New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Roman Catacombs

Roman Catacombs

Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

This subject will be treated under seven heads:

I. Position;
II. History;
III. Inscriptions;
IV. Paintings;
V. Sarcophagi;
VI. Small Objects Found in the Catacombs;
VII. Catacombs outside Rome.


The soil on which the city of Rome is built, as well as that of the surrounding district, is of volcanic origin; alluvial deposits are found only on the right bank of the Tiber, on the downward course of the stream, below the Vatican. Wherever the volcanic deposits occur three strata appear, one above the other: the uppermost is the so-called pozzolano, earth from which the Romans, by an admixture of lime, prepared their excellent cement; next is a stratum of tufa, made up half of earth and half of stone; the lowest stratum is composed of stone. From the earliest times the lowest layer was worked as a stone quarry, and, both in the lowest and uppermost strata, irregularly hewn galleries are discovered everywhere, as in the Capitoline Hill and in the suburbs of the city.

It was formerly believed that the early Christians used these galleries as places of burial for their dead. But all the catacombs are laid out in the middle stratum of tufa, from which no building-material was obtained. It is only necessary to compare the irregular galleries of the sand-pits and stone-quarries with the narrow straight passages and vertical walls of the catacombs in order to recognize the difference. In some cases an arenaria, or sand-pit, forms the starting-point for the laying out of a catacomb; in other spots the catacombs are connected by a gallery with the arenariae so that entrance could be gained into the Christian city of the dead, in times of persecution, without exciting notice. The catacombs are, therefore, entirely of Christian construction. As a rule a stairway leads below the surface to a depth of from thirty-three to forty-nine feet or even more; from this point diverge the galleries, which are from ten to thirteen feet in height, and seldom broader than would be necessary for two grave-diggers, one behind the other, to carry a bier. Side galleries branch off from the main galleries, intersecting other passages. From this level or story steps lead to lower levels where there is a second network of galleries; there are catacombs which have three or even four stories, as, for example, the Catacomb of St. Sebastian. The labyrinth of galleries is incalculable. It has been asserted that if placed in a straight line they would extend the length of Italy. Along the passages burial chambers (cubicula) open to the right and left, also hewn out of the tufa rock. In the side walls of the galleries horizontal tiers of graves rise from the floor to the ceiling; the number of graves in the Roman catacombs is estimated at two millions. The graves, or loculi, are cut out of the rock sides of the gallery, so that the length of the bodies can be judged from the length of the graves. When the body, wrapped in cloth, without a sarcophagus, was laid in the spot excavated for it, the excavation was closed by a marble slab or sometimes by large tiles set in mortar. For the wealthy and for martyrs there were also more imposing graves, known as arcosolia. An arcosolium was a space excavated in the wall above which a semicircular recess was hewn out, in which a sarcophagus was sometimes placed; in the excavation below, the body was laid and covered with a flat marble slab. It was not common to bury the dead beneath the floor of the passages or burial chambers. At the present day the majority of the graves are found open, the slabs which once sealed them having vanished; often nothing remains of the ashes and bones. The rock and broken material loosened by the constant digging in the innumerable passages were piled up in the sand-pits nearby, or brought to the surface in baskets, or were heaped up in the passages which were no longer visited because the families of the dead had passed away. In order to obtain light, and above all fresh air, shafts called luminaria, somewhat like chimneys, were cut through the soil to the surface of the ground. These luminaria, however, are seldom found before the fourth century, when the great numbers of the faithful who attended religious services in the catacombs on the feast days of the martyrs rendered such precautions for health a necessity. At this date also wider and easier stairways were made, leading from the surface of the ground into the depths below.

The early Christian name for these places of burial was koimeterion, coemeterium, place of rest. When, in the Middle Ages, the recollection of the catacombs passed away, the monks attached to the church of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia kept the coemeterium ad catacumbas on this road accessible for pilgrims. After the rediscovery and opening of the other coemeteria, the name belonging to this one coemeterium was applied to all. The catacombs awaken astonishment on account of the remarkable work of construction which, in the course of three hundred years, the piety of the early Christians and their love for the dead produced. In estimating the enormous sum of money required for the catacombs, it must also be taken into consideration that the early Christians, by voluntary contributions, supported the clergy, aided the poor, widows, and orphans, assisted those sent to prison or the mines on account of their faith, and bought from the executioners at a large price the bodies of the martyrs.


The Romans cremated their dead and deposited the ashes in a family tomb (sepulcrum, memoria), or in a vault or common sepulchre (columbarium); but the Jews living in Rome retained their native method of burial, and imitated the rock-graves of Palestine by laying out cemeteries in the stone-like stratum of tufa around Rome. In this manner Jewish catacombs were laid out and developed before Christianity appeared in Rome. Connected with the two chief Jewish colonies, one in the quarter of the city across the Tiber, and the other by the Porta Capena, were two large Jewish catacombs, one on the Via Portuensis and one on the Via Appia, as well as some smaller ones; all are recognizable by the seven-branched candlestick, which repeatedly appears on gravestones and lamps.

