1902 Encyclopedia > Catacombs

Catacombs




CATA COMBS. CATACOMB, a subterranean excavation for the interment of the dead, or burial-vault. In this sense the word "Catacomb" has gained universal acceptance, and has found a place in most modern languages. The original term catacumbae, however, had to connection with sepulture, but was simply the name of a particular locality in the environs of Rome. It was derived from the Greek ____ and ____, "a hollow," and had reference to the natural configuration of the ground. In the district that bore this designation, lying close to the Appian Way, the basilica of St Sebastian was erected, and the extensive burial-vaults beneath that church—in which, according to tradition, the bodies of the apostles St Peter and St Paul rested for a year and seven months previous to their removal to the basilicas which bear their names—were, in very early times, called from it caemiterium ad catacumbas, or catacumbas alone. From the celebrity of this cemetery as an object of pilgrimage its name became extensively known, and in entire forgetfulness of the origin of the word, catacumbae came to be regarded as a generic appellation for all burial-places of the same kind. This extension of the term to Christian burial-vaults generally dates from the 9th century, and obtained gradual currency through the Christian world. The original designation of these places of sepulture is crypta or caemeterium.



The earliest Christian catacombs known may be assigned to the 2d century. The largest number elong to the 3d and the early part of 4th. The custom of subterranean interment gradually died out, and entirely ceased with the sack of Rome by Alaric, 410 A.D. "The end of the catacomb graves," writes Mommsen (Cont. Rev., May 1871), " is intimately connected with the end of the catacomb graves," writes Mommsen (Cont. Rev., May 1871), "is intimately connected with the end of the powerful city itself…. Poverty took the place of wealth,…the traditions of the Christian tomb-architects sank into utter insignificance and the expanse of the wasted Campagna now offered room enough to bury the few bodies, without having to descend as once far down below the surface of the earth." The earliest account of the Catacombs, that of St Jerome narrating his visits to them when a schoolboy at Rome, about 354 A.D. shows that interment in them was even then rare if it had not been altogether discontinued ; and the poet Prudentius’s description of the tomb of the Christian martyr Hippolytus, and the cemetery in which it stood, leads us to the same conclusion. With the latter part of the 4th century a new epoch in the history of the Catacombs arose, —that of religious reverence. In the time of Pope Damasus, 366-384 A.D., the Catacombs had begun to be regarded with special devotion, and had become the resort of large bands of pilgrims, for whose guidance catalogues of the chif burial-places and the holy men buried in them were drawn up. Some of these lists are still extant.1 Pope Damasus himself displayed great zeal in adapting the Catacombs to their new purpose, restoring the works of art on the walls, and renewing the epitaphs over the graves o the martyrs. In this latter work he employed an engraver named Furius Philocalus, the exquisite beauty of whose characters enables the smallest fragment of his work to be recognized at a glance. This, in Dean Milman’s happy words, "irreverent reverence, which converted the Catacombs from hidden and secret chambers, where piety might steal down to show its respect or affection for the dead, to, as it were, a great religious spectacle, the scene of devout pilgrimage to thousands" (Milman, Essays, p. 489), gave rise to extensive alterations in their construction and decoration, which has much lessened their value as authentic memorials of the religious art of the 2d and 3d centuries. Subsequent popes manifested equal ardour, with the same damaging results, in the repair and adornment of the Catacombs, and many of the paintings which cover their walls, which have been too unquestioningly assigned to the period of their original construction, are really the work of these later times. The Catacombs shared in the devastation of Rome by the Goths under Vitages, in the 6th century and by the Lombards at a later period ; and partly through the spoliation of these barbarian invaders, partly through the neglect of those who should have been their guardians, they sank into such a state of decay and pollution that, as the only means of preserving the holy remains they enshrined from further desecration, Pope Paul I., in the latter part of the 8th century, and Pope Paschal, at the commencement of the 9th, commenced the work of the translation of the relics, which was vigorously carried on by successive pontiffs until the crypts were almost entirely despoiled of their dead. The relics having been removed, the visits of pilgrims naturally ceased, and by degrees the very existences of those wonderful subterranean cemeteries was forgotten. Six centuries elapsed before the accidental discovery of a sepulchral chamber, by some labourers digging for pozzolana earth (May 31, 1578), revealed to the amazed inhabitants of Rome "the existence," to quote a contemporary record, "of other cities concealed beneath their own suburbs." Baronius, the ecclesiastical historian, was one of the first to visit the new discovery, and his "Annals" in than one place evidence his just appreciation of its importance. The true "Columbus of this subterranean world," as he has been aptly designated, was the indefatigable Bosio, who devoted his life to the personal investigation of the Catacombs, the results of which given to the world in 1632 in a huge folio, entitled Roma Sotteranea, profusely illustrated with rude but faithful plans and engravings. This was republished in a Latin translation with considerable alterations and omissions by Aringhi in 1651 ; and a century after its first appearance, the plates were reproduced by Bottari in 1737, and illustrated with great care and learning. Some additional discoveries were described by Boldetti in his Osservazioni, published in 1720 ; but, writing in the scientific object truth was made to bend to polemics, and little additional to our knowledge of the Catacombs is to be gained from his otherwise important work. The French historian of art, Seroux d’Agincourt, 1825, by his copious illustrations, greatly facilitated the study of the architecture of the Catacombs and the works of art contained in them. The works of Raoul Rochette display a comprehensive knowledge of the whole subject, extensive reading, and a thorough acquaintance with early Christian art so far as it could be gathered from books, but he was not an original investigator. The great pioneer in the path of independent research, which, with the intelligent use of documentary and historical evidence, has led in our own day to so vast an increased in our acquaintance with the Roman Catacombs, was the late Padre Marchi of the Society of Jesus. His work, Monumenti delle arti Christiane Primitive, so disastrously interrupted by the political vicissitudes of the times, is the first in which the strange misconception, received with unquestioning faith by earlier writers, that the Catacombs were exhausted sand-pits, adapted by the Christians to the purpose of interment, was dispelled, and the trued history of their formation demonstration. Manchi’s line of investigation was followed by the Commendatore De’ Rossi, and his brother Michele, the former of whom was Marchi’s fellow-labourer during the latter part of his explorations ; and it is to them that we owe the most exhaustive scientific examination of the whole subject, in its geological, architectural, ritual, epigraphic, and artistic aspects, in the two volumes of Roma Sotterranea, published in 1864 and 1867, as well as in the articles periodically published in the Bullettino di Archelogia Christiana. A very convenient abridgment of De’ work has been produced in English under the same title by Dr Northcote, President of Oscott, and the Rev. W. R. Brownlow. The Catacombs of Rome are the most extensive with which we are acquainted, and, as might be expected in the centre of the Christian world, are in many respects the most remarkable. No others have been so thoroughly examined and illustrated. These may, therefore, be most appropriately selected for description as typical examples.



