Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Ready to go...down....?

Inside the Catacombs of San Callixtus.
Rome has a population of about 2.7 million people - living people, that is. Its ghosts number millions more. And nowhere are these ghosts more apparent than in Rome's catacombs -- kilometres of tunnels dug in the tufa rock under the ground in areas outside of Rome's walls, where the early Christians buried their dead. Along the old Appian Way the Christians of the first, second and third centuries AD - before Constantine converted all Romans to Christianity - dug deep into the soft tufa rock to form networks of tunnels lined with niches for their dead.

The Catacombs of San Callixtus stretch for a winding 17 kilometres over four deep levels. You can visit them with a guide, and see the regular niches for the poor, family vaults painted with Christian-themed frescoes, and larger chapels, some where early popes (bishops) were buried. Originally martyrs were buried in the Catacombs, resulting in everyone wishing to be interred nearby. The "important" bones have long since been removed. The Catacombs were seals many centuries ago, to guard against looting, with many only re-discovered in the q9th century. San Callixtus was excavated by Giovanni Battista de Rossi, who is sometimes called "the founder of modern Christian archaeology."

The "star" of the San Callixtus Catacombs is our old friend, Saint Cecilia. You can stand quietly before the spot where she's said to have been interred, which now houses a replica of the Stefano Maderno sculpture of the saint (made in 1599-1600), in the naturalistic and sombre pose in which her remains are said (or imagined) to have been found.

Saint Cecilia's resting place, Catacombs of San Callixtus.
Catacombs of San Callixtus.
Next along the Old Appian Way is the "Basilica of San Sebastian Outside the Walls" (San Sebastiano fuori le Mura), built above more Catacombs. These are nearly as extensive at Callixtus, but as your guide leads you down you may find the tunnels here narrower, the ceilings lower and the experience a little more claustrophobic. Everywhere are the symbols of Christianity, including a fish (a crude early acronym: the Ancient Greek word for "fish" apparently forms and acronym referring to Christ. Obscure now, perhaps, but presumably effective short-hand in an era of illiteracy and persecution.)

Pilgrims' graffiti, San Sebastiano.

Pagan tomb, San sebastiano.

San Sebastiano was, as you might expect, the site where the poor arrow-riddled saint was interred when he was martyred in 288 AD - though he recovered from the arrow-wounds, apparently, and was in fact beaten to death. His actual remains are up above now, in the Basilica. The first church here was a great basilica built in the early 4th century over several pagan tombs and parts of a Roman villa. Initially it was called Basilica Apostolorum, the Basilica of the Apostles, and was dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. This was because there was a tradition that the relics of these two apostles had been transferred here for safe-keeping during a persecution in the reign of the emperor Valerian, 238. Surviving graffiti in the catacombs bear out this tradition -- the Basilica is one of the seven great pilgrimage churches of Rome.

San Sebastiano. In his Basilica Outside the Walls.
On your tour of the Catacombs you can see the ancient pilgrims' graffiti on terracotta shards; and several pagan tombs, once in the open-air but now below ground. As to Saints Peter and Paul, St Peter is of course buried under the big Basilica of his name in Vatican City. St Paul is said to be buried somewhere out towards Ostia. It was difficult to keep track of everybody when they were members of an outlawed religion.

But at the Catacombs of the Old Appian Way, the ghosts still gather.

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