Until after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (A.D. 70) the Christians were regarded as a sect of the Jews; hence those Jews who were converted by the Apostles at Rome were buried in the catacombs of their fellow-countrymen. The question arises as to where those converted from heathenism by the Apostles found their last resting-place. It is a fact to which Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, and other pagan historians bear witness, that as early as the days of the Apostles members of the higher and of even of the highest ranks of the nobility had become Christians. These converts of rank from heathenism had their own tombs, and permitted their brethren in the Faith to construct, in connection with these family tombs, places of burial modelled on the Jewish catacombs. This is the origin of the Christian catacombs. The catacombs of the Apostolic Era are: on the Via Ardeatina, the catacomb of Domitilla, niece of the Emperor Domitian and a member of the Flavian family; on the Via Salaria, that of Priscilla, who was probably the wife of the Consul Acilius Glabrio; on the Via Appia, that of Lucina, a member of the Pomponian family; on the Via Ostiensis, that of Commodilla, connected with the grave of St. Paul. At a later date other catacombs were constructed, nearly all of them having their origin in a family vault; among them are those of Caecelia, Prætextatus, Hermes, etc., which still bear the names of their founders. Again, the grave of a venerated martyr would be another nucleus of a catacomb, e.g. that of St. Laurence, St. Valentine, or St. Castulus; such a coemeterium would bear the name of the martyr. Coemeteria occasionally owed their names to some external feature as the one ad duas lauros (the two laurel trees); this title is still added to the names of the two martyrs, Peter and Marcellinus, resting there. Thus in the course of three hundred years some fifty catacombs, large and small, formed a wide circle around the city, the majority being about half an hour's walk from the city gate.

The question, however, arises as to whether the Christians were able to construct these subterranean cemeteries without molestation from the heathens. Undoubtedly the Romans had knowledge of the spots where the Christians buried their dead; but according to old laws every spot where a body lay was under the protection of Roman law and custom that guaranteed the inviolability of burial places. It is true that the Emperors Decius and Diocletian, at a later date, declared the ground covering the catacombs to be the property of the State, thus making it impossible to enter the catacombs by the ordinary ways. But the successors of Decius and Diocletian repealed these laws as contrary to the entire spirit of the Roman State. Even though the Christians felt themselves secure in the catacombs, yet the laying out of the galleries, the burying of the bodies, the odour of decay, and the pestilential air in summer, made the lives of the fossores, or excavators, one of the greatest self-sacrifice, while visiting the graves of the departed became much more difficult for the surviving members of families. Therefore, after the Emperor Constantine had granted freedom to the Church, and had set an example for the erection of churches and chapels over the graves of martyrs by building a basilica over the burial-place of St. Peter and Paul, it became customary to lay out cemeteries above ground, preferably in the neighbourhood of such holy spots. At the same time, however, burial in the catacombs did not fall into disuse, especially as the piety of the popes and the faithful of the fourth century led to the adorning of the resting-places of the early martyrs with marbles, paintings, and inscriptions (see POPE SAINT DAMASUS). Furthermore, by enlarging the burial chambers, by opening shafts for light, and by the construction of broader stairways, access was made easier for the faithful of Rome and for pilgrims. Just as, in the course of the fourth century, the veneration of the martyrs, especially at their graves and on the anniversaries of their death, became more widespread, so the confidence in their intercession found its expression in the endeavour to secure burial in the vicinity of a martyr's tomb.

Then came that year of misfortune, 410, when the Goths laid siege to Rome for months, devastated the surrounding country, and plundered the city itself. This naturally put an end to burial in the catacombs. In the following centuries Goths, Vandals, and Lombards repeatedly besieged and plundered Rome; plague and pestilence depopulated the region around the city; both the churches over the graves of the martyrs and the catacombs sank into decay, and shepherds of the campagna even turned the deserted sanctuaries into sheepfolds. For this reason Pope Paul I (757-67) began to transfer the remains of the martyrs to the churches of the city; the work was continued by Paschal I (817-24) and Leo IV (847-55). As a result the catacombs lost their attraction for the faithful, and by the twelfth century they were completely forgotten.

In 1578 a catacomb on the Via Salaria was accidentally rediscovered. It was not, however, until the publication in 1632, after the author's death, of the "Roma Sotteranea" of Antonio Bosio, that attention was once more called to the catacombs. For nearly forty years, from the year 1593, Antonio Bosio had devoted himself to finding and exploring the early Christian cemeteries. The real "Columbus of the catacombs", however, is Giovanni Battista de Rossi. De Rossi's labours and publications have led to the wide diffusion of a knowledge of archaeology and an increased veneration for the catacombs. Among his works are: "Roma Sotterranea" in three volumes; "Inscriptiones christianae" in two volumes, and numerous scattered pamphlets and articles; he also founded and edited the "Bullettino de archeologia christiana" (since 1863). The Holy See gives between three and four thousand dollars (18,000 lire) annually for the work in the catacombs, and the excavations are superintended by a special commission (see THE COMMISSION OF SACRED ARCHAEOLOGY). De Rossi died 20 September, 1894, after devoting nearly fifty years, from his earliest youth, to the exploration of the catacombs and the study of Christian antiquity. His work was and is carried on by his pupils, among them Armellini, Stevenson, Marucchi, Wilpert, and others. The publications annually issued by Catholic and non-Catholic investigators bear witness to the self-sacrificing zeal and devotion as well as to the sound scholarship with which the science of Christian antiquities is pursued. In addition to this the Collegium Cultorum Martyrum, by holding religious services followed by popular addresses on the feast days of the martyrs, in the various catacombs, endeavours to stimulate the reverence of Romans and strangers for these noble memorials of the Early Church and to diffuse the knowledge of them. In all quarters the example of Rome acted as a stimulus to the study of Christian antiquity and led to exploration and excavations; unexpected treasures of the first Christian centuries have been rescued from oblivion in other parts of Italy, in France, Illyria, Greece, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor.