Our description of the Roman Catacombs cannot be more appropriately introduced than by St Jerome’s account of his visits to them in his youth, already referred to, which, after the lapse of above fifteen centuries, presents a most accurate picture of these wonderful subterranean labyrinths. "When I was a boy," he writes, "receiving my education in Rome, I and my schoolfellows used, on Sundays, to make the circuit of the sepulchers of the apostles and martyrs. Many a time did we go down into the Catacombs. These are excavated deep in the earth, and contain, on either hand as you either, the bodies of the dead buried in the wall. It is all so dark there that the language or the prophet (Ps. 1v. 15) seems to be fulfilled, ‘Let them go down quick into hell.’ Only occasionally is light let in to mitigate the horror of the gloom, and then not to so much through a window as through a hole. You take each step with caution, as, surrounded by deep night, you recall to words of Virgil—



"Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent."2



FOOTNOTE (p. 207)



(1) The most important of these lists are the two Itineraries belonging to the first half of the 7th century, in the Salzburg library. One still earlier, but less complete, appears in the Notitia Urbis Romae, under the title Index Caemeteriorum. Another Itinerary, preserved at Einsiedeln, printed by Mabillon, dates from the latter half of the same century. That found in the works or William of Malmesbury (Hardy’s ed. Vol. ii. pp. 539–544) appears to be copied from it, or both may be from the same source. De’ Rossi gives a comparative table of these Itineraries and other similar lists.
(2)
(3)
(4)
(5) Hieron., Comment. In Ezech., lib. Xx. c. 40. The translation is Dean Bugon’s.
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(7)
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In complete agreement with Jerome’s vivid picture the visitor to the Roman Catacombs finds himself in a vast labyrinth of narrow galleries, usually from 3 to 4 feet in width, interspersed with small chambers, excavated at successive levels, in the strata of volcanic rock subjacent to the city and its environs, constructed originally for the interment of the Christian dead. The galleries are not the way of access to the cemeteries, but are themselves the cemeteries work which it is almost impossible to reduced to any system. They generally run in straight lines, and as a rule preserve the same level. The different stories of galleries lie one below the other (fig. 2) to the number of four or five (in one part of the cemetery of St Callistus they reach seven stories), and communicate with one another by stairs cut out of the living rock. Light and air are introduced by means by vertical shafts (luminaria) running up to the outer air, and often serving for several stories. The drawing (fig. 3) from Northcote gives a very correct idea of these galleries, with the tiers of graves pierced in the walls. The doorways which are seen interrupting the lines of graves are those of the family sepulchral chambers, or cubicula, of which we shall speack more particularly hereafter.



