Christian Art 101 – The Catacombs of Priscilla – An Introduction


Christian Art 101 – The Catacombs of Priscilla – An Introduction

 Beneath the feet of transcending cathedrals and bustling Roman streets lies an empire untouched by modernity. This city of the dead holds together the roots of ancient Christian civilization, art and faith. The Roman volcanic rock called the tufa adequately lent itself to dig, construct and support these underground structures called the catacombs. Roman catacombs originated under the papacy of Pope Zephyrin (199 – 217) who entrusted upon deacon Callixtus (later Pope) the task of supervising the cemetery of the Appian Way where most of the important Pontiffs of the third century would be buried.

The custom of the subterranean interment was well known to the Etruscans, the Jews and the Romans. However with Christianity a more complex and larger system developed. Christian hypogea wished to welcome the whole community into one necropolis, also called the coemeterium. The word in Greek signifies a dormitory thus emphasizing on the ‘temporary’ nature of death and the resting before the eternal resurrection.

The Catacombs of Priscilla are situated on the Via Salaria, its entrance enclosed in the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla. Allegedly, in ancient times, this was a Roman quarry which housed the bones of several Popes and martyrs. It was thus called the ‘regina catacumbarum’ or ‘the queen of the Catacombs’.

Tradition holds the catacombs were named after Priscilla, the wife of Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio, who embraced the Way at the cost of his life. On being killed by Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81 – 96), the noblewoman Priscilla donated the land as a burial ground for the early Christians and the members of her family. The catacombs were employed between 2nd and the 4th centuries before being abandoned and subsequently discovered in the 15th century as containing approximately 40,000 tombs.

The underground burial chambers can be divided into three principal zones: the ‘arenarium’ (sand quarry), the ‘cryptoporticus’ (a covered passageway that provided relief from the heat) and the ‘hypogeum’ (tombs of the early Christians and the Acilius Glabrio family). The galleries encompass around 13 kilometres at various depths. They lead not to the cemeteries for they are cemeteries themselves. The dead were buried in horizontal recesses in vertical walls, starting a few inches above the floor and traversing to the arched ceiling. 

At the initial level are found the most ancient and common tomb-type called the ‘loculi’. Bodies were wrapped into a shroud, sprinkled with lime and directly laid within. These horizontal chambers were covered with a marble/tile plaque decorated with early Christian iconography in Greek or Latin. The other tomb-types include: the arcosolium (burial chamber for families); the sarcophagus (inscripted stone or marble coffin); the forma (dug into the floor usually for martyrs); the cubicula (small rooms with several loculi used as family tombs) and the crypt (larger room used as martyr tombs).

Today most of the catacombs are empty due to grave robbing and the removing of relics. However these oddly serene and fascinating arrangements still stand testimony to the dawn of the artistic language of faith that lurks within its fossilized landscape. The wall patterning bear witness to a congruence of lives, lived for Christ and now rested in Him. As dust embraces dust, the unsettling, adventurous and glorious journey of the language of faith begins.

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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