The Catacombs, and their Testimony on Christian Life and Thought


De Rossi, a leading investigator of the Catacombs in recent times, finds good evidence that at least three or four of them were commenced within the first century; and Christian burial-places of this kind were probably preceded by Jewish. Their chief, if not their sole, design at first was to provide suitable resting-places for the bodies of the dead. This was the original aim in their excavation. The old theory that they were deserted quarries or sand-pits, which the Christians appropriated, is untenable, being clearly contradicted by the structure, of which narrow corridors and sharp angles are characteristic features. It is also a mistake to suppose that primarily the use of the catacombs as places of refuge was an influential motive in their construction. The attempt at secrecy in their structure did not become prominent till in the third century. This was clearly the case with the Roman Catacombs. "They were, like the pagan tombs, situated on the high roads entering the city. Their entrances were frequently protected and adorned by elegant structures of masonry, such as that which is still visible at the Catacomb of St. Domitilla." [W. H. Withrow, The Catacombs of Rome, Book I., chap. ii.] So far as the mere purpose of burial was concerned, these cemeteries could claim the protection of that respect which classic antiquity generally awarded to the resting-places of the dead. The decrees that were finally issued against visiting them (such as the Valerian edict in 257) had probably more reference to their use as assembling-places than as mere burial-places.

The earliest catacombs were most likely of private origin. Wealthy Christians could easily be constrained to offer the family sepulchres upon their own grounds for the burial of distinguished martyrs, as also of the poor. Thus burial centres were established, about which catacombs, of greater or less extent, were formed in process of time. It is hardly to be doubted, also, that the Christians soon formed burial associations among themselves. Great tolerance was awarded to this kind of association. Preserved documents show that a greatnumber of burial societies, representing different trades and professions, existed at Rome. An assessment upon the members of these provided for the necessary expenses. There are indications that the very extensive Catacomb of St. Callistus was under the charge of the Roman Church, and was recognized by the government as the cemetery of a burial association. [Hippolytus, Philos., ix. 7.]

The largest and most noteworthy of the catacombs are found near the great roads leading from Rome, and within three miles of the walls. [Catacombs are found in many other places, those at Naples being among the most important. Victor Schultz gives a list of thirteen places in the Orient, and thirty-three in the meet, that have catacombs (Die Katakomben, p. 25.)] Their entrance at present, when not through the crypt of an ancient church, is by a descending stairway through an aperture or archway. They consist essentially of narrow corridors, with an occasional addition of a small chamber, built in a friable, volcanic formation, the tufa granolare. The corridors range from two to five feet in width, intersect each other for the most part nearly at right angles, are usually vaulted and naked, but are occasionally plastered or supported by masonry. Graves, out into the sides and sealed up with slabs of marble or other material, thickly line these narrow ways, which are themselves very numerous, and arranged in line would extend hundreds of miles. Michele de Rossi [Brother of the chief investigator, Giiovanni Battista de Rossi.] estimates that those of St. Callistus, the largest catacomb, would extend about the whole length of Italy. The same author computes that the Roman catacombs, with the compact style of burial employed, contain room enough for nearly four millions of bodies. To economize space more perfectly, the galleries were sometimes arranged upon different planes, one below the other. In individual instances, there are as many as five stories in a catacomb. The chambers are small, vaulted rooms, often not more than eight or ten feet square. These, if not simply burial chambers, may have been used for the celebration of funeral services, and for the administration of the eucharist near the graves of the martyrs.

The accession of Constantine, with its addition of security and enlarged resources to the Church, lessened the motive for the use of underground cemeteries. Still, for a considerable interval, burials in these continued to be in the majority. After the year 373, however, the inclination toward this kind of interment rapidly decreased; and, according to Kraus, the year 454 marks the last instance in which a body was consigned to a catacomb. [Die Römischen Katakomben, Buch II., kap. iii.] Thereafter these resting-places of the dead were used as chapels and pilgrim resorts. Meanwhile, a work of spoliation or depletion was begun, first at the hands of barbarian invaders, and then at the hands of the authorities of the Church, who sought to secure relies by depositing them within the walls of the city. A great number of bodies were transferred; an inscription records the translation, by Pope Paschal I., of twenty-three hundred on a single day of the year 817. During the Middle Ages, the Catacombs fell into neglect, and became largely lost to knowledge. In the sixteenth and the following centuries some progress was made toward rediscovery and description; but it was reserved for De Rossi and his co-laborers, in the last few decades, to bring the crowning investigations to the subject.