The graves, or loculi, as they are commonly designated, were, in the Christian cemeteries, with only a few exceptions (Padre Marchi produced some from the cemetery of St Cyriaca, Monum. Primitiv., tav. Xiv. Xliii. Xliv.) parallel with the length of the gallery. In the pagan cemeteries, on the other hand, the sepulchral recess as a rule entered the rock like an oven at right angles to the corridor, the dead being buried in long low horizontal recesses excavated in the vertical walls of the passages, rising tier above tier like the berths in a ship, from a few inches above the floor to the springing of the arched ceiling to the number of five, six, or even sometimes twelve ranges. These galleries are not arranged on any definite plan, but, as will be seen from the woodcut (fig. 1), they intersect one another at different angles, producing an intricate net body being introduced end ways. The plan adopted by the Christmas saved labour, economized space, and consulted reverence in the deposition of the corpse. These loculi were usually constructed for a single body only. Some, however, were formed to contain two, three, or four, or even more corpses. Such recesses were known respectively as bisomi, trisomi, quadrisomi, &c., terms which often appear in the sepulchral inscriptions. After the introduced of the body the loculi were close with the greatest care, either with slabs of marble the whole length of the aperture, or which huge tiles, three being generally employed, cemented together with great exactness, so as to prevent the escape of the products of decomposition (fig. 4). Where any epitaph was set up—an immense number are destitute of any inscription at all—it is always painted or engraved on these slabs or tiles. In the earlier interments the epitaph is simply daubed on the slab in red or black paint. In later examples it is incised in the marbles, the letters being rendered clearer by being coloured with vermilion. The enclosing slab very often bears one or more Christian symbols, such as the dove, the anchor, the olive-branch, or the monogram of Christ (figs. 5, 6). The palm branch, which is also of frequent occurrence, has been solemnly decided by "the Congregation of Relics" to be an indisputable mark of the last resting place of a martyr. But the decision of this infallible authority has been proved fallacious by the stern logic of facts,—the emblem being found in connection with epitaphs of persons dying natural deaths, or those prepared by persons in their lifetime, as well as in those of little children, and even of pagans. Another frequent concomitant of these Catacomb interments, a small glass vessels containing traces of the sediment of the a red fluid, embedded in the cement of the loculus, pronounced as confidently by the same authority to indicate a martyr’s grave (fig. 7), has also shown the unwisdom of pronouncing of the dogmatically without sufficient evidence. The red matter proves to be the remains of wine, not of blood ; and the conclusion of the ablest archaeologists of the Church of Rome itself is that vessels were placed where they are found, after the Eucharistic celebration or agape on the day of the funeral or its anniversary, and contained remains of the consecrated elements as a kind of religious charm. Instances of the pious theft, not altogether unknown in modern churches, which combines economy with becoming respect to the dead, appear in the Catacombs. Not a few of the slabs, it is discovered, have done double duty, bearing a pagan inscription on one side, and a Christian one on the other. These are known as opisthographs. The bodies were interred wrapt in linen cloths, or swathed in bands, and were frequently preserved by embalming. In the case of poorer interments the destruction of the body was, on the contrary, often accelerated by the use of quicklime.



Interment in the wall-recess or loculus, though infinitely the most common, was not the only employed in the Catacombs. Other forms of very frequent recurrence are the table-tomb and arched tomb, or arcosolium. From the annexed woodcuts it will be seen that these only differ in the form of the surmounting recess. In each case the arched tomb was formed by an oblong chest, either hollowed out of the rock, or built of masonry, and closed with a horizontal slab. But in the table-tomb (fig. 8) the recess above, essential for the introduction of the corpse, is square, while in the arcosolium (Fig. 9), a form o f later date, is semicircular. Sarcophagi are also found in the Catacombs, but are of rare occurrence. They chiefly occur in the earlier cemeteries, and the costliness of their construction confined their use to the wealthiest classes—e.g., in the cemetery of St Domitilla, herself a member of the imperial house. Another unfrequent mode of interment was in graves like those of modern times, dug in the floor of the galleries (Marchi, u.s., tav. Xxi. Xxvi.). Table-tombs and arcosolia are by no means rare in the corridors of the Catacombs, but they belong more generally to the cubicula, or family vaults, of which we now proceed to speak.



These cubicula are small apartments, seldom more than 12 feet square, usually rectangular, though sometimes circular or polygonal, opening out of the main corridors. They are not unfrequently ranged regularly along the sides of the galleries, the doors of entrance, as may be seen in a previous illustration (fig. 3), following one another in as orderly succession as the bedchamber doors in the passage of a modern house. The roof is sometimes flat, but is more usually coved, and sometimes rises into a cupola. Both the roof and the walls are almost universally coated with stucco and covered with fresco paintings,—in the earlier works merely decorative, in the later always symbolical or historical. Each side of the cubiculum, that of the entrance, usually contains a recessed tomb, either a table-tomb or arcosolium. That facing the entrance was the place of greatest honour where in many instances the remains of a martyr were deposited, whose tomb, according to primitive usage, served as in altar for the celebration of the Eucharist. This sometimes, as in the Papal crypt of St Callistus (fig. 10), protected from irreverence by latticework (transennae) of marble. The cubiculum was originally designed for the reception of a very limited number of dead. But the natural desire to be buried near one’s relatives caused new tombs to be cut in the walls, above and around and behind the original tombs, the walls being thus completely honey-combed with loculi, sometimes as many as seventy, utterly regardless of the paintings originally depicted on the walls. Another motive for multiplying the number of graves operated when the cubiculum contained the remains of any noted saint or martyr. The desire of the old prophet of Bethel that his bones should be laid beside the bones of the man of God that came from Judah, is only the expression of an instinctive though unreasoning feeling, connecting greater personal safety with a resting-place close to the blessed dead, which awoke very early and acted very powerfully in the Christian Church. The Christian antiquary has cause continually to lament the destruction of works of art due to this craving. One of the most perfect examples of early Christian pictorial decoration, the so-called "Dispute with the Doctors," in the Catacomb of Callistus, the "antique style of beauty" of which is noticed by Kugler, has thus suffered irreparable mutilation, the whole of the lower part of the picture having been destroyed by the excavation of a fresh grave-recess. (Bottari, vol. ii. tav. 15). The plates of De’ Perret, and, indeed and illustrations of the Catacombs, exhibit frequent examples of the same destructive superstition. The woodcuts (fig. 11 and 12), taken from De’ Rossi’s great work, representing two of the cubicula in the cemetery of St Callistus, show that general arrangement of the loculi and the character of the frescos which ornament the walls and roof. These paintings, it will be seen, are simply decorative, of the same style as the wall-paintings of the baths, and those of Pompeii.