At Rome, during the last half-century, excavations were undertaken in the following catacombs on the outskirts of the city; the catacombs of Thecla and Commodilla on the Via Ostiensis; the catacomb of Domitilla on the Via Ardeatina; those of Callistus, Praetextatus, and Sebastian on the Via Appia; Sts. Peter and Marcellinus on the Via Labicana; Laurentius and Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina; Nicomedes, St. Agnes, and the coemeterium majus on the Via Nomentana; Felicitas, Thraso, and Priscilla on the Via Salaria Nova; Hermes on the Via Salaria Vetus; Valentinus on the Via Flaminia. On the right bank of the Tiber the catacombs explored were those of Pontianus and Generosa on the Via Portuensis. The most thorough explorations were carried out in the catacombs of Callistus, Domitilla, and Priscilla. In a large number of cases the graves of the martyrs mentioned in the old authorities (martyrologies, itineraries, the "Liber pontificalis", and the legendary accounts of the martyrs) were rediscovered. At the same time there was dug up a treasure, valuable beyond expectation, of early Christian epitaphs and paintings, which gave much unlooked-for information concerning the faith of the early Christians, their concepts of life, hopes of eternity, family relations, and many other matters.


Although thousands of inscriptions on the graves of the early Christians have been lost, and many more contain nothing of importance, there is still a valuable remainder that yields more information than any other source concerning the first Christian centuries. That Christianity as early as the days of the Apostles found entrance into distinguished families of the Eternal City, and that, as time went on, it gradually won over the nobility of Rome is evident from the epitaphs containing the titles clarissimi, clarissimae (of senatorial rank), as well as from epitaphs in which appear the names of noted clans (gentes). The change wrought by Christianity in the social relations of master and slave is plain from the exceedingly small number of inscriptions containing the words servus (slave), or libertus (freedman), words which are constantly seen on pagan gravestones; the often recurring expression alumnus (foster-child) characterizes the new relation between the owner and the owned. Many of the epitaphs give eloquent voice to the love of married couples, dwelling on the fact that man and wife had lived chastely (virginius, virginia) before entering the married state, on the virtues of the dead companion and the faithfulness to the departed observed through long years of solitary life in order that, lying side by side in the same grave, they might rise together at the Resurrection. Others record the love of parents for a dead child and conversely. Reference to the virgin state, which seldom appears in heathen epitaphs, is often met with in the Christian inscriptions; from the fourth century on mention is made of a virginity specially dedicated to God, virgo Deo dicata, famula Dei. Besides allusions in the inscriptions to the various ecclesiastical ranks of bishop, priest, deacon, lector, and excavator (fossor), there are references to physicians, bakers, smiths, and joiners, often with emblems of the respective instruments. Especially interesting are inscriptions which throw light on the religious conceptions of the time, which speak not only of the hope of eternity, but also of the means of grace on which that hope rests—above all, of the faith in the one God, and Christ, his Son. They also dwell on membership in the Church through baptism, and on the relations with the dead through prayer. Naturally, the older the epitaphs referring to dogma the greater their importance.

Next comes the question as to how the age of an inscription can be ascertained. In the first place the inscriptions are limited to the first four centuries of the Christian Era, since, after the invasion of the Goths (410), burial in the catacombs occurred only in isolated incidences and soon ceased altogether. The later Roman inscriptions and all the inscriptions of Gaul, Africa, and the Orient, however such additional information they may give in regard to dogma, cannot here be taken into consideration. The most natural and certain method of determining the age of an inscription, i.e. through the reference it usually contains to the annual consul, can scarcely be used a dozen times in the epitaphs of the first two centuries. There are, however, many auxiliary means of determining the question, as: the names, the form of the letters, the style, the place of discovery, the pictorial emblems (varying from the anchor and the fish to the monogram of Christ); these permit, with a reasonable degree of certainty, the assignment of inscriptions to the fourth century, to the time before Constantine, to the beginning of the third or the end of the second century, or even to an earlier period. The Roman gravestones of the first four centuries furnish numerous proofs not only for the fundamental dogmas of the Catholic Church but also for a large additional number of its doctrines and usages, so that the epitaphs could be employed to illustrate and enforce nearly every page of a modern Catholic catechism. Some inscriptions are here given as examples.

Catacomb of Callistus, second century (text somewhat restored):

. . . . . EX MENON PETEILos . . . laMPRotatos
ETon . . . paredOKE ten psychen to theo
PRo . . . septEMBRION

This inscription was found in a fragmentary condition along with other inscriptions of the Caecilian family, near the grave of St. Cecilia. Phronton made the grave. The epitaph mentions two dead, Septimius Praetextatus Caecilianus and Petilius, the latter with the additional statement Lamprotatos, clarissimus, signifying one of senatorial rank. Septimius is called a "servant of God" and is then represented as speaking: "If I have lived virtuously I have not repented of it and if I have served Thee [O Lord] I will give thanks to Thy Name." He "gave up his soul to God" at the age of thirty-three years and six months. The same expression, "he gave up his soul to God", is used for Petilius, the date of whose death is given as before 1 September.