Among the objects of interest in the Catacombs, are symbols and symbolical paintings; various works of art, including gilt glasses, different styles of lamps, terra-cotta vases, children's toys, occasional specimens of sculpture; sepulchral inscriptions. The principal symbols are the anchor, the ship, the palm, the crown, the dove,the olive-branch, the peacock, and the phoenix as significant of immortality, the shepherd, the lamb, the fish, and the cross. Dear as was this last symbol to the hearts of Christians, it is not of frequent occurrence in the Catacombs, and, moreover, appears usually in some disguised form, inasmuch as it was peculiarly exposed to heathen scorn. The fish is an oft-recurring symbol, and seems to have had a very full import to the early Christians. It is highly probable that it embraced the meaning of the letters in the Greek word for fish, these letters being used as initials of the following titles of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It may also have had some connection with baptism, or with the vocation of Christ's ambassadors as "fishers of men." Sometimes it appears in conjunction with bread and wine, in which case it has reference to the heavenly food which Christ supplies, or to the eucharist.

The pictures in the Catacombs show considerable dependence upon classic art, but also exhibit abundant traces of the marked influence of the new religion. A noticeable feature is the absence of sorrowful representations. The crucifixion of Christ nowhere appears among the pictures of the first three centuries. Within the same period, only a single portrayal of Christian martyrdom has been identified with a good degree of probability; and this enters into no incidents of torture and suffering, simply representing two confessors standing before their judge, and the retreating form of the heathen priest who served as their accuser. [Kraus, Buch IV., kap. v.]

Many of the inscriptions are very brief expressions of domestic affection or of Christian hope and confidence. The following may serve as examples: "To Libera Maximilla, a most loving wife. She lived in peace." "To the well-deserving Silvana, who sleeps here in peace." "Aurelia, our very sweet daughter, who retired from the world, Severus and Quintus being consuls." "To the highly venerable, most devout, and very sweet father, Secundus. His wife and sons, in expression of their dutifulness, have placed this slab." "Laurentius was born into eternity in the twentieth year of his age. He sleeps in peace."

The evidence supplied by the inscriptions and representations in the Catacombs is somewhat qualified by the paucity of dates. The proportion of dated inscriptions is quite small. The characteristics of these, however, furnish a basis for an approximate determination of the age of many others. Allowing a sufficient margin for the element of chronological uncertainty, we may still derive important information as respects the life and belief of the early Christians. No doubt the theological literature of the period abounds much more in explicit statements upon doctrinal points than do these monumental remains; nevertheless, the latter make a valuable supplement to the former, and have the special advantage of being unstudied expressions of what was commonly in the hearts of Christians. "The voice we hear is not that of a bishop or doctor speaking ex cathedra, but the voice of Martha and Mary by the grave of Lazarus, pouring forth at once their sorrow and their hope." [Pressensé, Christian Life, Book III., chap. vii.]

