Last week our site visit for the New Testament in the Eternal City class was 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.
“Symbols and artifacts of the early Christians are difficult to find, and the Catacombs give a clear representation of their faith through the details that are depicted throughout. The fish became a symbol of Christ and is clearly shown within the Catacombs. There is also a Phoenix rising from the ashes, which is a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” – Lindsay Hogan
“The symbol of the anchor was used in the Catacombs of Priscilla with the intention of having the same meaning as the cross, an understanding which strengthens one’s relationship with Jesus.” – Lacey Sullivan
“While looking at the tombs in the catacombs observers can find marks of dates. However, these dates did not signify only the date of death, but rather the date of entrance into eternal life.” – Connor Bubolo
“The Catacombs of Priscilla were used as a final resting place for Christians – poor and rich – all of whom believed that life truly started after death. The common theme of life after death and believing in Jesus through hard times ties Mark’s gospel and the Catacombs of Priscilla together.” – Abby Chave