Catacomb of Domitilla, second century:


"Sweet Simplicius, live in eternity" is the wish which Caia Julia Agrippina, whose aristocratic name indicates a very early imperial date, sends after the departed.

Catacomb of Domitilla, third century:

. . . . SPIRITVS

The beginning of the inscription, containing the name, has disappeared. "May thy spirit be in refreshment". The very ancient prayer in the Canon of the Mass entreats for the dead locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis (a place of refreshment, light, and peace).

Catacomb of Pontianus, beginning of the fourth century:

EVTYCHIUS PATER [Chi-Rho symbol] V.A.I.M.

i.e. "Eutychius, the father [has erected] the gravestone to his sweetest little son, Eutychianus. The child who lived one year, two months, and four days the servant of God." The Greek monogram of the name of Christ Chi-Rho, and the "ICHTHYS" scratched on the gravestone, shows that the child had, through baptism, died a Christian and had been received into heaven by "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour". (See ANIMALS IN CHRISTIAN ART.)

Catacomb of Priscilla, third century (in verse):


i.e. "I beg you, brethren, whenever ye come hither [to the service of God] and call in united prayer on the Father and the Son, that ye remember to think on your loved Agape, that Almighty God may preserve Agape in eternity." A second, fragmentary, piece of the inscription recalls the sentence of death pronounced in Paradise, de terra sumptus terrae traderis (thou wast taken from the earth and unto the earth shalt thou return). Agape lived twenty-seven years; so had it been appointed to her by Christ. The mother, Eucharis, and the father, Pius, erected the gravestone to her.

Catacomb of Commodilla, inscription of A.D. 377:


i.e. Cinnamius Opas, lector of the title [church] of Fasciola, a friend of the poor, who lived forty-six years, seven months, and nine days, and was buried in peace on 1 March, when Gratian was consul for the fourth time and with him Merobaudus.

Catacomb of Commodilla, A.D. 394:


i.e. Buried on 13 May, Osimus who lived twenty-eight years, who was united to his wife seven years and nine months. May the well-deserving rest in peace. He died during the consulate of Nicomachus Flavianus. Grave of the stone-mason for four bodies.

Catacomb of Callistus, third century:


The freedmen of Petronia Auxentia, the highly born lady (clarissimae feminae), who died at the age of thirty, made the grave where she rests in peace. She seems to have had neither children, brothers or sisters, nor, at the time of her death, parents.

Catacomb of Callistus, fourth century:


Cyriaca, a member of the noble Dasumian family, who died at the age of sixty-six years, is called a "dove without bitterness", a eulogy that is found on other female graves.

Catacomb of Callistus, about A.D. 300:

With the permission of his Pope Marcellinus (296-304) Severus the Deacon made in the level of the cemetery of Callistus directly under that of the pope a family vault, consisting of a double burial chamber (cubiculum duplex) with arched tombs (arcosolia) and a shaft for air and light, as a quiet resting-place for himself and his family, where his bones might be preserved in long sleep for his Maker and Judge. The first body to be laid in the new family vault was his sweet little daughter Severa, beloved by her parents and servants. At her birth God had endowed her for this earthly life with wonderful talents. Her body rests here in peace until it shall rise again in God, Who took away her soul, chaste, modest, and ever inviolate in His Holy Spirit; He, the Lord, will reclothe her at some time with spiritual glory. She lived a virgin nine years, eleven months and fifteen days. Thus was she translated out of this world.

Besides the text of the epitaphs, on many of the tombstones the ideas are also conveyed by pictures; in this manner expression is given, above all, to the hope of eternal life for the dead. First come symbolic pictures and signs: the anchor, the palm, the dove with the olive-branch, are allegorical symbols of hope, victory, and everlasting peace; from the third century on appears the fish, the symbol of Christ. The Good Shepherd carrying the lamb on His shoulders, and the Orante, both often depicted together, were well-known and favourite allusions to the joy of heaven. The carving on the tombstone also copied those paintings on the catacombs that represent Biblical scenes, e.g. the awakening of Lazarus, the adoration of the Wise Men. Carvings of an entirely secular character are also found on the tombstones, namely representations of characteristic tools to indicate the rank in life or trade of the dead, e.g. for a baker, a grain measure; for a joiner, a plane; for a smith, an anvil and hammer. If the dead had borne in life the name of an animal, Leo (lion), Equitius (from equus, a horse), a picture of the particular animal was also cut on the tombstone. From the time of Constantine the monogram of Christ was a favourite symbol for use on gravestones.


The paintings of the catacombs conveyed pictorially the same ideas as the inscriptions. These frescoes adorn the spaces between the single graves, ornament the arched niches above the arcosolia, and are employed to decorate the walls and ceilings of entire burial chambers. It is true that the paintings are not so easily understood as the inscriptions or epitaphs, but while the oldest epitaphs afford little instruction, since they are limited simply to the names of the dead, the paintings, of which the number is very large, give information concerning the beginnings of Christianity. Certain fixed types are repeated in manifold forms, so that one explains another. In the course of time new types of pictures and new conceptions were developed which throw a steadily increasing light on the belief and the hope of the primitive Christians in regard to death.

