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De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus (64, 4)
The word “catacomb” is used to define any kind of underground necropolis. The old term to call this monuments is coemeterium, derived word from the greek that means “bedroom”. For christians, the sepulture was a provisional moment, of transaction on the way to resurrection.
The old Rome’s law forbid, because of sanitary reasons, bury the dead inside the city. The roman roads were flanked by splendid sepulchres of the patrician families, that were generally incinerated and conserved their ashes inside the urns.
The first christians, instead, considering that they had to be ready for resurrection, were buried without being burnt on underground groutes excavated on the rocks. The dead were deposited in the grave wrapped in two layers of cloth soaked in bleach to avoid the risk of contagion to the living.
According to some authors, the catacombs were shelters in which to hide during the persecutions, while for others were places to meet to honor the dead, especially the martyrs and popes, usually with banquets.
With the signing of the Edict of Milan in the year 313, the persecution of the Christians ceased, so they could begin to build churches and acquire land without fear of being confiscated. Despite this they continued using the Catacombs as cemeteries until the 5th century.
During the invasion of the barbarians in Italy in the eighth century, many catacombs were sacked, so the popes transferred the relics that still conserved to the churches of the city. After the transfers some Catacombs were completely abandoned and were forgotten for several centuries.
The Catacombs began to be built in the second century. Many of them were excavated and expanded around the tombs of the villas of important families in Rome, whose owners, newly converted to Christianity, opened them not only for their families but also for their brothers in the faith.
THE MOST IMPORTANT SYMBOLS:
These secluded and hidden places underground were the perfect refuge in which Christians could bury their own, and there communicated freely through symbols engraved in the urns of the Catacombs. It was a way of expressing their faith visibly, some of them being true works of art. The most relevant were:
1.- The Good Shepherd: with the sheep on his shoulders he represents Christ the Savior and the soul that he has saved. Jesus is the Shepherd and all Christians are his sheeps that he knows one by one. The sheep loaded on the shoulders indicates the lost sheep and is frequently found in the frescoes, in the reliefs of the sarcophagi, as well as engraved on the tombs.
2.- The prayer: Figure dressed in a tunic with wide sleeves and arms raised at prayer, symbolizes the soul that enjoys the heavenly bliss interceding for those who stay in this world.
3.- The Chi Rho: Monogram of Christ, formed by the Greek letters X (ji) and P (ro) superimposed. Symbol placed in a tomb, indicated that the deceased was a Christian, and even now, this symbol is found in churches and altars.
4.- The fish: In Greek the word “fish” is called “IXTHYS” (Ijzys) and it meant “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.
5.- The tree: It represents the life that grows from the earth towards the sky, with leaves, fruits, etc. These are symbols of earthly life that tend towards the life of “heaven”, to the resurrection.
6.- The dove: It symbolizes the soul that reached divine peace, and the saving intervention of God, the Holy Spirit, the soul of the deceased and peace.
7.- The Alpha and the Omega: First and last letter of the Greek alphabet (A, Ω). They mean that Christ is the beginning and the end of all things, so we find it quoted in the Apocalypse.
8.- The anchor: It was like those first marine anchors with crossed arms and a ring at the top to pass the rope. That’s why it soon became a way of representing the Christian cross, especially at a time when it was dangerous to reveal one’s religious affiliation. Later it became a symbol of the 2nd theological virtue, the hope. The anchor to trust is Christ.
9.- The lamb: It represents Jesus crucified pierced by the spear, the “Lamb of God” who offers himself in sacrifice for the salvation of humankind. In the Council of Constantinople, in the year 692, to avoid confusion with other religions, it was imposed that in Christian art Christ was represented on the Cross, not as a lamb but in human form.
10.- The peacock: Symbol of the Resurrection and eternal life. This bird loses its feathers in winter acquiring new ones in spring even more beautiful.
11.- The phoenix: Mythic bird of Arabia that, according to the ancients believed, is reborn from its ashes after a certain number of centuries. It is the symbol of the resurrection.
12.- The boat: Represents the Church. It is a clear reference to the Church: outside of it there is no salvation. The representation of the boat that appears in many tombs, is the symbol of hope for eternity.
CATACOMBS OF ROME
At first the name of Catacombs was given to the cemetery of Saint Sebastian, that place where the early Christians of Rome had provisionally buried the bodies of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at a time when they feared that they would be stolen. It was the place called ad catacumbas.
In Rome there are more than 60 catacombs composed of hundreds of underground galleries that house thousands of tombs. The most important and that can be visited today are:
Catacombs of Saint Sebastian (Via Appia Antica, 136). These 12 km long Catacombs owe their name to Saint Sebastian, a soldier who was martyred for converting to Christianity.
Catacombs of Saint Calixtus (Via Appia Antica, 126). With a network of galleries over 20 km long. The tombs of Saint Calixtus were the burial place of 16 pontiffs and dozens of Christian martyrs.
Catacombs of Priscilla (Via Salaria, 430). They preserve some very important frescoes for the history of art, such as the first representations of the Virgin Mary.
Catacombs of Domitila (Via delle Sette Chiese, 280). Discovered in the year 1593. Of more than 15 km, they owe their name to the granddaughter of Emperor Vespasian.
Catacombs of Saint Agnes (Via Normentana, 349). After being martyred for her Christian faith, Saint Agnes was buried in them.
CATACOMBS OUT OF ROME
By extension, throughout the Middle Ages this name was given to all known cemeteries in the outskirts of Rome that formed a large necropolis and had their own characteristics. Following that extension catacombs were also called to all the underground cemeteries found in other places although they belonged to very different and much more modern times. This happened in Italy itself with the burials of Naples, whose oldest galleries are from the 3rd and 4th centuries, perfectly known and described by the historian G. Pelliccia and with the subterranean galleries of Chiusi in Tuscany, also from the same period.
-The Catacombs of the Capuchins, in Palermo, were excavated as crypts by the monks of the monastery.
-The Catacombs of Lima, named for its similarity to those of Rome, are crypts located under the convent of San Francisco, it was a cemetery until 1810.
-The Catacombs of Kom el Shogafa, also called Catacombs of Alexandria. From the 1st and 2nd centuries. Its bas-reliefs mix Egyptian and classical artistic forms.
-The Catacombs of Odesa (present-day Ukraine), with about 2,500 km of galleries. It is considered the largest gallery system in the world.
-The Catacombs of Paris, are one of the most famous cemeteries in Paris. They consist of a series of underground tunnels and rooms located in what during the Roman era were limestone mines. The place was converted into a common cemetery at the end of the 18th century.
Author: Valentín Ortiz Juez