By Devin Watkins
Large numbers of early Christian martyrs were buried in the Catacombs of Priscilla, which was known as the regina catacumbarum – the “queen of the catacombs”.
At the Angelus on Friday, Pope Francis announced plans to celebrate Mass in this ancient Roman cemetery on Saturday, the feast of All Souls.
“In these days in which there unfortunately circulate negative cultural messages regarding death and the dead, I invite you not to neglect, if possible, a visit and a prayer in a cemetery.”
He called it “an act of faith.”
The Catacombs of Priscilla
The Catacomb of Priscilla, sits on the Via Salaria, with its entrance in the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla. It is mentioned in all of the most ancient documents on Christian topography and liturgy in Rome; because of the great number of martyrs buried within it, it was called “regina catacumbarum” – “the queen of the catacombs.”
Originally dug out from the second to fifth centuries, it began as a series of underground burial chambers, of which the most important are the “arenarium” or sand-quarry; the cryptoporticus, (an underground area to get away from the summer heat), and the hypogeum with the tombs of the Acilius Glabrio family. The noblewoman Priscilla, who granted the Church use of the property, was a member of this family; her commemoration is noted on January 16th in the Roman Martyrology, which speaks of her as a benefactor of the Christian community in Rome. This cemetery was lost like all the others after the entrances were blocked to protect it from thievery; however, it was also one of the first to be rediscovered, in the sixteenth-century. A large portion of the funerary inscriptions, sarcophagi, stones and bodies (presumed to be those of martyrs) were subsequently taken away; nevertheless, the catacomb does preserve some particularly beautiful and important paintings, the most significant of which are included on the regular visit.
The Galleries of the Cemetery
Dug into the tuff, a soft volcanic rock used to make bricks and lime, the galleries have a total length of about thirteen kilometres, at various depths. The first level, which is the most ancient, winds along in a series of galleries; the walls are full of “loculi”, the most common kind of tomb. The bodies were laid within them, directly on the dirt, wrapped in a shroud, sprinkled with lime to restrain the normal process of decay, and closed in with pieces of marble, or tiles. Inscriptions were written in Greek or Latin on the tombs, or small objects placed near them to help identify graves with no inscription. Only on this level, where the martyrs were buried, do we find the small rooms known as “cubicula” (“bed chambers”), which were the tombs of wealthier families or of the martyrs themselves. Likewise, we find here the “arcosolia”, another type of tomb for the upper classes, often decorated with paintings of religious subjects. Most of the stories depicted are Biblical, from both the Old and New Testaments, an expression of faith in the salvation and final resurrection obtained for us by Jesus Christ. The stone inscriptions on the tombs are often marked with symbols whose meaning was known to the Christians, but not to the pagans. The best known of these is the fish, the Greek word for which, ICHTHYS, was read as an acronym for the corresponding Greek words that mean “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.”
The Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman
This room is named for the picture in the semi-circle on the back wall, in which a young woman, wearing a rich purple garment and a veil on her head, lifts up her arms in prayer. On either side of her are two scenes unlike any others among all of the paintings in the various catacombs, probably episodes of her life. In the middle, the Good Shepherd is painted in the Garden of Paradise, amid peacocks and doves. Before this scene, in the arch above the door, the prophet Jonah is shown emerging from the mouth of a sea-monster, a clear expression of faith in the Resurrection. The semi-circle on the left depicts the Sacrifice of Isaac, while on the right are shown the Three Children in the fiery furnace in Babylon; both of these episodes are expressions of faith in God’s salvation, understood by the first Christians as prophecies of the salvation brought by the coming of Christ. These pictures, which are in a remarkably good state of preservation, date back to the second half of the third century.
The Greek Chapel
When this area was found, it was full of dirt that had come down through the light shaft in the ceiling; it is named for the two Greek inscriptions, painted in the right niche, which were the first things seen by its discoverers.
Richly decorated with paintings and stuccos in the Pompeian style, it is formed of three niches for sarcophagi and a long seat for funeral banquets, called “refrigeria” or “agapae”, which were held at the tombs in honor of the dead. The painting in the central arch at the back, on a red background, shows just such a banquet, but with a clear reference to the banquet of the Holy Eucharist, which also was sometimes celebrated by the Christians near venerated tombs. Seven persons are seated at the table, the first of which is breaking the bread as he stretches out his hands; at the sides of the table are seven baskets, a reference to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus also promised the bread of eternal life.
Several episodes of the Old Testament are also shown: Noah on the ark; Moses making water run from the rock, a prophecy of the saving waters of baptism; the sacrifice of Isaac; and three stories of miraculous deliverance from the book of Daniel (Daniel among the lions; the three children in the furnace; Susanna accused of adultery by the elderly judges in Babylon, and saved by Daniel). Episodes of the New Testament are also depicted, such as the resurrection of Lazarus, and the healing of a paralytic; the former demonstrates Christ’s power over death, the latter His power over sin. The adoration of the Magi is also represented, a very common image in the Christian cemeteries of ancient Rome, symbolizing the universality of salvation, since the Three Kings were the first pagans to adore Christ.
The Niche with the oldest image in existence of the Virgin Mary
The image of the Good Shepherd in stucco, (much of which has unfortunately fallen off,) is found on the upper part of a niche which was later expanded into a gallery, most likely because of the presence of a venerated tomb. He is standing among some trees which are stucco on the bottom, but fresco on the top, where we see leaves and red fruits painted in vivid color. On either side of the trees there were two more images, but the one on the left has completely fallen away. On the right is preserved an image of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus on her knee; a prophet stands next to her, holding a scroll in his left hand, and pointing to a star with his right. This seems to refer to the prophecy of Balaam, “A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel” (Numbers 24, 15-17). The presence of the prophet indicates that the Child is the Messiah awaited for many ages.
Taking the name of Priscilla from the place where it began, the congregation was founded by a devout priest from Bologna, Giulio Belvederi, who was also an archeologist. He was brought to Rome by Pope Pius XI to build not only the new seat of the Pontifical Institute for Christian Archaeology, but also the houses over the entrances to catacombs, which were then being opened up to the general public. This project was undertaken to bring modern Christians closer to these important witnesses to the early faith, and inspire in them a renewal of both love and hope.
To his spiritual daughters, Monsignor Belvederi gave as their community rule that of St. Benedict, which he regarded for its simplicity as the rule closest to the spirit of the Gospel and the way of life of the Apostles. The motto of the Benedictine Order, “Pray and work”, describes the joyful life of a true religious community, a life focused on the praise of God in the celebration of the Mass and Divine Office, and work done in a spirit of humility in the service of the Church.
The Benedictines arrange for groups to visit the Catacombs, taking care to explain its history and archaeology, but above all its religious value, as a holy place sanctified by the heroic witness of the early Christians, and at times by the shedding of their blood. Their faith is expressed here in these simple pictures, whose value lies not so much in their artistic qualities, as in the beliefs expressed and taught by them.