Saturday, 8 November 2014
Today I wanted to explore some of the Crypts and Catacombs of Rome. My friend Ai (name changed) joined me for this epic adventure. I am glad I had her! We saw some beautiful and terrifying things. Together we made a list of places we wanted to see and hit the road (We didn’t even do half! There was so much!)!!
The first stop on our journey was Saint Sebastian at the Catacombs (San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas). I really wanted to visit here, and the catacombs are not open in December and on Sundays. Since this was my last Sat free before December we went there first! So we started down the Via Appia!
It was a long ,walk but a beautiful day and we really enjoyed ourselves. Finally we reached Saint Sebastian. So some history; the ancient Romans cremated their dead and this site was originally a large pit used for cremation and dormitorios (family crematoriums). With the arrival of Christianity people started burying their dead instead of cremating and began digging tunnels in the soft clay here. The subterranean burial area became known as ad catacumbas, which means “near the hollows.” This is the first recorded use of the word Catacombs for a christian burial site! How cool right? The remains of St. Sebastian, who died in c. 288, was buried here in the 4th century (around 350 AD). He was the Saint of soldiers, plague-stricken, archers, holy Christian death, and athletes. Because of his holiness many people wanted to be buried here so there are several miles of catacombs, four stories in total. In the 4th century (no one really said if it was before St. Sebastian was buried here or after) the Roman Family dormitorios were covered with dirt and the basilica was built on top. Later St. Sebastian’s remains were removed during war times, and were eventually returned to the Basilica proper (although there are at least three other places who claim to have his remains). More recently the dormitories have been uncovered (they are right under the main chamber of the Basilica) and part of the Catacombs are open for tours. It costs 8 euros for adults, and includes a tour guide who walks you through the catacombs. Our tour guide was fantastic, very informative and it was well worth the money. I only wish we could have seen more as they only take you through a small part. Unfortunately pictures are not allowed in the actual catacombs but I grabbed some cool pictures from the internet, haha.
Below is a typical hallway in the catacombs, although some could be much narrower, were a broad man would have trouble going through normally. They were also a LOT darker. Our tour guide checked repeatedly to make sure no one was becoming claustrophobic.
One of the first stops was at a junction of the catacombs where our tour guide pointed out a carving on a slab of stone near a crypt. I actually found a picture of it online (very distinctive) which is below. I have always known the fish is a symbol of Jesus, but I thought it was because of feeding the poor. Turns out that’s not quite right. She explained that greek for fish is “ichthys” and early christians made an acrostic from this word: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. So basically the fish spelled out Jesus’s full name. The symbol next to it is an anchor. She said it symbolizes hope and stability, and the symbol to the left was a name if I remember correctly.
It was near impossible to find a picture of the room where St. Sebastian was originally buried. Below is the best one. The tomb is under the alter.
Now imagine a huge cavern, with three mausoleum like buildings jutting out of walls, cutting the room in half as you walk down to the bottom. The three rooms were the dormitories, each dedicated to a ‘family.’ Only the one pictured below still had its name plaque, which showed not only did the family get buried here, but their servants and freed slaves and any of their family. It was hard to find good pictures of the Roamn dormitorios from St. Sebastian, but I did find a picture of one of the frescos in the rooms and a picture of one of the inside of the rooms. They were still beautifully preserved due to their earlier burying. The romans often decorated with plants and animals because it symbolized life. As christianity became more common the rooms were extended/developed to include room for christian burial. You can see in the very back a section that was covered to become a chamber for a body. In the right corner you can see the corner of extremely narrow and steep stairs that led to more christian burials.
After that we headed to the prayer room, where people used to feast and then carve prayer onto slabs of marble for the Saint on his day. Our tour guide even read some of them to us! She really was fantastic.
After that we headed back up to the actual Basilica where St. Sebastian now rests. We could take photos there so these are mine now!
One neat thing about doing this with Ai is she is Japanese and doesn’t know much about Christianity- for once I actually knew more! She had so many questions, like why we bury our dead. It was really interesting talking to her about it, I tried to answer her questions as best I could!
I would definitely suggest visiting here if you are in Rome. Even if you don’t want to do the catacombs coming into the Basilica is free, and it is home to many interesting relics like a stone allegedly imprinted with the footprints of Jesus and one of the arrows which struck St Sebastian together with part of the column to which he was tied during the martyrdom. Plus the bodies of St. Peter and Paul rested here for a short time. There is so much history to be had!