Each cubiculum was usually the burying-place of some one family, all the members of which were interred in it, just as in the chantry-chapels connected with mediaeval churches. In them was celebrated the funeral-feast on the day of burial and on the its anniversary, as well as the Eucharist, which was the invariable accompaniment of funerals in the primitive church (Bingham, Orig. Eccl., bk. Xxiii. c. iii. 12). The funeral banquet descended to the Christian Church from pagan times, and was too often profaned by heathen license. St Augustine, in several passages, inveighs against those who thus by "gluttony and insobriety buried themselves over the buried," and "made themselves drunk in the chapels of the martyrs, placing their excesses to the score of the religious reverence for the dead" (August, De Mor. Eccl. Cathol., c. 34 ; Contr. Faust., lib xx. c. 21 ; Canfess., lib. Vi. c. 2). Some curious frescos representing these funeral feast, found in the cubicula which were the scene of them, are reproduced by Bosio (pp. 355, 391) and others. A romantic air has been thrown over these burial chapels by the notion that they were the places of worship used by the Christians in times of persecution. This to a certain extent is doubltess true. Mr J. H. Parker, who has done more by his laborious and self-sacrificing investigations than any one living, not excepting De’ Rossi himself, for the elucidation of the true history and archaelogy of the Catacombs, writes : "That during the time of persecution the bishops performed the divine offices in the Catacombs is not only recorded, but many of the chapels fitted up for that purpose remain, especially one in the chapel of St Priscilla, where the altar or stone coffin of a martyr remains, with a small the platform behind it for the priest or bishop to stand and officiate over it according to the practice of the early church" (Archaeology of Rome ; The Catacombs, § 3, p. 25). Mommsen also speaks of them unhesitatingly as "places of devotion for the community," adding, "this union of devotion with the interment, the development of the grave into the cemetery, of the cemetery into the church, is essentially Christian, one might perhaps say is Christianity" (u.s., p.166). But that they can have been so used to any large extent is rendered impossible by the limited dimensions of these apartments, none of which could hold more than fifty or sixty persons. In some of the Catacombs however there are larger halls and connected suites of chapels, which possibly have been constructed for the purpose of congregational worship during the dark periods when the public exercises of their religion was made penal. The most remarkable of these is in the cemetery of St Agnes (see annexed plan, fig. 13). It consists of five rectangular compartments, three on one side of the corridor and two on the other, connected by a passage intersecting the gallery at right angles. Two of the five compartments are supposed to have been assigned to male, and two to female worshippers, the fifth, at the extremity of the whole, being reserved for the altar and its ministers. In the centre of the end-wall stands a stone chair (fig. 14), considered to have been the Episcopal cathedra, with a bench for the clergy on each side. There is no trace of an altar, which may, Padre Marchi thinks, have been portable. The walls of the compartments are occupied by arched sepulchral recesses, above and below which are tiers of ordinary graves or loculi. The arrangements are certainly such as indicate a congregational purpose, but the extreme narrowness of the suite, and still more of the passage which connects the two divisions, must have rendered it difficult for any but a small number to take any intelligent part in the services at the same time. Although the idea of the use of the Catacombs for religious worship may have been pressed too far, there can be no doubt that the sacred rites of the church were celebrated within them. We have already spoken of the Eucharistic celebrations of which the cubicula were the scene ; and still existing baptisteries prove that the other sacrament was also administered there. The most remarkable of these baptisteries is that in the Cat acomb of St Pontianus (fig. 15) Ten steps lead down to a basin of sufficient depth for immersion, supplied by a spring. The wall at the back exhibits a fresco of a jeweled cross, beneath an arched recess above which is a fresco of the Baptism of our Lord. Some of the subterranean chambers contain armed seats and benches cut out of the tufa rock. These are supposed by Marchi and others to indicate school-rooms, where the catechumens were instructed by the bishop or presbyters. But this theory wants verification. It is impossible not to be struck with the remarkable analogy between rock-hewn chairs and those discovered in the Etruscan tombs (vide infra), of the purpose of which no satisfactory explanation has been given.



