Early Christian Catacombs: Organization, Function & Ornamentation

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  • 0:02 What Are the Catacombs?
  • 3:05 What Happened in the…
  • 5:15 The Art of the Catacombs
  • 8:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the early Christian catacombs. We'll study their creation, organization, and primary functions, and we'll take a look at how early Christians filled them with works of art.

What Are the Catacombs?

You peer into the dim network of tunnels before you and shiver. You're in a narrow stone hall, lit only by a few oil lamps. The air feels cool, for you are underground, and the slightly arched stone ceiling overhead seems low and close. You walk along, following the twists and turns of the tunnel, and as you run your hand along the wall, you are acutely conscious of what lies behind it. Or rather, who. For behind the stone walls lie the dead, body after body in individual niches. Occasionally, you come to a niche that is not yet filled, but you know that it soon will be because it's the second century CE, and you're in the Roman catacombs.

Most people have heard of the Roman catacombs, but few actually know much about them. The catacombs, which were constructed in the first, second, and third centuries CE, first by Jews and then by Christians, are underground cemeteries that stretch for miles beneath Rome and its surrounding areas. Six Jewish catacombs and about forty Christian catacombs still exist, many of them 22-65 feet below the city, often with multiple levels of passageways.

The catacombs are composed primarily of burial niches called loculi that line the passages. Each of these loculi, which are usually 16-24 inches high and 47-59 inches long, once contained a linen-shrouded body. Its opening was covered in stone and usually marked with an engraving stating the name, age, and sometimes characteristics or relationships of the person entombed there. Families with substantial resources often chose to build cubicula, which are burial chambers that house loculi as well as arched burial nooks called arcosolia and places for elaborately-carved stone coffins called sarcophagi.

A single catacomb could accommodate thousands upon thousands of burials. Some of the most famous catacombs include the Catacomb of San Callisto, the Catacomb of San Sebastiano, the Catacomb of Domitilla, and the Catacomb of Priscilla. No one, however, is actually buried in the catacombs these days. Remains have been removed either by grave robbers over the centuries or by transfers to modern cemeteries.

What Happened in the Catacombs?

As you wander through the catacomb's passageways, you remind yourself of why you are here. A while back, your uncle, who was a Christian like you are, was killed by the Romans because he refused to renounce his Christian faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. After he was torn to pieces by wild beasts, you and other members of the family collected his remains and buried him here in the catacombs, but you have not forgotten him. In fact, you come here frequently to pray at his tomb and ask him to pray to God for you.

The catacombs were primarily burial places. That was the main function. Unlike the Romans, Jews and early Christians did not believe in cremating the dead but preferred to entomb them instead. The Romans did not permit burials within the city, so wealthy Jewish and Christian families donated the land beneath their estates for the creation of the catacombs as a practical solution to the problem of what to do with the dead.

The role of the catacombs expanded quickly, however. Christian martyrs, people who were killed for refusing to renounce their Christian faith, were often buried in the catacombs. The other Christians looked to the martyrs for examples of how to live and die for their faith and turned to them for prayers, knowing that the martyrs were safe in Heaven and could intercede for their fellow Christians who were still living on Earth. Christians often prayed at the martyrs' tombs, sometimes even celebrating the Eucharist there on the anniversaries of their deaths or on other special occasions. Even after Christianity became a legal religion in the 300s CE, Christians still returned to the catacombs to venerate the martyrs, pray for their dead relatives and friends, and ask for the intercession of those who had gone before them.

The Art of the Catacombs

You have now finished praying at your uncle's tomb, and you are ready to leave the catacombs. As you make your way through the passageways, however, something catches your eye. You've never really realized before how beautiful the catacombs are, but for some reason the paintings on the walls appeal to you today. You recognize all kinds of familiar Christian symbols, pictures of Jesus, and scenes from the Scriptures. You pause here and there, admiring the elegance of each painting and pondering its message for you as a Christian.

The catacombs provided plenty of space for Christian art, and indeed, they are filled with paintings that held great meaning for early Christians, who used them to both express and better understand their faith. The art of the catacombs tends to be either narrative or non-narrative. It either tells a story of some kind, or it presents a symbol or set of symbols that illustrate elements of Christianity.

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