Saturday, December 24, 2011


Crypt of St. Cecilia in the Catacombs of San Callisto.

Today is December 24, the tenth month, and here in Rome, many are preparing for tomorrow's festivities . However, for us, a community of fellow Christians, today is a sad day. Our brother is dead, a martyr of our faith and we will bury him in the underground tombs on the outskirts of the city. Because, unlike the pagans who cremate their dead, we Christians buried ours, because we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the coming of our Lord. Yesterday a Greek Christian was telling me about a new idea advocated by his group or sector [sect]: that we all have a soul, a psyche, and if we will fulfill the Word we will go to "Heaven". I did not quite understand that idea, I just know that we will rise and inhabit the Kingdom of our Lord, who is soon to come.

A Nabataean merchant coming from Petra was surprised:
- "Why do you Christians gather in these 'catacombs'?" - he asked me in his bad Latin. "Could it be that you fear that the will Romans persecute you and kill you?"
- "No." I answered, "The 'cata tumbas' or 'among the tombs' are cemeteries. Although occasionally we carry out celebrations and processions there, these galleries are too dark and the smell of bodies is sometimes unbearable. And they are not secret, they are next to the Appian Way which is a very busy road, everyone knows they are there. "
- "But why you have built them?"
- "The reason is because it is not allowed to bury bodies within the city, and as we Christians are poor or slaves, we have no money for sarcophagi or mausoleums, and therefore we are buried in these galleries."
- But making these tunnels is not more expensive?
- No, the underground soil is soft [volcanic tufa] - and there are many people dedicated to this task [fossores].
- "And how many catacombs are there in Rome?"
- "I would say some 50. There are other underground galleries for Jews and poor Romans."

Scheme of the catacombs around the Appian Way

I get distracted thinking that although Christianity is now permitted, many Romans discriminate against us because of our social status and our customs. For example, we do not usually attend the public baths, nor we go to the Coliseum, like them. They consider us dirty, annoying and fanatical. We just want to show them the true faith, but while there are not many large-scale persecutions as before, there is often friction, assault and even murder, as happened to our brother.

I say goodbye to my Nabatean friend and I join the small funeral procession. After passing the Aurelian Walls , recently built to replace the old Servian walls , we move along the magnificent Via Appia, which reaches Calabria. On the way we met with merchants, travelers, and a group of Legionnaires, which is logical since this straight paved road was built mainly for military purposes.

Aurelian Walls, built from 271 AD
Appian Way
Roman countryside

To the sides numerous statues, memorials, and monuments, adorn the road. One of the most impressive is the tomb of Cecilia Metella , a cylindrical structure located on a promontory overlooking the Roman countryside, sometimes crossed by rows of cypresses.

Tomb of Cecilia Metella, next to the Appian Way

But we will not reach there, my fellow martyr will be buried in the galleries of St. Callistus, which are about a mile and a half from the walls [one mile amounted to a thousand steps, ie 1.48 km].

St. Callistus was a Pope who died for their faith, the first Martyr Pope after St. Peter .

The area of ​​St Callistus has two parts: the cemetery of Callistus itself and the Crypts of Lucina, which consists of two galleries connected by an underground passage.

Catacombs of San Callisto around 200 AD (left) and after expansion in 220 AD
A and B are the original galleries. C. Cubicle Orpheus. D. Crypt of the Popes. E. Sacramental Chapels. Source: Early Christian Art and Architecture. Robert Milburn.

The construction process of the galleries is very interesting. First they laid on a plot already designated as cemetery [often belonging to a Christian family or given away to the Christians as a gift]. From the surface, stairs were cut to give way to two horizontal tunnels [ambulatory], about 4 pedis wide[1 meter; 1 Roman foot = 29.6 cm] for about 5 or 6 cubitus high- [2.5 meters; 1 cubit = 44.3 cm]. Rows of niches [loculi] are arranged on the sides of the galleries, sealed with slabs of marble or terracotta.


