“Our tour guide told us that over 400 martyrs were said to have been buried in these catacombs…These martyrs, in their suffering, mirrored the suffering of Jesus Christ before them.” Vanessa Zuleta
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 frescoes 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.
“As I observed the graves of our spiritual predecessors, I found myself in awe of their faith. Even in death, they formed a community where they could rest in peace… The beautiful frescoes serve as a testament to their faith…” Sierra Loya
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.
“A wealthy woman by the name of Priscilla dedicated these specific catacombs to be used as a cemetery for Christians… Around many of the tombs is drawn the symbol of a fish representing the statement, “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior”. Anthony Ravosa
“Through the depths of the Catacombs of Priscilla, themes in the Gospel of Mark are on physical display. These burial grounds provide great evidence of how early Christianity was practiced based on the inscriptions and images remaining in the catacombs.” Claire O’Connor
“…the Gospel of Mark, and our visit to the catacombs demonstrated that once you understand the “secret” of the Gospel of Mark you can understand the true message of Christianity: that you must lose your life in order to regain it.” Julia Textor
“Many look at the brutal ways by which Christians were executed under Nero or Diocletian and think it occurred during a less civilized period far in the past. In examining the current situation in the Middle East, it is apparent… that the message in the Gospel of Mark is as important to suffering Christians today as it was when it was written in 70 AD.” Meghan Donohoe