Where Are Catacombs Found?
The most famous catacombs in the world are to be found in Rome. The word catacomb is of unknown origin, and describes subterranean cemeteries composed of galleries or passages with side recesses for tombs. It seems to have been applied first to the catacombs of St. Sebastian, on the Appian Way near Rome, which became famous as the supposed temporary resting place of the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul in the last half of the 3rd Century.
Catacombs are by no means confined to Rome. The custom of burying the dead in underground rock chambers goes far back into antiquity, and catacombs are found all over the Mediterranean world. Most of the Christian catacombs—about 40 of which are known—belong to the 3rd Century and the early part of the 4th. Ruined by the Goths in the 6th Century and later by the Lombards, they were abandoned and their very existence forgotten until they were rediscovered by chance in 1578.
All the catacombs follow roughly the same pattern. Beginning as small private burial areas they finally became vast labyrinths of narrow galleries, usually three to four feet wide, lighted and ventilated by shafts spaced at wide intervals. The galleries led to small rooms called “cubicula” and the bodies lay in grave niches, cut in the wall or floor and sealed by slabs of marble or huge tiles.
The catacombs were used in times of persecution as hiding places, but there seems to be no truth in the widespread belief that early Christians used the catacombs as secret meeting places for worship. Catacombs, although most notable as underground passageways and cemeteries, also house many decorations. There are thousands of decorations in the centuries-old catacombs of Rome, catacombs of Paris, and other known and unknown catacombs, some of which include inscriptions, paintings, statues, ornaments, and other items placed in the graves over the years. Most of these decorations were used to identify, immortalize and show respect to the dead.
Decorations in the catacombs of Rome were primarily decorated with images and words exalting Christ or depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Much of the sculpture work and art, other than engravings on the walls or tombs, has been preserved in places such as the Museum of St. John Lateran, Christian Museum of Berlin University, and the Vatican. Three representations of Christ as Orpheus charming animals with peaceful music have been found in the catacombs of Domatilla and St. Callista. Another figure was made of gilded glass and dates back to the fourth century, featuring Jesus with the world balanced in his hand and a scroll at his feet.