We have arrived at the end of the semester here in Rome, and for our final site visit we toured the Catacombs of St. Domitilla outside the city walls on the famous Appian Way. (Catacombs refers to the various subterranean cemeteries outside the city walls of Rome, mostly Christian but also Jewish and pagan, and comes from the name for the valley where they first began; hence, the expression “ad catacombas.”) Unlike the Jewish catacombs (which we had visited earlier in the semester), the Christian catacombs (of which St. Domitilla is one of several) were not “merely” burial grounds. Christians, of course, venerate the dead, especially those who gave exemplary witness of the Christian faith (the martyrs hold first rank). Furthermore, whereas the Jews were forbidden to make sacred images, the Christians quickly departed from this tradition, especially as gentiles with their pagan tradition in the arts entered their ranks, and soon began the practice of sacred iconography. The very first Christian images can be found in the catacombs of Rome. At St. Domitilla, for instance, we see the famous graffiti of the anchor (an early symbol for Christ) and the fish (the fish was an ancient symbol for Christianity because the word for fish in Greek acted as an anagram for the titles of Christ: Jesus Christ Son of God Savior), as well as of the orans (a soul in prayer with outstretched open hands). Wealthy Christians would also decorate the arcosolium over their graves or the family mausoleum with beautiful frescoes. There are over 10 miles of catacombs at St. Domitilla, with over 100,000 graves (mostly of children). Our visit to the Christian catacombs coincided with our reading of the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, and provided a fitting setting to reflect upon the final victory and destiny of the Christian life which Rev. 21:3-4 announces: “And God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And so this brings to a close our wonderful semester in Rome.
The following pictures, in order, show: the students outside the entrance to the catacombs; the subterranean basilica, which dates from the 380s; students listening to our tour guide in the subterranean basilica; image of the anchor and fish from a tombstone now found on the wall of the subterranean basilica; passageway among the 10 miles of passageways in the catacombs; tombs for poorer Christians along the passageway (mostly for children in this picture); tombs still sealed; statue of St. Caecilia as her body appeared when it was unburied on this spot; early fresco of the Last Supper; graffiti of the Chi-Ro; fresco of Peter and Paul in the arcosolium of the tomb of a wealthy Christian; relief sculpture of an orans from a tombstone; tombstone of a man named Arcireus who lived to the age of 75.