Very exaggerated statements have been made as to the employment of the Catacombs as dwelling-places by the Christians in times of persecution. We have, however, sufficient evidence that they were used as places of refuge from the fury of the heathen, in which the believers—especially the bishops and clergy, who would naturally be the first objects of attack—might secrete themselves until the storm had blown over. This was purpose for which they were admirably adapted both by intricacy of their labyrinthine passages, in which any one not possessing the clue would be inevitably lost, and the numerous small chambers and hiding places at different levels which might be passed unperceived in the dark by the pursuers. As a rule also the Catacombs had more than one entrance, and frequently communicated with an arenaria or sand-quarry ; so that while one entrance was carefully watched, the pursued might escape in a totally different direction by another. But to quote again Mr J. H. Parker, "the Catacombs were never intended, nor fit for, dwelling-places, and the stories of persons living in them for months are probably fabulous. According to modern physician it is impossible to live many days in the caves of pozzolana in which many of the Catacombs are excavated." Equally exaggerated are the statements as to the linear and laternal extent of the Catacombs, and their intercommunication with one another. Without resorting to this exaggeration, Mommsen can speak with perfect truth of the "enourmous space occupied by the burial vaults of Christian Rome, not surpassed even by the cloacae or sewers of Republican Rome," but the data are too vague to warrant any attempt to define their dimensions. Padre Marchi has estimated the united length of the galleries at from 800 to 900 miles, and the number of interments at between, 6,000,000 and 7,000,000 ; Martigny’s estimate is 587 miles ; and Northcote’s, lower still, at "not less than 350 miles." The idea of general intercommunication is negatived by the fact that the chief cemeteries are separated by low-ground or valleys, where any subterranean galleries would be at once filled with water.



It now remains for us to speak of the history of these subterranean burial places, together with the reasons for, and mode of, their construction. From the period of the of the rediscovery of the Catacombs, towards the end of the 16th century, almost to our own day, gigantic fallacy prevailed, repeated by writer after writer, identifying the Christian burial-places with disused sand-pits. It was accepted as an unquestionable fact by every unquestionable fact by every one who undertook to described the Catacombs, that the Christians of Rome, finding in the labyrinthine mazes of the exhausted arenariae, which abounded in the environs of the city, whence the sand used in building had been extracted, a suitable places for the interment of their martyred brethren, where also the sacred rites accompanying the interment might be celebrated without fear of interruption, took possession of them and used them as cemeteries. It only needed a comparison of the theory with the visible facts to refute it at once. But the search after truth is troublesome, and to controvert received doctrines is always unpopular and it was found easier to accept the traditional view than to investigate for one’s self, and so nearly three centuries elapsed before the independence of the arenariae and the Catacombs was established. The discovery of this independence is due to Padre Marchi, whose name has been already so often mentioned. Starting with the firmest belief in the old traditional view, his own researches by degrees opened his eyes to its utter baselessness, and led him to the truth, now universally recognized by men of learning, that the Catacombs were exclusively the work of the Christians, and were constructed for the purpose with which their name is universally connected—the interment of the dead. It is true that a catacomb is often connected with the earlier sand-quarry, and starts from it as a commencement, but the two are excavated in different strata, suitable to their respective purposes, and their plan and construction are so completely unlike as to render any confusion between them impossible.



The igneous formation of which the greater part of the Roman Campagna is, in its superior portion, composed, contains three strata known under the common name of tufa,—the "stony," "granular," and "sandy" tufa,—the last being commonly known as pazzolana. The poz- last being commonly known as pozzolana.1 The pozzolana is the material required for building purposes, for admixture with mortar ; and the sandpits are naturally excavated in the stratum which supplies it. The stony tufa (tufa litoide) is quarried as building-stone. The granular tufa is useless for either purpose, containing too much earth to be employed in making mortar, and being far too soft to be used as stone for building. Yet it is in this stratum, and in this alone, that the Catacombs are constructed ; their engineers avoiding with equal care the solid stone of the tufa litoide and the friable pozzolana, and selecting the strata of mediuml hardness which enabled them to form the vertical walls of their galleries, and to excavate the loculi and cubicula without severe labour and also without fear of their falling in.



FOOTNOTE (p. 212)



1In Rome the three strata are known to geologists as tufa litoide, tufa granolare, and pozzolana.







The annexed wood cut (fig. 16) from Marchi’s work, when compared with that of the Catacomb of St Agnes already given, presents to the eye the contrast between the wide winding irregular passages of the sand-pit, calculated for the admission of a horse and cart, and the narrow rectilinear accurately-defined galleries of the Catacomb. The distinction between the two is also plainly exhibited when for some local or private an ancient arenaria has been transformed into a cemetery. The modifications required to strengthen the crumbling walls to support the roof and to facilitate the excavation of loculi, involved so much labour that, as a rule after a few attempts, the idea of utilizing an sold quarry for burial purposes was abandoned.