The heathen "who have no hope" might stand disconsolate by the grave of the departed, they might adorn the oeterna domus (the eternal home) of the dead with gay pictures of ordinary life. The Christians in these paintings of the catacombs conceived the souls of the dead as Oranti, or praying female figures, in the bliss of heaven. The Good Shepherd Who lovingly carries the lamb on His shoulders to the flock that are pastured in Paradise signified to the Christian the reason for his hope in eternity. The representations of baptism and of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves are allusions to the means of grace by which heaven is attained. After favourable judgment is pronounced, the saints, the advocates or intercessors, lead the souls into the joys of heaven. To depict the belief of the early Christians in a future life the art of the catacombs generally chose episodes from the Old and New Testaments, episodes to which many allusions still occur in the prayers for the dying. If death is represented as having entered the world through the sin of Adam and Eve, the escape from death is indicated in pictures from the Old Testament showing the rescue of Noah from the Deluge, the preservation of Isaac from the sacrificial knife of his father Abraham, the rescue of the Tree Hebrew Children from the fiery furnace, the escape of Jonas from the belly of the great fish, Susanna's deliverance with the aid of Daniel from false accusation. From the New Testament the raising of Lazarus is used as the type of the resurrection from the dead; the miracles of the Saviour, the healing of the blind, the cure of the palsied man, are all taken as proofs of the omnipotent power of the Son of God over sickness and death. The Wise Men from the East having been the first called out of heathenism, were regarded by the Christians of the catacombs as their predecessors in the Faith, as security for the hope that they too might, at some time, adore the Son of God above. The Mother of God is never separated from the Divine Child; one of the oldest paintings of the catacombs, painted under the eyes of the pupils of the Apostles and found in the cemetery of Priscilla, represents the Virgin holding the Child on her lap, while the Prophet Isaias, who stands before her, points to the star above the head of the Mother and Child. In the frequent pictures of the Wise Men the Virgin is seated on a throne accepting in the name of her Child the gifts which the Magi bring. A fresco of the third century in the cemetery of Priscilla represents the annunciation; a painting of the fourth century in the coemeterium majus shows the Virgin as an Orante, before her the Divine child, who is clearly indicated to be Christ by the monogram of the name Christ painted to the right and left of the figure. The enthroned Saviour surrounded by the Apostles, the dead, who are being led by the saints before the Judge to receive a gracious verdict, the Wise Virgins at the heavenly wedding feast, all these form the last links in the chain of heavenly hopes that bind together earth and heaven, time and eternity.

The themes depicted in the purely decorative painting of the burial chambers, especially that of the ceilings, are largely taken from concepts peculiar to Christianity: the dove with the olive-branch of peace, the peacock that in springtime renews its gay plumage, the lamb, taken as a symbol of the soul, all these continually reappear as allusions to the consoling hopes cherished in this place of death. When the artist paints family life, e.g. a picture of a husband, wife, and child, who occupy a common grave, he represents the three as Oranti standing with raised hands absorbed in the contemplation of God. There are some purely secular paintings in the catacombs, e.g. a fresco in the cemetery of Priscilla representing vine-dressers carrying away a large cask; in the cemetery of Domitilla, corn-merchants superintending the unloading of sacks of grain from ships; and in the cemetery of Callistus, a market-woman selling vegetables.

Special reference should be made to the representations of the Eucharist in connection with the multiplication of the bread when the Lord fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes. Since the second century the Early Church regarded the five letters of the Greek word for fish "ICHTHYS" as the first letters of the words making up the phrase "IESOUS CHRISTOS THEOU YIOS SOTER" (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour), bread and fish, the food with which Christ had fed the multitude, were in themselves an allusion to the Eucharistic meal. Thus in the catacomb of Domitilla a man and his wife are represented reclining on a cushion, before them a small table holding loaves of bread and fish; in the cemetery of Priscilla the presiding officer at the semi-circular table breaks for the guests the round loaves of bread; the wine-cup with handles stands ready near bread and fish; baskets on either side holding the miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes indicate the deeper meaning of the scene. Both paintings belong to the earliest Christian art. There is in the catacomb of Callistus a painting of a large fish; close before or above the fish is a woven basket on the top of which lie round loaves of bread; the front part of the basket has a square opening in which is seen a glass containing red wine. In the six so-called Chapels of the Sacraments of the same catacomb various representations of the Eucharist appear in combination with pictures of baptism, the raising of Lazarus, a ship, etc. Bread and fish are shown lying on a table; on one side stands Christ, Who stretches a hand in blessing over the food; on the other side is an Orante, the symbol of the soul, which in this meal receives the pledge of the heavenly one. The opposite picture represents the sacrifice of Isaac. In a third picture, placed between these two, guests sit around a table on which are bread and fish; in the foreground stand the baskets holding the miraculously multiplied loaves. These and similar pictures, all belonging to the first half of the third century, are based upon the thought that the Eucharistic meal has been prepared for us by the Saviour as the pledge and type of the heavenly one.

Catholic writer have at times found a richer dogmatic content in the pictures of the catacombs than a strict examination is able to prove; but Protestant scholars go to the other extreme when they claim that the "dogmatic results" obtained from the early Christian pictures are exceedingly small. Although it is willingly acknowledged that non-Catholic writers have occasionally placed a picture in a proper light, it is nevertheless necessary to protest against the attempt to eliminate from the early Christian memorials all dogmatic proof for the faith of the Catholic Church.