When the space is filled, then new stairs are created and they dig a new level. When there are enough niches, they excavate a third level, and so on. The galleries are reinforced with arches and vaults, to prevent landslides. It is preferable to dig more levels rather than making more niches per level, to avoid the risk of collapse. [St Callistus reached 7 levels and 23 m depth]. For this reason, the oldest graves are in the upper levels, while the newest ones are at the deepest levels.

Schematic section of the catacombs

But our brother will not be buried in a niche. He died as a martyr and therefore he will be buried in a chamber [cubiculum]. The chambers have a small retirement and are built under an arch. They belong to wealthy families or are reserved for martyrs. The chambers are then coated with plaster and painted. Some lucky ones are buried radially around the martyrs [retro sanctos] ... I would like to have that privilege. Other types of tombs are curved niches [arcosolium] and frescoed chapels [crypt].


There are several rooms that are really beautiful. The Crypt of the Bishops Martyrs [now known as the Crypt of the Popes] is where they buried the bishops of Rome and is formed by a large vault.

Crypt of the Popes

Another beautiful crypt is that of St. Cecilia, another martyr of our times that lies buried here.

Crypt of St. Cecilia. Her remains were transferred in 820 to the basilica that bears her name. The statue is a replica of a baroque sculpture by Stefano Maderno (1636)

Inside, many Christian artists have decorated the walls with representations of Jesus and other related topics. The Jews bitterly accuse us of idolatry, since their religion, from which ours was originated, prohibits human representations. But, what I can say? We are Romans, the art is in our blood and this is the way to express our faith. Of course, we are not as skilled as those pagan artists that decorate the homes of the rich people. We are humble people with little education, but we do our best in these difficult lighting conditions.

Representation of the multiplication of the loaves.

However, some artists who often decorated villas with figures of Apollo, now, after their conversion, they do the same figures representing Jesus.
Other representations are more symbolic: the alpha and omega [Alpha A / α and Omega Ω / ω are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet] represent the beginning and the end; the Chi Rho with the first letters of the name of Christ [the Monogram of Christ is formed by the Greek letters X (chi) and P (rho), the first two characters of the word Χριστός (Christos, "The Anointed One")] and the fish, which in Greek is ΙΧΘΥΣ and is a symbol used in times of persecution [ICTYS stands for "Iesus Christos Soter Yios Teo," which means "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."]

Chi Rho

And that is because the most spoken language among Christians is Greek, not Latin [the ancient gospels and the epistles of Paul were written in Greek, as well as the first New Testament officially accepted by the Council of Nicea (325 AD). St. Jerome would be the first to translate the Bible into Latin, in 405, from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ].

At the lowest level there is complete darkness, barely lit up by the torches. To be among the tombs gives me mixed feelings: on one hand, I dread the darkness as, when I was younger, I was lost for several hours in this absolute blackness, surrounded only by the eerie silence of death.

However, when I come here with my brothers, I have the feeling of actually being in community, away from the ridicule and criticism from the pagans. Some brothers come to visit relatives, the martyrs and saints, and they even organize commemorative meal [refrigeria].

Our brother rests now in peace and he will be among the first to be resurrected when the Kingdom of Our Lord comes to us. On the way back to Rome we met many people who is going to town for the festivities. Today is the shortest day of the year and tomorrow, December 25th, will be as if the sun had been born again, so that the pagans will be given to big events in the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the "Birth Day of the Invincible Sun." But for us Christians, this date represents the Birth Day of Christ, the Invincible.


Note: this is not a blog about religion and the purpose of this post is not necessarily apostolic. The idea is, based on historical data, to propose a review of an architectural monument in the way a Roman Christian would narrate it in the late third century.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish you happy holidays and much success for the coming year.

- Early Christian art and architecture. Robert Milburn
- Wikipedia and various websites.
- Visit to the Catacombs of San Callisto, Rome. March 2, 2006.

- Early Christian Architecture

The Catacombs of Saint Callistus are one of those places that convey spirituality beyond a particular religion. Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Jews and non-believers visit them each year.
Along with Jan, Hugo and Arnel (who took the photo) during our visit.


  1. Very nice photos! It feels like I really want to go there. Seems great! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. This is very good -however, the picture of the fresco of the Eucharistic Banquet is from the catacombs of Priscilla.

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