Another equally erroneous idea has only slowly retired before the increased historical research and scientific investigation which have been brought to bear on the construction of the Catacombs. This is, that these vast burial-places of the early Christians remained entirely concealed from the eyes of their pagan neighbours, and were constructed not only without the permission of the municipal authorities but without their cognizance. Nothing can be further from the truth. Such an idea, is justly stigmatized by Mommsen as ridiculous, and reflecting a discredit as unfounded as it is unjust on the imperial police of the capital. That such vast excavations should have been made without attracting attention, and that such an immense number of corpses could have been carried to burial in perfect secrecy is utterly impossible. Nor was there any reason why secrecy should have been desired. The decent burial of the dead was matter especially provided for by the Roman laws. No particular mode was prescribed. Interment was just a legal as cremation, and had, in fact, been universally practiced by the Romans until the later days of the republic.1 The bodies of the Scipios and Nasos were buried in still existing catacombs ; and if motives of reverence for that which had been the temple of the Holy Ghost led the Christians to adopt that which Minicuius Felix calls "the better, and more ancient custom of inhumation" (Octavius, c. 2), these was absolutely nothing, to quote the words of Dr Northcote (Roma Sotteran., pp. 56, 61), " either in their social or religious position to interfere with their freedom of action. The law left them entire liberty,…and the faithful did but used their liberty in the way that suited them best, burying their dead according to a fashion to which many of them had been long accustomed, and which enabled them at the same time to follow in death the example of him who was also their model in life." Interment in rock-hewn tombs," as the manner of the Jews is to bury," had been practiced in Rome by the Jewish settlers for a considerable period anterior to the rise of the Christian Church. A Jewish catacombs, now lost, was discovered and described by Bosio (Rom. Sott., p. 141), and others are still accessible they are only to be distinguished from Christian catacombs by the character of their decorations, the absence of Christian symbols and the language of their inscriptions. There would , therefore, be nothing extraordinary, or calling for notice in the fact that a community, always identified in the popular heathen mind with the Jewish faith, should adopt the mode of interment belonging to that religion. Nor have we the slightest trace of any official interference with Christian burials, such as would render secrecy necessary or desirable. Their funerals were as much under the protection of the law, which not only invested to tomb itself with a sacred character, but included in its protection the area in which it stood, and the cella memoriae or chapel connected with it, as those of their heathen fellow-citizens, while the same shield would be thrown over the burial-clubs, which, as we lean from Tertullian (Apolog., c. 39), were common among the early Christians, as over those existing among the heathen population of Rome. We may then completely dismiss the notion of there being any studied secrecy in connection with the early Christian cemeteries, and proceed to inquire into the mode of their formation. The investigations of De’ Rossi, confirmed by the independent researches of Mr J. H. Parker, show that, almost without exception, they had their origin in small burial areas, the property of private persons or of families gradually spreading and ramifying and receiving additions of one subterranean story after another as each was required for interments. The first step would be the acquisition of a plot of ground either by gift or purchase for the formation of a tomb. Christians were not beyond the pale of the law, and their faith presented no hindrance to the property being secured to them in perpetuity. To adapt the ground for its purpose as a cemetery, a gallery was run all round the area in the tufa rock at a convenient depth below the surface, reached by staircases at the corners. In the upright walls of these galleries loculi were cut as needed to received the dead. When these first four galleries were full others were mined on the same level at right angles to them, thus gradually converting the whole are into a net-work of corridors. If a family vault was required, or a burial chapel for a martyr or person of distinction, a small square room was excavated by the side of the gallery and communicating with it. When the original area had been mined in this way as far as was consistent with stability, a second story of galleries was begun at a lower level, reached by a new staircase. This succeeded by a third, or a fourth, and sometimes even by a fifth. When adjacent burial areas belonged to members of the same Christian confraternity, or by gift or purchase fell into the same hands, communications were opened between the respective cemeteries, which thus spread laterally, and gradually acquired that enormous extent which, "even when their fabulous dimensions are reduced to their right measure, form an immense work."2 This could only be executed by a large and powerful Christian community unimpeded by legal enactments or police regulations, "a living witness of its immense development corresponding to the importance of the capital." But although, as we have said, in ordinary times there was no necessity for secrecy, yet when the peace of the church was broken by the fierce and often protracted persecutions of the heathen emperors, it became essential to



FOOTNOTE (p. 213)



2 Mommsen’s chosen example of an ancient burial-chamber, extending itself into a catacomb, or gathering subterranean additions round it till a catacomb was established, is that the Cemetery of St Domitilla, traditionally identified withl a granddaughter of Vespasian, and the catacomb of SS. Nereus and Achilleus on the Appian and Ardeatine way.







Adopt precaustions to conceal the entrance to the cemeteries, which became the temporary hiding-places of the Christian fugitives, and to baffle the search of their pursuers. To these stormy periods we may safely assign the alterations which may be traced in the staircases, which are sometimes abruptly cut off, leaving a gap requiring a ladder, and the formation of secret passages communicating with the arenariae, and through them with the open country.



When the storms of persecution ceased and Christianity had become the imperial faith, the evil fruits of prosperity were not slow to appear. Cemetery interment became a regular trade in the hands of the fossores, or grave-diggers, who appear to have established a kind of property in the Catacombs, and whose greed of gain led to that destruction of the religious paintings with which the walls were decorated, for the quarrying of fresh loculi, to which we have already alluded. Monumental epitaphs record the purchase of a grave from the fossores, in many cases during the life time of the individual, not unfrequently stating the price. A very curious fresco, found in the cemetery of Callistus, preserved by the engravings of the earlier invetigators (Bottari, tom. ii. p. 126, tav. 99), represents a "fossor" with his lamp in his hand and his pick over his shoulder, and his tools lying about him. Above is the inscription, "Diognenes Fossor in the Pace depositus."