Just as it is of importance to settle the dates of inscriptions, so also it is essential to determine as nearly as possible when paintings were executed; there are for the paintings, as for the inscriptions, indications which serve as clues. The artistic value of the pictures increases the closer they approach the golden age of profane art. In the second and third centuries the pictures were lightly sketched and painted in transparent colours on a carefully prepared background of plaster. During this period the artist did not follow set patterns, but was under the necessity at first of devising forms in which to express his new Christian ideas. As secular art fell into decay Christian art experienced the same decline. Another aid in determining the age of a fresco is given by the site in a catacomb where a picture has been painted, whether in the oldest part or in a later addition. As time went on the painter's range of artistic conceptions enlarged; thus in the third and fourth centuries scenes were depicted which were foreign to earlier Christian art. When in the fourth century the newly-erected basilicas were ornamented with mosaics, the same form of decoration was also introduced into the catacombs; this is shown in a mosaic depicting as an Orante a person who had died. The ornamentation of the places of interment came to an end with the above-mentioned cessation of burial in the catacombs; in lieu of this the graves of the martyrs were now decorated, generally with pictures of the saints, who are represented grouped around the Saviour. These paintings form a class apart from the other pictures of the catacombs on account of the constant decline in the artistic execution and because of the subjects of the composition. The last pictures painted in the catacombs are some executed in the ninth century in the crypt of St. Cecilia. St. Cecilia herself is represented as an Orante in the garden of heaven; there is also preserved in this crypt a bust-fresco of Christ in a niche, next to which is a picture of Pope St. Urban who buried the martyr, St. Cecilia.


In ancient Rome citizens of rank built for themselves family tombs on the great military roads; the structure above ground (monumentum) was adorned with statues and inscriptions, while the bodies were deposited in stone coffins (sarcophagi) or, when cremated, in funerary urns in a subterranean vault or hypogoeum. The freedmen and clients of the noble family to whom the tomb belonged were buried in graves made in the upper stratum of the earth of the area monumenti, or plot of ground or garden in which the tomb stood. These graves were indicated by stelae, or stone slabs, which gave the names of the dead. Those who were first converted from heathenism to Christianity were interred in a similar manner. This is evident both from the hypogoeum of the Flavian family, which has horizontal niches to the right and left for the sarcophagi, and from the stelae with symbols or inscriptions that are Christian in character, although, as is easily understood, such telae are not numerous. The example of the Jews, however, led very early to the excavation, in the enclosure of the area monumenti, of subterranean galleries or passage ways, the walls of which offered ample space for single graves or loculi. From the beginning burial in sarcophagi was, on account of the expense, a privilege of the rich and of people in rank; this is also one reason why Christian sculpture developed later than Christian painting. As the Christians were obliged at first to buy sarcophagi from heathen stone-masons they avoided purchasing those with mythological scenes. They preferred such as were ornamented with carvings of scenes from pastoral life, the harvest and vintage; at times they selected sarcophagi merely ornamented on the front with wave lines (strigili), as for example, the sarcophagus of Petronilla, a relative of the imperial Flavian family, which was found in the catacomb of Domitilla. The only decoration of this sarcophagus, outside of the wave lines, were figures of lions at the corners; on the upper edge of the sarcophagus was the inscription:


"To Aurelia Petronilla, sweetest daughter". There are still in the catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla, and Prætextatus a number of sarcophagi, the most ancient of which show no Christian sculpture.

It was not until towards the end of the third century that Christian sarcophagi were ornamented with sculpture; at first the carvings were small figures of the Good Shepherd or an Orante placed where the strigili came together, or else Christians symbols were carved on the tabella inscriptionis, i.e. the flat slab closing the grave in which the epitaph was cut. A Christian stone-mason, probably, cut these Christian emblems on sarcophagi made in heathen workshops. The oldest sarcophagus showing Christian emblems carved in relief is one found in the Vatican quarter and now in the Lateran Museum; it has in excellent work, between two scenes of family life, an Orante, symbolical of the person buried, and the Good Shepherd. Another sarcophagus, also belonging to the time before Constantine and in the same museum, has as its chief decoration the story of Jonas; around this scene are grouped representations of Noah, the raising of Lazarus, Moses smiting the rock in the wilderness, a pastoral scene, and purely secular fishing scenes.

Christian sculpture on sarcophagi was not fully developed until about the middle of the fourth century; two sarcophagi of this period, that of Junius Bassus in the crypt of St. Peter's, and another similar in style, in the Lateran Museum, are the finest examples of early Christian carving. When it became customary, in the vicinity of the great basilicas, to build mausoleums or mortuary chapels, in which the sarcophagi were either sunk in the ground or exposed along the walls, sculpture as a Christian art developed rapidly. The growth was perhaps too rapid, for the comparatively small number of Christian sculptors could only meet the constantly increasing demand by over-hasty or half-finished work. To this period which extended from the second half of the fourth into the first decades of the fifth century belong by far the greater part of the sarcophagi found, most of which are in the Lateran Museum. The terrible misfortunes that befell Rome after it had been conquered and plundered by the Goths in 410 checked and finally put an end to carved decoration on Christian sarcophagi.

