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.
“The catacombs truly exemplified the faith the early Christians had in Jesus and his resurrection. This was clearly shown from all the symbolism in the frescoes. I was blown away by how well preserved the catacombs were and the immense story telling capacity they hold.” Sophia Bolt
“What struck me the most about our site visit to the Catacombs was the incredibly close connection it once had to the divine world by acting as a burial ground for the early Christian martyrs. The positive aura that radiated from the symbolic frescos depicting the Resurrection definitely overpowered the dark, gloomy surroundings of the burial site, creating a paradox of life and death that I found to be very similar to the one I found in the Gospel of Mark.” Catherine McLean
“While visiting the catacombs and learning about their martyrdom and heroism, I couldn’t help but wonder if my faith is strong enough to withstand the trials that they endured. It is a great encouragement to know that generations of Christians have gone before me, and though the evidence of their eternal reward is not accessible, there is solid proof that their hope in God was strong enough not to be trifled with, even by the Roman empire.” Maria McLaughlin
“The eerie sense of knowing what the Catacombs were used for and seeing the art and inscriptions left as evidence of Christian death rituals hundreds of years ago was super fascinating and creepy. It was definitely something I never would have had the opportunity to see and understand without this class.” Leanne Falzon
“This past week’s trip to the Catacombs of Priscilla was a very unique experience. It was interesting to walk among such old grounds and see the religious influence that was in affect so long ago. I also found it really interesting to see the first known portrait of the Virgin Mary and Jesus painted by a tomb of an unknown martyr.” Katie Melkonian
“I was surprised that the catacombs had many symbolic images on the tombs. It definitely tested my knowledge of Christian stories and symbolism in the Old and New Testament.” Sarah Wacik
“Visiting the Catacombs of Priscilla gave a unique insight into what it means to be a Christian. Seeing as the catacombs house thousands of tombs for deceased Christians, one would imagine that they would provide for a somber environment. This, however, is not the case. The walls of the catacombs were surprisingly covered with Christian symbols and frescoes of the resurrection of Christ and stories of salvation, both of which convey a message of hope and the promise of eternal life!” Brittany Ricci
“I was extremely impressed at the vastness of the catacombs. I have always enjoyed studying the stories of early Christian martys in the Roman world and it was just surreal to be able to stand where so many of these martyrs had been buried. Physically standing in the catacombs really brought about a new perception of early Christian suffering, perseverance and salvation for me.” Nikki Mullins
“The catacombs gave a literal sense of mortality to the early Christians we have been learning about. Their struggle as persecuted people became real and I realized part of the community I share with them as a Christian myself.” Suness Jones