Myths and mysteries – these are two of the central themes whenever the topic of ancient catacombs is raised. In movies, ancient burial grounds may be central for the creation of suspense – a cross inlaid in the floor of a library marks the spot where Indiana Jones had to dig to access the ancient catacombs of Venice in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The catacombs, a network of dark and narrow underground tunnels and tombs, hold the secret that eventually leads Indy to the hideout of the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the dramatic scene is entirely fictional. There are no catacombs in Venice, as the town rises on wood piles in the middle of the saltwater Venetian Lagoon. There is no room for underground chambers or passages and only a few buildings have a basement.
To find catacombs, one must go to Rome, home of some of the oldest and longest burial underground tunnels in the world. Hundreds of miles of catacombs run underneath the city and its outskirts. Some of the networks are well-known and open to visitors, while others are still scarcely explored. There is also likely to be a number of lost catacombs, awaiting discovery which will likely be by pure chance and accident.
The oldest underground tunnels date back to the first century. Christian catacombs came a century later. They were not secret meeting places to survive persecutions as historians thought in the past, but burial tunnels. The sites may have begun on a relatively small scale, but as they grew larger and as saints were buried in the catacombs, many others wanted to be buried near these religious leaders. All Christian catacombs in Rome are the property of the Catholic Church and no one is allowed to explore them without special permission from the Vatican.
The aura of mystery surrounding the catacombs has fed legends for centuries. Three years ago, a claim was raised that the Holy Grail could be hidden in Rome, in the catacomb beneath the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. The theory arose that the Grail may lie near the tomb of St. Lawrence, a deacon martyred in 258 AD. According to legend, Pope Sixtus II entrusted the Holy Grail to Lawrence to save it from the persecution of Emperor Valerian. The deacon put the chalice in a safe place before being killed. But there are reasons to suspect that the Grail is buried in a tunnel under the basilica dedicated to St. Lawrence. Vatican authorities denied permission to open the catacomb to look for the chalice, citing lack of solid evidence…and so, the myths and mysteries continue.
Early Christians didn’t bury objects with their dead. What is found are inscriptions, frescos and human remains. One of the finest books based on research of the catacombs was recently published by St. Johann’s Press. Entitled “Below Rome” by Frank J. Korn and Camille M. Korn, the masterful work describes in detail the history of the catacombs.
In Rome, the catacombs are a series of subterranean tunnels that plunge up to seven stories beneath the ground. Like a vast hive, each is lined with burial niches called loculis and were sealed with stone or masonry.
The tombs were forgotten once Christianity became the official religion of Rome, but were rediscovered in the 16th century when relic hunters went in search of saintly remains to adorn their churches. Today the Roman Catacombs function as eerie reminders of the birth of Christianity.
There are 13 known Christian Catacombs in Rome and a further six Jewish Catacombs. Long a source of fascination for archeologists, they were first explored in the 16th century by the antiquarian Antonio Bosio. Among his many adventures, he nearly perished after losing his way while exploring the Catacombs of Domitilla. Bosio’s lifework remained mostly unrecognized until the publication of his book, “Roma Sotterranea,” three years after his death. By describing how to access many of the known catacombs of Rome, he paved the way for archeologists and more than a few treasure hunters to explore the catacombs.
The treasure hunters, bent on profit, often came back disappointed as early Christians were rarely buried with valuables. But with more and more churches being built, relic hunters sanctioned by the Vatican were also sent into the catacombs of Rome. They brought back relics or supposed relics, of whichever patron saint was being honored in a newly-completed church. Despite the fact that Christians were, at times, terribly persecuted in pagan Rome, the catacombs were not secret, nor were they hiding places for Christians. In fact, the Roman government was happy to tax Christians for the land in which the tombs were dug.
Of the known catacombs, the most popular are the Catacomb of Domitilla and the Catacombs of Callixtus. The other catacombs are the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, the Catacombs of Commodilla, the Catacombs of Generosa, the Catacombs of Praetextatus, the Catacombs of San Pancrazio, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Catacombs of San Valentino, the Catacombs of St. Agnes, the Catacombs of via Anapo and the Catacombs of St. Priscilla.
The Capuchin Bone Chapel
Although not technically a catacomb, the Bone Chapel is a must-see for anyone interested in the more esoteric side of Christian burial practices. The Capuchin monks have unique beliefs about life and death. They celebrate human mortality and exalt death as a natural part of life. With this in mind, they established a crypt in the basement of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome that contains the bones and mummified remains of some 4,000 Capuchin friars. Among all the bones, there is a plaque that reads – “What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will be.” Perhaps not exactly the most uplifting of thoughts, but certainly one to ponder.
Each of the five rooms in the crypt is dedicated to different Biblical tableaus designed with skeletons, mummies and bones. It is certainly one of the more remarkable religious displays you will ever see. You’ll find the church, crypt and a small museum on the Via Veneto near Barbarini Square.
The Basilica of San Clemente
One evening in the mid-1850s, one of the priests of the Basilica of San Clemente was sitting in the church when he heard running water. He went to look for it and his search eventually led him down through the floor of the church to an excavation that would reveal one of the most astonishing archeological sites in all of Rome. The Basilica is located just a few blocks away from the Colosseum and was built in the 12th century on top of a 4th century church, which in turn was built on top of a 1st century pagan temple. Its excavation revealed, perhaps more obviously than anywhere else in Rome, the way the city was constructed on top of itself, layer after layer. If you want to reach the 1st century ground level from the bottom floor of the present day church, you have to descend nearly 60 feet.
The modern church’s main draw is its 12th century apse mosaic showing Jesus on a cross that turns into a living tree. The 4th century church below still has beautiful frescoes and an impressive, if somewhat damper architecture. Below that is a mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the mysterious pagan god Mithras, whose cult came from Persia to Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries before it was stamped out by Roman Christians. There is no more tangible way to experience the religious history of Rome than by descending through these levels of different architecture, each representing a different era of the Eternal City.
Rome’s Via Appia Antica, Old Appian Way, outside the walls of Rome was used as a burial place for early Christians, as well as pagans. There are several companies that are authorized to conduct tours of the catacombs. The Catacombs of St. Callixtus, the largest and most popular, has a network of galleries about 12 miles long and 65 feet deep. Highlights of the catacombs include the crypt of nine popes and early Christian frescoes, paintings and sculptures.
The Catacombs of St. Domitilla has the oldest catacombs, with an entrance through a 4th century church. Tour groups at St. Domitilla tend to be smaller, but one of the highlights is a 2nd century fresco of the Last Supper. The Catacombs of St. Sebastian has about seven miles of tunnels, but the tour is restricted to a very small area. Highlights of these catacombs include early Christian mosaics and graffiti.
Roman Catacombs at Via Salaria include Saint Priscilla’s Catacombs, among Rome’s oldest, dating back to the late 2nd century AD. They’re just outside the center on Via Salaria, another of Rome’s ancient roads leaving Rome at the Salaria gate, Porta Salaria, and heading east to the Adriatic Sea.