Naturally, the reliefs of the sarcophagi show the same fundamental ideas as are expressed in the paintings of the catacombs, and they are conveyed by the presentation of the same Biblical scenes. Plastic art, however, followed its own course in the development of the themes. This is evident from the large number of figures employed for the scenes, and still more from the great variety of new subjects which were introduced into the domain of Christian art. When Adam and Eve are shown, it is not, as in the frescoes, merely with the tree and the serpent; in sculpture the second Adam, Christ, is represented standing between the first pair, offering to Adam a sheaf of grain and to Eve a goat, symbols of labour in the field and household occupations. While in the frescoes Moses stands alone when he smites the rock with his staff that the water may gush out, the sculptured relief includes the Jews quenching their thirst. The same difference is evident in the representation of the raising of Lazarus; whereas in sculpture the two sisters and some witnesses of the miracle fill out the scene, in the frescoes the figures are limited to the chief personages. The range of subjects is increased by the addition of other incidents from the Old Testament, e.g. the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, symbolic of baptism, and the vision of Ezechiel, intended an as allusion to the resurrection of the body; more especially, however, by fresh scenes from the life of Christ. The carvings representing the manger, the scenes from the Passion, and the prominence given to the position and office of Peter in the Christian scheme of salvation, have no parallel in the paintings of the catacombs. Only once in the catacombs is the birth of Christ taken as a subject of a painting, and this is a fresco of a very late date in the catacomb of St. Sebastian. The reliefs on the sarcophagi show the little Child lying in the manger with the Virgin sitting near by on a knoll; behind her stands Joseph while the ox and ass are placed to one side, and above shines the star that guides the Wise Men. The Virgin is often represented sitting on a throne and holding the Child forward on her hands to receive the adoration of the Magi. As regards scenes from the Passion, Christians preferred, during the centuries of persecution, to represent the Saviour as the Son of God, full of miraculous power, as the conqueror of death and surrounded by His heavenly glory, rather than in His sufferings and death on the Cross. As Christianity advanced, however, in its conquest of heathenism, the faithful turned their attention more to the sufferings of Christ. Still, although sculpture ventured to present scenes from Christ's Passion, His humiliation was always accompanied by an allusion to His glory; at the foot of the empty Cross sleep the watchers by the grave, above the Cross is the monogram of Christ enclosed in a victor's wreath; or Christ is represented seated on the throne of His heavenly glory in the midst of scenes from His Passion. The subjects chosen from the Passion are the prediction of the denial of Peter, the washing of the feet, the crowning with thorns, Pilate's judgment, with the Old Testament prototype of the sacrifice of Isaac as contrasting relief. The manner in which the Church of the fourth century regarded the office of Peter is plain from the preference shown for representations of the traditio legis in which Peter, as the Moses of the New Covenant, receives from the hand of Christ (Dominum legem dat), the New Testament, the Lex or law that he was to proclaim and explain to Christians. The different scenes of the reliefs were separated from one another by arcades, or perhaps by trees, or, frequently they followed one another directly; the numerous incidents carved on large sarcophagi were often arranged in two rows, one over the other. In this disposition plastic art followed the model set by the mosaics in the great basilicas.

Although single scenes carved on the sarcophagi are not difficult to explain, yet where the composition is more complicated it is often not easy to discover the leading thought, as the artist was apt to run scenes together. An example will make this clear. On a sarcophagus in the Lateran Museum the following scenes succeed one another from left to right: the sacrifices of Cain and Abel; Peter led to execution; the triumph of the Cross; the beheading of Paul; Job. The question arises as to why the figures are thus arranged. In the death of Abel the judgment pronounced on the whole human race in Paradise was executed for the first time, while Job is the great herald of the Resurrection: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God" (xix, 25). The fulfilment of this hope is shown by the two Apostles and the glory of the risen Saviour. On many of the sarcophagi, however, especially those belonging to the period of the decline of Rome, the compositions lack a central thought and are arranged either according to the fancy of the sculptor or according to the command and desire of the purchaser.

Outside of the sarcophagi the most important early Christian sculpture is the life-size statue of St. Hippolytus, bishop and martyr, in the Lateran Museum, which was dug up near the catacomb bearing his name. The statue, of which only the lower half has been preserved, belongs to the middle of the third century. The figure of the Good Shepherd, also in the Lateran Museum, belongs probably to the time before Constantine; there are, besides, some other statuettes of the Good Shepherd, which are assigned to the second half of the fourth century. Of the work of the stone-masons and sculptors in the cubicula of the martyrs, and in the ornamentation of the altars, choir-screens, pulpits, Easter candlesticks, etc., of the great basilicas only scanty remains have been preserved. Early Christian sculpture reached its zenith in the first half of the fourth century when it joined in the triumph of the Christian religion as it emerged from the catacombs. Sculpture was employed at this period chiefly to ornament Christian graves with symbols of religious hope in the risen Christ.

Small objects found in the catacombs

The ornaments which the early Christians put in the graves, the lamps and perfume bottles that they placed outside, the coins, pieces of glass, and rings, that were pressed, to distinguish the spot, into the fresh plaster that sealed the opening, all these remains of early Christianity are often of artistic and scientific value. Both the coins and the factory stamps on the tiles that sealed the grave are in many instances important clues to the age of a gallery in a catacomb, as well as to the date of the inscriptions and paintings that may be found in it.