Our space forbids us to enter on any detailed description of the frescos which over the walls and ceilings of the burial-chapels in the richest abundance. It must suffice to say that the earliest examples are only to be distinguished from the mural decorations employed by their pagan contemporaries (as seen at Pompeii and elsewhere) by the absence of all that was immortal or idolatrous, and that it was only very slowly and timidly that distinctly religious representations were introduced. These were at first purely symbolical, meaningless to any but a Christian eye, such as the Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Sheep, the Fisherman, the Fish, &c. Even the personages of ancient mythology were pressed into the services of early Christian art, and Orpheus, taming the wild beasts with his lyre, symbolized the peaceful sway of Christ ; and Ulysses, deaf to the Siren’s song, represented the Believer triumphing over the allurements of sensual pleasure. The person of Christ appeared but rarely, and then commonly simply as the chief personage in an historical picture. The events depicted from our Lords’ are but few always conform rigidly to the same traditional type. The most frequent are the miracle at Cana, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the paralytic his bed, the healing of the woman with the issue of blood, the raising of Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Crucifixon, and subjects from the Passion, are never represented. The cycle of Old Testament subjects equally limited. The most common are the history of Jonah as a type of the Resurrection, the Fall, Noah receiving the dove with the olive branch, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Mosses taking off his shoes, David with the sling, Daniel in the lions’ den, and the Three Children in the fiery furnace. The mode of representation is always conventional, the treatment of the subject no less than its choice being dictated by an authority to which the artist was compelled to bow. Whatever be the date of the original pictures, a point on which considerable doubt exists, it is tolerably certain that the existing frescos are restorations of the 8th or even a later century, from which the character of the earlier work can only very imperfectly be discovered. All the more valuable of these paintings have been reproduced in Mr Parker’s magnificent series of photographs taken in the Catacombs by the magnesium light. The contrast between these rude inartistic performances and the finished drawings, which profess to be accurate copies, in Perret’s costly work, fully warrants the late Dean Milman’s severe strictures on that "beautiful book,"—"so beautiful as to be utterly worthless to the archaelogist and historian, which wants only two things,—truth and fidelity." Not the frescos alone, but also every point of interest in the plan, structure, and decoration of the Catacombs has been illustrated by Mr Parker in the same series of photographs, an examination of which is almost as instructive as a personal visit to the Catacombs themselves.1



Mr Parker’s invaluable series of Roman photographs may be seen at the library of the South Kensington Museum, and at Mr Stanford’s Charing Cross, as we’ll as in the Ashmolean Museum, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.



Beyond Rome and its suburbs the most remarkable Christian Catacombs are those in the vicinity of Naples, described by the Pelliccia (De Christ. Eccl. Polit., vol. iv. Dissert. 5), and in separate treatise by Bellerman. Plans of them are also given by Agincourt in his great work on Christian Art. These catacombs differ materially from those of Rome. They were certainly originally stone-quarries, and the hardness of the rock has made the construction practicable of wide, lofty corridors, and spacious halls, very unlike the narrow galleries and contracted chambers in the Roman cemeteries. The mode of interment, however, is the same as that practiced in Rome, and the loculi and arcosolia differ but little in the two. The walls and ceiling are covered with fresco paintings of different dates, in some cases lying one over the other. This catacomb contains an unquestionable example of a church, divided into a nave and chancel, with a rude stone altar and bishop’s seat behind it. At Syracuse also there are very extensive catacboms shown as "the Grottos of St John." They are also figured by Agincourt, and described by Denon (Voyage en Sicile et Malte). Denon considers them of pagan origin, and to have passed to the Christians. He speaks of an entire underground city with several stories of larger and smaller streets, squares, and cross ways, cut out of the rock ; at the intersection of the crossways, immense circular halls of a bottle shape, like a glass-house furnace, lighted by air shafts. The galleries are generally very narrow, furnished on each side with arched tombs, and communicating with family sepulchral-chambers closed originally by locked doors, the marks of the hinges and staples being still visible. The walls are in many places coated with stucco adorned with frescos, including palms, dovers, labara, and other Christian symbols. A more complete examination of this interesting cemetery is much needed. The ground-plans (figs. 19, 20), from Agincourt, of the catacomb and of one of the circular halls, show how widely it differs in arrangement from the Roman Catacombs. The frequency of blind passages and of circular chambers will be noticed, as well as the very large number of bodies in the cruciform recesses, apparently amounting in one instance to nineteen. Agincourt remarks that this cemetery "fives an idea of a work executed with design and leisure, and with means very different from those at command in producing the Catacombs of Rome."



