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’.

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