Third time’s the charm! After my double failures the day before in trying to get to the catacombs I was determined to make it Tuesday. I sucked it up and paid for a metro and bus, well worth it because I made it! And I’m so glad I did.
The catacombs exist for the very basic reason that Christians believe in resurrection. Ancient Romans cremated their dead and so they did not need lavish tombs or cemeteries, but the Christians needed a place to bury their dead. I can’t remember the exact number but our tour guide said there were miles and miles of labyrinth catacombs under the ground.
I went specifically the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. I chose these catacombs because they:
- Are some of the best known
- Contain a few of the first Catholic popes (before they began burying them under St. Peter’s in Vatican)
- Were the first stop on the bus (really #3 is the most important reason…)
I’m sure you must be sick of hearing about my thesis BUT it came in handy again in the most surprising and rock star way. I got to see (and secretly touch) the crypt of Pope St. Fabian!!! I know…no one is as excited as I am because no one knows who he is, but he was in my thesis. His only real claim to fame is that he was a martyr in the first few centuries of the Church. He was in my thesis because of his (albeit loose) connections to the plague.
Also in the same section of the papal crypts was this beautiful heart-wrenching statue of St. Cecilia. This statue is supposed to be an exact copy of how her body was when they opened her tomb; I can’t verify that fact because they don’t let you see her body. That would be cool though!
You can’t escape art, even in a catacomb! The art here, besides being super ancient, has a great meaning and symbolism. You will be hard pressed to find what is now considered a typical Christian image, the crucified Christ. Think about it: everyone is being killed around you for believing in Christ, He is believed to be God who died and then resurrected, and you’re in a catacomb surrounded by death. You do not need to be reminded again of death – not a positive message. Instead, images of Christ as the Good Shepherd (very much alive) or Jonah and the Whale are chosen.
The first image, Christ as the Good Shepherd, is common because it shows the compassion and father/guardian-like role Christ has with the Church. He is there to guide you back into the fold.
Jonah and the Whale is all about resurrection. Bible refresher: Jonah was a guy in the Old Testament on a boat and then he fell off the boat and was eaten by a whale but miraculously three days later, he emerged good as new. Jesus is a man who was crucified to death and three days later resurrected from his tomb. See the connection here?
These images are all about hope and salvation; something early Christians (in a catacomb) seriously needed.
P.S. 2016 update: although the Catacombs of St. Callixtus are not part of the AP Art History 250, the Catacombs of Priscilla are and there is identical imagery, symbolism, & purpose.