Denon also describes catacombs at Malta near the ancient capital of the island. The passages were all cut in a close grained stone, and are very narrow, with arched ceilings, running very irregularly, and ramifying in all directions. The greater part of the tombs stand on either side of the galleries in square recesses (like the table-tombs of the Roman (Catacombs), and are rudely fashioned to imitate sarcophagi. The interments are not nearly so numerous as in other catacombs, nor are there any vestiges of painting, sculpture, or inscriptions. At Taormina in Sicily is a Saracenic catacomb, also figured by Agincourt. The main corridor is 12 feet wide, having three or more ranges of loculi on either side, running longitudinally into the rock, each originally closed by a stone, bearing an inscription.



Passing to Egypt a small Christiancatacomb has been recently discovered at Alexandria, and described and figured by De’ Rossi.1 The loculi here also are set end-ways to the passage. The walls are abundantly decorated with paintings, one of a liturugical character. But the most extensive catacombs at Alexandria the those of Aegypto-Greek origin, from the largest of which, according to Strabo (lib. xvii. p. 795), the quarter where it is place had the name of the Necropolis. The plan, it will be seen in remarkable for its regularity (fig. 21, 22). Here, too, the graves run endways into the rock. Other catacombs in the vicinity of the same city are described by Pocock and other travellers, and are figured by Agincourt.



Suberterranean cemeteries of the general character of those described are very frequent in all Southern and Eastern countries. A vast necropolis in the environs of Saida, the ancient Sidon, is described in Renan’s Mission en Phenicie, and figured in Thobois plates. It consists of a series of aparment approached by staircases, the sides pierced with sepulchral recesses running lengthwise into the rock.



The rock-hewn tombs of Etruria scarcely come under the category of catacombs, in the usual sense, being rather independent family burial-places, ground together in a necropolis. They are, however, far too remarkable to be altogether passed over. These sepulchers are usually hollowed out of the face of low cliffs on the side of a hill. They sometimes rise teir above tier, and are sometimes all on the same level "facing each other as in streets, and branching off laterally into smaller lanes lanes or alleys;" and occasionally forming "a spacious square or piazza sur



FOOTNOTE (p. 215)



1 Bulletino di Archeologia Christiana, November 1864, August1865.







rounded by tombs instead of houses" (Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, vol. ii. p. 31). The construction of the tombs commonly keeps up the same analogy between the cities of the living and those of the dead. Their plan is for the most part of house, with a door of entrance and passage leading into a central chamber or atrium, with others of smaller size opening from it, each having a stone-hewn bench or triclinium on three of its sides, on which the dead, frequently a pair of corpses side by side, were laid as if at a banquet. These benches are often hewn in the form of couches with pillows at one end, and the legs carved in relief. The ceilings have the representation of beams and rafters cut in the rock. In some instances arm-chairs, carved out of the living rock, stand between the doors of the chambers, and the walls above are decorated with the semblance of suspended shields. The walls are often covered with paintings in a very simple archaic style, in red and black. As a typical example of the Etruscan tombs we give the plan and section (fig. 23, 24) of the dell Sedia at Cervetri from Dennis (pp. 32, 35). The tombs in some instance form subterranean groups more analogous to the general idea of a catacomb. Of this nature is the very remarkable cemetery at Poggio Gajellas, near Chiusi, the ancient Clusium, of a portion of the principal story of which the woodcut (fig. 25) is a plan. The most remarkable of these sepulchral chambers is a large circular hall about 25 feet in diameter, supported by a huge cylindrical pillar hewn from the rock. Opening out of this and the other chambers, and connecting them together, are a series of low winding passages or cuniculi, just large enough for a man to creep through on all fours. No plausible suggestion has been offered as to the purpose of these mysterious burrows, which cannot fail to remind us of the labyrinth which, according to Varro’s description as quoted by Pliny (Hist. Nat., lib. xxxvi. C 19, §4), was the distinguishing mark of Porsena’s tomb and which have led some adventurous archaeologists to identify this sepulcher with that of the great king of Etruria (Dennis, u.s., p. 393, ff).



AUTHORITIES.—Aringhi, Roma Sotterranea ; Boldetti, Osservazaioni ; Bosio, Roma Sotteranea ; Bottari, Sculture et pitture sagre ; Garrucci, Cimetero degli Antichi Ebren ; Arte Cristiana ; Le Blant, Inscriptions Chrétiennes ; Fabretti, Inscriptionum Antiguarum Explicatio ; Lupi, Dissertatio ; Mabillon, Iter Italicum ; De Cultu ignotorum sanctorum ; Wharton Marriott, Testimony of the Catacombs ; Martigny, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Chrétiennes ; Mommsen, "The Roman Catacombs," Contemp. Review, May 1871 ; Marchi, Monumenti delle arti cristiane primitive ; Northcote and Bronwlow, Roma Sotteranea ; Panvinius, De ritu sepeliendi mortuos ; J. H. Parker, C.B., The Archaelogy of Rome, The Catacombs ; Perret, Les Catacombs de Rome ; Raoul Rochette, Tableau des Catacombes ; Richemont (Centre Desbossaynes de), Nouvelles eludes sur les catacombs Romaines ; De’ Rossi, Inscriptiones Christianae ; Roma Sotterranea ; Seroux d’ Agincourt, Histoire de l’art par les monuments ; Smith and Cheetham, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities. (E. V.)




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