Earthen lamps were set in the fresh plaster sealing the slab which closed the grave, or were placed on projecting mouldings in the cubicula, and these lamps in the early period were very simple. It was not before the middle of the fourth century that Christian potters began to ornament lamps with Christian pictures and symbols; these consisted mainly of the Biblical scenes already noted in the frescoes, e.g. Jonas, the Good Shepherd, Oranti, the Three Hebrew Children in the fiery furnace. In addition to these, other Biblical characters were introduced, e.g. Josue and Caleb carrying the great bunch of grapes, the three angels visiting Abraham, Christ carrying the Cross and adored by angels. A large number of the lamps of this period are ornamented with pictures of animals (the lion, peacock, cock, hare, fish), shells, trees, geometrical designs, for both Christian and heathen potters chose ornaments without a religious character in order to offend neither Christian nor pagan customers. A number of bronze lamps have also been preserved, many with three small chains for hanging; but metal lamps were more used in the homes than in the catacombs. The most important group of these small objects of early Christian times is that of the so-called "gilded glasses", or the bases of glass drinking-vessels with Biblical incidents, pictures of saints, or family scenes, designed in gold-leaf and laid between two layers of glass; most of these glasses belong to the fourth century. Such drinking cups or glass mugs were popular as presents at baptisms and wedding anniversaries; they were also probably used at the love-feasts, or agapæ, which, on the great feast days of the saints, were spread for the poor in the porticoes of the porches. This explains the great number of gilded glasses ornamented with the portraits of the two chief Apostles. The designs shown by such glasses vary greatly; they throw valuable light on the paintings, the ornamentation of the lamps, the carvings of the sarcophagi, and in many ways are of dogmatic importance. Thus the design of Moses smiting the rock in the wilderness and the water gushing forth bears the inscription "Petrus", a proof that the early Christians saw in the leader of the Israelites the prototype of Peter, who in this case is regarded as the mediator for the Christian springs of grace, and in the pictures of the Transmission of the Law (Dominus legem dat), as the mediator of the truths of salvation. When these gilded glass mugs or cups were broken, the bases containing in gold-leaf the religious pictures were set in the mortar sealing the grave. No whole glasses have been preserved, and these bases are only found in the catacombs.

Much discussion has arisen over the ampullae said to contain blood. These are small earthen pots or phials and vessels of glass containing a reddish-brown deposit on the inner side, that have been found secured in the outer surface of the mortar seal of large numbers of graves. This incrustation was held to be the blood of the martyrs, and each grave where such a phial was found was believed to be the burial place of a martyr; accordingly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the bones discovered in these graves were presented, as the remains of martyrs, to the churches of Italy and beyond the Alps. This assumption was not shaken by the fact that many of these vessels were found on the graves of children, and that the statements as to the consul given in the epitaphs showed dates at the end of the fourth century when martyrdom was no longer suffered. It is now universally held by scholars that these vessels contained pungent essences intended to counteract the odour of the decay perceptible in the galleries of the catacombs. In the same way folded linen has been found inside the graves, which when burned still gives out a strong and agreeable scent; this linen must have been soaked with essences to attain the same end, i.e. to overcome the smell of decay. While in the last few decades the places of Christian burial of the fifth and sixth centuries in Egypt have yielded a large amount of well-preserved materials and woven fabrics, the garments and cloths in which the bodies in the Romans catacombs were wrapped have all mouldered away. It is only where the dead were enveloped in cloth worked with gold threads that the threads have been partially preserved, as in the case of St. Hyacinth. De Rossi found a body in the catacomb of St. Callistus that had been wrapped in cloth with gold threads. Within recent years a grave was discovered in the catacomb of Priscilla where the cloths are still preserved in which the bones lie, but it is rightly feared that they will fall to dust when brought into the air. Once a year at St. Peter's a large carpet is exhibited that has sewn into it the so-called coltre, or cloth, in which, it is supposed, martyrs were buried. Taking its genuineness for granted, this cloth is the only woven fabric now existing at Rome which has been preserved from the time of the primitive Roman Church.

Catacombs outside of Rome

It was impossible to lay out subterranean passages in the Mons Vaticanus because the soil there is not of volcanic formation, but consists of alluvial deposits. Consequently there is no catacomb around the grave of St. Peter; the faithful who wished to have their last resting-place near the tomb of the Apostle were buried close to the surface of the ground. Such cemeteries were probably laid out wherever the formation was not suitable for the excavation of subterranean passages, at the same time such areae or cemeteries of the Christians had no protection against desecration by a maddened mob. Where the soil allowed it, therefore, underground cemeteries were excavated. A number of small catacombs lay at a short distance from Rome, e.g. those of St. Alexander on the Via Nomentana, and St. Senator at Albano; the former has some importance on account of its epitaphs, the latter on account of its paintings. The town of Chiusi in central Italy has a catacomb called St. Mustiola, Bolsena that of St. Christina. At Naples the catacombs of St. Januarius preserve paintings, e.g. of Adam and Eve, belonging to the best period of early Christian art. Sicily has numerous catacombs, especially in the neighbourhood of Syracuse; the museum of Syracuse, besides epitaphs, lamps, and other objects, contains a very beautiful early Christian sarcophagus. There are also several small catacombs on the Island of Malta, and others in Sardinia, the latter having beautiful frescoes of the fourth century. In 1905 a large catacomb was discovered in North Africa near Hadrumetum in which the graves as a rule had not been opened, but unfortunately they are poor in epitaphs, paintings, and small objects. In all these the objects most frequently found are lamps, without ornamentation of importance. The Greek monogram of Christ, so often found on the Roman lamps of the fourth century, is also met on the lamps in the catacombs outside Rome, and in some places is the only sure proof of the Christian character of the burial place.

About this page

APA citation. Waal, A. (1908). Roman Catacombs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Waal, Anton de. "Roman Catacombs." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sean Hyland.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.