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THE MASS: Underground Part IVb: The Mass of the Catacombs
The Martyrs of the Catacombs In the catacombs, the martyrs are buried who were killed during the cruel persecutions willed by Emperors Decius, Valerianus and Diocletian. Around the tombs of the martyrs, a form of devotion developed rapidly among the pilgrims who left their graffiti and prayers at these exceptional burial places. The Christians tried to arrange the burial places of their deceased as close as possible to the martyrs’ tombs because it was thought this would also establish a mystical nearness in heaven.
Catacombs of San Callixtus (via Appia Antica) These are the largest catacombs of the city. They originated as private tombs of the second century and become the official tombs of the Roman bishops in the third century. They extend over four floors. Burial recesses carved into the rock line both sides of the corridors. Some recesses that were created to hold many bodies, for many members of the same family, have also been excavated. By way of a fourth century ladder, the Crypt of the Popes can be reached, one of the oldest nucleuses, where various pontifical martyrs, recorded in the Greek inscriptions, were buried.
The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the greatest and most important of Rome. They originated about the middle of the second century and are part of a cemetery complex which occupies an area of 90 acres, with a network of galleries about 12 miles long, in four levels, more than twenty meters deep. In it were buried countless martyrs, 16 popes and very many Christians. They are named after the deacon Callixtus who, at the beginning of the 200s was appointed by pope Zephyrinus as the administrator of the cemetery and so the catacombs of St. Callixtus became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. In the open area are two small basilicas with three apses. In the Eastern one were perhaps laid to rest pope Zephyrinus and the young martyr of the Eucharist, St. Tarcisius. The underground cemetery includes several areas. The Crypts of Lucina and the area of the Popes and of St. Cecilia are the most ancient areas (2nd century). The other areas are named after St. Miltiades (half of the 3rd century), St. Gaius and St. Eusebius (end of 3rd century), the Western Area (first half of the 4th century) and the Liberian Area (second half of 4th century).
The St. Callixtus complex, between the second and third mile of the ancient Appian Way, is made up by above ground cemetery areas with an annexed ancient underground burial chamber that can be dated to the end of the second century. These were originally independent from one another and were later connected to form one vast network of community catacombs. The complex owes its name to the pope and martyr St. Callixtus ( ) who before his papacy, was entrusted by Pope Zephrinus ( ) with the administration of the cemetery which was considered the pre-eminent cemetery of the Roman Church, the burial place of many pontiffs and martyrs.
One of the most ancient and important regions of the catacombs is that of the Popes and of St. Cecilia. Along one gallery of this region the cubicula called “of the Sacraments” developed (first decades of the third century A.D.), which preserve some of the most ancient paintings in the catacombs. In one crypt of the region, almost all the pontiffs of the third century were buried: Pontain, Anterus, Fabian, Lucius, Stephen, Sixtus II, Dionysius, Felix and Eutychian. Next to the crypt of the Popes, the crypt of St. Cecilia is found to whom a cult was attributed especially in the high middle ages. Some other regions with catacombs of importance are those of: Pope St. Cornelius ( ), who died in exile in Civitavecchia; Pope St. Miltiades ( ); Popes Sts. Gaius ( ) and Eusebius (309), and the so-called “Liberian” catacomb because of the many inscriptions from the era of Pope St. Liberius (
The Crypt of the Popes It is the most important and venerated crypt of the cemetery, called “the little Vatican” as it was the official burial place of nine popes and, probably, of eight dignitaries of Rome's 3rd century Church. In the walls you can still see the original inscriptions, in Greek, of five popes. On four tombstones, near the name of the pope, there is the title of “bishop,” since the Pope was regarded as the head of the Church of Rome, and on two of them there is the Greek abbreviation of MPT for “Martyr.” Here are the names of the five popes: Pontianus, Antherus, Fabian, Lucius and Eutichian. In the front wall was laid to rest Pope Sixtus II, a victim of emperor Valerian's persecution. In front of his tomb pope Damasus (4th century) placed a marble slab, with a Latin poem celebrating the glorious memories of the Martyrs and Christians buried in these catacombs
It originated towards the 2 nd century as a private crypt. When the first area came under the direct dependence of the Church of Rome, it was thought suitable to transform that burial chamber into the cemetery of the Popes. In its lower part the crypt had four niches containing sarcophagi, and twelve tombs, six on each side: sixteen sepulchers in all. In front of the end-wall, a table-tomb (“a mensa”) was built The sepulchers, now empty, once contained the remains of nine Popes and of eight Bishops of the 3rd century. Still seen are the original inscriptions on the wall, though broken and incomplete, regarding five of the Popes. Their names are written in Greek, following the official usage of the Church in that time.
