jewish catacombs are a source of pride for our Jewish community, which is often referred to as one of the most ancient of the Diaspora, since they attest to our presence in Rome since far-off times,” Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni said during a conference on the topic in 2012.
“The catacombs belong to a very specific period in the history of Judaism, when the verse ‘For dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ (Bereshit 3, 19) was fulfilled not by burying the dead in the ground, but in the loculi excavated in the stone,” Di Segni added, explaining what it is possible to learn about the Jewish life of that times.
“There are no references to rabbinical figures, but many inscriptions mention scribes and arcontes, who were comparable to community presidents,” Di Segni said. “Moreover, it is interesting to see that all inscriptions are in Latin or Greek, with no Hebrew. Most of the names are not Jewish, and along with the Jewish symbols, there are many paintings or symbols that are either mysterious or definitely not Jewish. Therefore, we are probably speaking of a community very assimilated in the general society.”
Among the paintings referred to by Di Segni are the frescoes in the other three private chapels (or cubicula) in Vigna Randanini, where the walls are decorated with plants, animals, and even pagan figures.
Why there are such symbols in a Jewish cemetery remains a mystery, scholar Jessica Dello Russo from the International Catacomb Society says in a Skype conversation with The Times of Israel.
‘I couldn’t tell you what these people believed in’
“Aside from the menorah chamber, the other three chambers do not bear any significant Jewish sign,” Dello Russo explains. “The paintings are interestingly neutral, they feature the most generic kind of Roman sentiment connected to paradise — flowers, birds, the goddess of fortune Tyche. They are symbols which everyone used in that times. I couldn’t tell you what these people believed in.”
Another possible hint at the Jewish identity of Vigna Randanini is the strong presence of a specific type of burial niche, called koch.
“The kochim are shafts that go directly into the wall in a perpendicular direction, not parallel as you find in the vast majority of catacombs. They are very common in Israeli archeology, and for this reason many have taken them as evidence of Jewishness, but actually kochim have been found also in non-Jewish tombs in Palmyra and Northern Africa, as well as in Israel. Therefore, they are not necessarily a proof of a specific ethnicity. We need further studies on the issue,” Dello Russo points out.
“If it weren’t for the inscriptions, with the Jewish symbols they bear, but also the particular epitaphs and formulas that are used in them, like ‘lover of people’ ‘lover of laws’ ‘student of laws’ it would be very hard to identify the site as Jewish,” she added.
Dello Russo highlights that a vast part of the site, as well as the original entryways, are not currently accessible, leaving scholars with many questions.
“The catacomb, which is datable between the 3rd and the 4th century CE, stands on a pre-existing burial site. Whether it was pagan, Jewish or other, we don’t know. Vigna Randanini is still virgin territory. It would be wonderful to look at it more closely.”
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