After Saint Sebastian’s we walked up Via Appia towords the center of Rome. On the way we walked through Appia Antica Park which is home to The catacombs of St. Callixtus. We didn’t get to go in those however becasue we spent too long in St. Sebastion and they were closed for lunch! We walked down the park and then headed back to town.
I mentioned to Ai how I missed American Chinese food so she suggested we go to a very good ‘real’ Chinese restaurant she knew. It was a great idea! I let her order all the food since it was ‘real’ Chinese food. She showed me the proper way to use soy sauce (in Japan they mix it with a little vinagar and chili paste! She likes it HOT) and taught me the diffrences in chopsticks. It was great haha, well except for the tofu and meat dish, that was a little… diffrent? for me haha.
With our tummies full we headed to our next destination- the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts. This church built as part of a Capuchin Friary in 1626. If you have never heard of the Capuchin Friars you are missing out. They are the friars who wear the brown rough cloth cassocks. They were renowned as healers, and often included a patent center at their Friaries. It’s a pretty interesting order. However, back to the crypts. Cardinal Antonio Barberini, who was a member of the Capuchin order, in 1631 ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars exhumed and transferred from the friary Via dei Lucchesi to the crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Now the legends vary, but the one I saw the most variations of at Santa Maria was that there was an artist imprisoned/hiding at the church. The crypts were overflowing and he asked permission to make the rooms better organized/beautiful/so on… Well you are about to see what he ended with (these pictures are all from the internet, again no photos). There are 6 rooms in all.
Crypt of the Three Skeletons:
The focal point in this room is the center skeleton on the ceiling. It is enclosed in an oval, the symbol of life coming to birth. In its right hand it holds a scythe, symbol of death which cuts down everyone, like grass in a field, while its left hand holds the scales, symbolizing the good and evil deeds weighed by God when he judges the human soul. A placard in five languages declares;
What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be….
Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones:
Crypt of the Pelvises:
Crypt of the Skulls:
The Mass Chapel:
As an area used to celebrate Mass, does not contain bones. In the altar-piece, Jesus and Mary exhort St. Felix of Cantalice, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Anthony of Padua to free souls from Purgatory. The chapel contains a plaque with the acronym DOM, which stands for Deo optimo maximo (“To God, the best and greatest”), a term initially used to refer to the pagan god Jupiter, but claimed by later Christians. The plaque contains the actual heart of Maria Felice Peretti, the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V and a supporter of the Capuchin order. The chapel also contains the tomb of the Papal Zouaves who died defending the Papal States at the battle of Porta Pia.
Crypt of the Resurrection:
Featuring a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, framed by various parts of the human skeleton. The key to interpreting the crypt’s displays of funereal art lies in the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life .
Those pictures are what we saw, up close and personal. There were literally light fixtures made of bone, and flowers patterned from vertebrates and jawbones above our head. The mummies, walls made of skulls and femers…. The air had a strange taste and odor. It was beautiful in a disturbing somber way, but I don’t think I would ever do it again!
The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock…and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present. -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869
So to follow-up that interesting journey we decided walk across Rome again to head to one last landmark, with a few detours, including the Trevi fountain since Ai has not yet had the chance to see it!
Our last stop was the Basilica di San Clemente. Underneath this seeming normal 1120 church is an underground treasure the original Basilica, which dates back to 392. And below that is the remains of a first century Roman villa that served as both an early site of clandestine Christian worship that also contains a Mithraic temple and a babbling stream. For 3 euro you can go down to these lower levels. It was very dark and quiet and had an incredible presence. So how did these buildings end up so far underground (at the Mithraic temple we were some 13 meters underground according to one person)? Well remember Rome is next to a huge river. Over the years silt deposits build up, and eventually the locals just finished the job as it became hard to get into their buildings and then built over them!
It was incredibly dark, but I got one picture.
There is so much history buried under Rome! It’s amazing! Here’s a good Nat Geographic article on underground Roman Ruins.
It was an incredible day! We topped it off with some Gelato and then headed home- Tomorrow was Assissi 😀
If you are planning a trip to Rome and would like to visit any of these sites the addresses are below along with a link to a web page with more info:
St. Sebastian at the Catacombs: Also known as Saint Sebastian outside the walls (not to be confused with the Saint Sebastion of Palintine Hill which is inside the city walls) – Via Appia Antica 136, Rome, 00179, Italy
Appia Antica Park & Catacombs –Via Appia Antica, 110/126, 00179 Roma
Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts – Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, Rome, 00187, Italy
Basilica di San Clemente – Via Labicana, 95, 00184 Roma