1. The Catacombs bespeak a genuine recognition of the principles of Christian brotherhood and equality. Not only are titles of nobility wanting: there is scarcely a record of the distinction between master and slave.
2. The Catacombs, as a whole, testify to a very high appreciation of the gospel virtues on the part of the early Church. Such graces as humility, gentleness, sympathy, and self-renunciation are here commended as highest ornaments of character.
3. The Catacombs testify to the joyful faith of the Church, its living and inspiring belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. "The glorious doctrine of the resurrection was everywhere recorded. It was symbolized in the ever recurring representations of the story of Jonah, and of the raising of Lazarus, and was strongly asserted in numerous inscriptions. As the early Christians laid the remains of the departed saint in their last long rest, the sacred words of the gospel, 'I am the resurrection and the life,' must have echoed with a strange power through the long corridors of that silent city of the dead, and have filled the hearts of believers, though surrounded by the evidences of their mortality, with an exultant thrill of triumph over death and the grave. This was a recompense for all their pains." [Withrow, Book III., chap. ii.]
4. The Catacombs witness to the central place of Christ in the faith and hopes of the early Church, and to the recognition of His divinity. His name appears distinctly combined with that of Deity in such expressions as, "God, the Lord Christ;" "God Christ Almighty;" "God, holy Christ, only light;" "To Christ, the one holy God."
5. The Catacombs witness to the freedom of the early Church from any idolatrous veneration of the Virgin Mary. There is no apparent attempt to exalt her above the place which would naturally and necessarily be assigned to her in a full list of biblical representations. "In those earliest decorations of the Catacombs," says Marriott, "which De Rossi and other Roman antiquaries believe to be before the age of Constantine, representations of the Virgin Mary occur only in such connection as is directly suggested by Holy Scripture." [The Testimony of the Catacombs and other Monuments of Christian Art.] To be sure, there is a class of figures in the attitude of prayer, the so-called oranti, that appear to Romish eyes to represent the Virgin in her office of intercession. But there is no proper ground for such an identification. Some of the praying figures are males, some in the garb of children and youths, -- facts strongly favoring the conclusion that they were designed simply as memorials of the pious dead. Moreover, if a different application were to be assigned any of them, it would be quite as probable that they were intended to serve as symbols of the Church, as that they were meant to image the Virgin. Kraus, writing from the Romish stand-point, says, "We see the Church or the Virgin in these oranti, and, indeed, in most cases the latter rather than the former." [Buch. IV., kap. v.] A principal ground alleged for this verdict is, that female figures in the same attitude appear upon gilt glasses in connection with inscriptions which identify them with the Virgin. But there is no certainty that these glasses originated before the age of Constantine; and if they originated after that era, which marked a powerful acceleration of every tendency to exalt the Virgin, they are explained by the new conditions, and help very little toward deciding the intent of the primitive oranti. In the opinion of Marriott, the gilt glasses which present Mary in the form of an orante were not earlier than the fifth century. [Schultze is pronounced for the same conclusion.] It might, however, be allowed that she was portrayed on this wise in the pre-Constantinian era, without thereby proving the existence within that era of the Romish theory and practice. To represent Mary under a form that was also applied to the commemoration of ordinary Christian women, is vastly different from portraying her as the crowned queen of heaven. There is nothing definite in the monuments in favor of mariolatry; and since the whole literature of the first three centuries is destitute of ally evidence on the side of this form of idolatry, no indefinite monumental representation is to be warped into an indication of such idolatry within those centuries.
6. The Catacombs witness rather against than for the doctrine of purgatory. There is no such catalogue of petitions for the departed as might be expected to have sprung from ally clear recognition of such a doctrine. The prayers recorded to have been sent after the dead, and in their behalf, are simply the spontaneous out-breathings of affection, such as might naturally be uttered apart from any theory of their special needfulness ; prayers of sweet confidence and joyful hope, rather than anxious supplications for the relief of friends from a torturing purgatory.
7. The Catacombs in no wise disagree with the evidence supplied by patristic literature, that the custom of addressing prayers to the saints was not in vogue before the fourth century. That some brief petitions or ascriptions to the departed should be found only accords with the fact that many of the inscriptions belong to a later period. One of these, pertaining to the year 380, contains the cry of an orphaned girl for parental remembrance. A few undated inscriptions of similar import are found; but it remaius to be proved that they were pre-Constantinian, and, if so, that they represent a custom. [Schultze says this class of inscriptions cannot be proved to be earlier than the fifth century. (Katakomben,p. 269.)] "Until the fourth century," says Pressensé, "no name of any creature, angel or saint, ever entered into the prayers of the Church." [Christian Life, Book II., chap, iv.]

Surely it is no small distance which separates the Church of the Catacombs from the Church whose central sanctuary now overlooks the site of these ancient cemeteries. The teaching which is gathered from their symbols and inscriptions is in many points vitally contrasted with that which is published from St. Peter's and the Vatican. No doubt the papal Church surpasses the primitive Christian communion in splendor and majesty of externals; but before the mirror of Christ's teaching the more excellent glory is with the humble Church of the primitive age.