“After studying Mark’s gospel and visiting the Catacombs of Priscilla, the main connection and overbearing Christian theme between the two becomes the resurrection and human salvation.” – Gregory Nicolai
During our recent study of St. Mark’s gospel, we visited the Catacombs of St. Priscilla. Because of the great number of martyrs buried there and the fact that it is mentioned in the most ancient documents of Christian topography and liturgy, it is called the “regina catacumbarum” or the Queen of the Catacombs”.
There are over 50 catacomb complexes underneath Rome stretching for nearly three hundred miles. Many of them have ancient Christian inscriptions and decorations. Although there are several Christian catacombs that are open to the public, I chose Santa Priscilla because of the richness of the artwork and inscriptions. It has the oldest image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the so-called “Greek Chapel” is an absolute treasure trove of frescoes depicting biblical images from the Old and New Testaments.
Contrary to popular Christian imagination, the early Christians never lived in the catacombs. In fact, it would have been dangerous even to pray publicly there as a group since it could have led to discovery and arrest during the days of the Roman persecution of the Church. The catacombs were a place of burial and remembrance. The fresoes and inscriptions are testimony to the faith of the early Christians and their hope of resurrection. The tombs of the martyrs take pride of place and are usually richly decorated.
During our tour, the students were able to connect many of the motifs of the frescoes and inscriptions with theological and spiritual themes from our New Testament course.
“Since this Gospel was written at the time of Christian persecution by the Romans, there needed to be an emphasis on the new life that came from death and that Jesus secured that new life for us…This assurance of rebirth in Mark’s Gospel clearly had an effect on the early Christians because on their inscriptions in the catacombs they would write the death date of the deceased. The date symbolizes the birth date of their new life with Christ.” – Kevin Gleason
“The art in the Catacombs reflects the paradox and Christian belief in an afterlife. It also replicates Mark’s story that you must die and understand suffering before you can truly live. These paintings show that life and eternal happiness is beyond the grave, which ties in with the paradox of the Catacombs that you can find such life and beauty in an area of death.” – Rainy Paul
“In Mark’s Gospel, the cross is a central symbol that is present throughout and in order to be a Christian one must take up their own cross, which connects to the sufferings of the Christians in Rome during a time of persecution…In the catacombs, the centrality of the cross is represented by the symbol of suffering and death, which is everywhere because many of the the Christians who were buried there were martyrs who fought for their faith.” Hayley White
“Christians view the cross as a sign of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for the gift of salvation and correspondingly at the catacombs the cross symbolized salvation. The Christian belief of afterlife is the idea of life after death; in the catacombs of Priscilla, a place of burial and death, the artwork represents life, which could be symbolism for afterlife.” – Hannah Struever