In chronological order, their names were: St. Pontianus ( ) - banished by the Emperor Alexander Severus to forced labor in the Sardinian mines, where he died from ill treatment. Pope Fabian had his remains brought back to Rome and laid within the crypt. St. Antherus ( ) - his 43 day pontificate was spent in prison where he died. St. Fabian ( ) - the large part of his pontificate was during a period of little persecution. He was decapitated when the persecutions of the Emperor Decius began. St. Lucius ( ) - his short pontificate was during a period of violent persecutions. St. Stephen ( ) - he was pope during the violent persecution of the Emperors Valerian and Gallienus. St. Sixtus II ( ) - beheaded along with his deacons by soldiers of the Emperor Valerian. St. Dionysius ( ) St. Felix ( ) was martyred under the Emperor Aurelian. St. Eutichian ( )
“The companions of Sixtus” are the four deacons: Gennarius, Magnus, Vincent and Stephen, who were martyred with him. “The group of the elders, who keep guard of the altars of Christ” are clearly the popes buried in this catacomb. “The bishop who lived through the long peace” refers to a pope who lived before the great persecutions roused by Diocletian between the end of the 3rd and the first years of the 4th century: he is either Fabian or Dionysius or Eutichian. “The holy confessors sent to us from Greece” are probably a group of martyrs : Martia, Neon, Hippolytus, Adria, Paulina, Martha, Valeria, Eusebius and Marcellus, who were buried in the “Callixtian Complex.”
In a crypt is found the tomb of Saint Cecilia, martyred at the beginning of the third century. Her remains were transferred to the Church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere. The cubicle is decorated with frescoes from the fifth to ninth centuries. The Crypt of St. Cecilia
The Cubicles of the Sacraments Passing through imposing galleries full of loculi, there are five small chambers, truly family tombs, commonly known as the cubicles of the Sacraments, and particularly important for their frescoes. The frescoes can be dated to the beginning of the 3rd century (200s) and represent symbolically the sacraments of Baptism and of the Eucharist. Also depicted is the prophet Jonah, a symbol of the resurrection.
Apostles Peter, Paul, John and Andrew
The “Fractio Panis” (Breaking of the Bread) Catacomb of Priscilla A very good example of the painting of the Eucharist, the fractio panis, in the catacombs of Priscilla which reminds us of the important rite celebrated in all the tituli, in the various domus ecclesiae, such as those which existed here in Trastevere (tituli of Cecilia, Chrysogonus and Callixtus). The Breaking of Bread was not just the opening gesture of the agape as such, but was surrounded by a complex liturgy: there were psalms, readings from the prophets, homily of the celebrant, etc. Returning to the painting of the fractio panis in the catacombs of Priscilla, the eucharistic gesture is indicated and brought out well by the presence of the one shown seated at the head of the table in the banquet (in the ancient world, the most important person was seated at the head of the table). The presider at the feast in this picture holds a strange posture for a communal meal but one very well suited to a eucharistic celebration: his outstretched hands are breaking the bread. In front of him is a chalice. It is clearly a painting of a eucharistic banquet. Many are the eucharistic paintings preserved in the catacombs.
From under the Earth to above the Ground: the Basilicas
End of The Mass of the Catacombs, Part IVb Go to The Mass of the Basilicas, Part Va