The ancient city of Rome was home to an estimated 50 to 90 million inhabitants at its height in AD 117. And where there is life, there also is death–and the need to bury the deceased.
During the first century, most Christians buried their dead in public cemeteries. After the middle of the second century, those who could not afford a tomb began excavating. The multi-level deep, underground cemeteries were named after proprietors or benefactors, such as the Catacombs of Priscilla on Via Salaria and Domitilla on Via delle Sette Ciese.
The name for such burial sites evolved over centuries. Romans called them necropolis, meaning city of the dead. Early Christians preferred the name coemeterium, a place of rest. Around the fourth century, most were called ad catacumbas in reference to the nearby caves. By the ninth century any underground Christian cemetery became known as a catacomb.
Since burial was not allowed within city limits, the 50 to 60 known Roman catacombs are found outside city walls. Narrow steps and passageways wind throughout these dark underground cemeteries descending as many as four stories down. Clothed bodies were wrapped in linen and placed in chambers sealed with a slab bearing their name, age, and date of death, much like our mausoleums of today.
The surrounding walls were adorned with inscriptions, frescos, sculptures, and drawings describing the professions of the deceased, biblical stories, and symbols of faith. The ancient art offers us an important glimpse into the beliefs of early Christians as most remains were buried there before 400 AD.
Common images found near these tombs include the Good Shepherd; the Orante, a figure with open arms representing the soul at peace in paradise; the fish; a monogram of Christ; and the anchor, a symbol of hope in the promise of the future. Moses striking the rock and the resurrection of Lazarus are also frequently depicted. The Priscilla catacombs is thought to contain the oldest known painting of Mary with Jesus on her lap, which dates to the early third century,
Visitors are welcome but photos are not allowed in the catacombs. The above photos show some of the replicated art. Actual images of the ancient art, as well as snapshots of the inside of the catacombs, can be seen here.
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