Many will be aware of the role of catacombs in the early history of the Christian Church. Yet the nature of this role was as straightforward as it seems.
The use of the catacombs had a long tradition in Christianity and also in Judaism and Paganism. Catacombs never served as a dwelling, but mostly as a burial site. Nor were they common in all locations. Christians built them only in places where the geological conditions were conducive. One example of a well-known catacomb is the caves of Rome; similar structures existed in Sicily, Malta, Egypt, Tunisia, Gallia, Palestine and elsewhere.
Catacombs shaped the evolution of Christian burial rites, the order of the liturgy, the veneration of the saints and the icon painting tradition of the Church.
The practice of catacomb digging was grounded in the Christian teachings on human nature and salvation. Christians view the human body as a wondrous creation of the Lord and part and parcel of human nature, which is fundamentally good. They also acknowledge the temporary demise of the body, until the time when it will come back to life as we meet our Saviour at His Second Coming. In light of these teachings, the spread of Christianity displaced the practice of cremation, Creating the demand for burial sites.
Initially, the people buried in the catacombs were of different faiths – Christian, Pagan, Jewish, or Mithraism, among others. Eventually, the Christian communities began to purchase land parcels exclusively for Christian burials. At the turn of the second century of our time, Christian burial sites had nothing in common with the present-day cemeteries. The largest and best-known are the catacombs of Callixtus and Saint Januarius in Naples.
The Catacomb of Saint Callixtus (named in honour of the Bishop of Rome who reigned from 217 to 222), was the first example of a tunnel-type catacomb in history. It was built near the famous Via Appia near Rome. Christians built galleries along the perimeter connected them with passages and created several layers of niches for burials.
As noted, catacomb building was not a practice common exclusively among Christians; however, there were almost no Pagan or Jewish catacombs left by the third century. Where mixed burials were still practised, the ratio of Christian to Pagans epitaphs was 600 or more to one.
The Edict of Milan (313) accelerated the establishment of the practice of the veneration of the saints. Pope Damasus prohibited the building of any structures above the catacombs. In response, Christians began to be designate underground spaces as worship areas at or near the graves of the Christian martyrs. Simultaneously, extensions of the catacombs began. Stairs and dome arcs were added, and wells were drilled to let in fresh air and sunlight. Multiple epitaphs were replaced with longer texts with descriptions of the lives of the holy martyrs, some of them rhymed.
As a result of these developments, some catacombs along the suburban roads of Rome grew to five kilometres in length and stood out among the features of the suburban landscapes. Situated among multiple country houses and villas, they became places of great public significance. In ancient times, burials within the city limits were prohibited in most cities throughout the empire. Because Alexandria was one of the few exceptions to this rule, its catacombs were dug in the urban territory.
The ordinances did not begin to change until the middle of the sixth century when the urban populations dropped, and the demand for burial grounds subsided. Simultaneously, rising military insecurity also put pressure on lawmakers to allow burials in cities. Yet these changes did not change the attitude to the catacombs as sacred places among early Christians. They continued to build Christian churches in their vicinity, as large numbers of the Christian faithful were flocking to venerate the saints.
A century later, travelogues (also called itineraria) began to appear, with directions to particular graves or underground churches. Concurrently, church artists begin to decorate with frescoes the walls of the underground spaces. Contemporary art scholars date the last of these frescoes to the turn of the ninth century.
Towards the end of the first millennium, the practice of building catacombs went into decline. Already in the 7th and 8th centuries, the faithful begin to move the relics of their saints from the caves inside the built churches. Over thirty carts with the relics were taken out of the catacombs during the reign of Pope Bonifacius IV, and 2300 relics of the Christian martyrs were placed in overground churches under Pope Paschalius I. In the middle ages, the flow of visitors to the catacombs dwindled and almost disappeared towards the 14th century. As a result, many catacombs became neglected. The rise of Christian archaeology in the 15th and 16th centuries revived the interest in the catacombs.
As underlined above, building catacombs was not an exclusively Christian practice. The origin of the catacombs was linked to the subterranean structures called hypogea – serving as necropolises – that spread the Mediterranean long before the Nativity of Christ.
The architecture of the catacombs depended on the type of the subsurface rock. For example, Rome stands on volcanic tuff, a type of easily malleable igneous rock. Some catacombs were extended by adding tunnels to the hypogea or subsurface quarries. Most were built from scratch, in hills or flat rocks.
There was rarely an outline or a plan, and new spaces were added in an ad-hoc manner. Some catacombs were extended by building tunnels, others by building more niches and reinforcing the floor. The most respected members of the community were buried in separate polygonal rooms called cubicles, or, more rarely, in stone sarcophagi.
The position of a catacomb digger was highly professional and well respected. Catacomb diggers, or fossors, oversaw the building of subsurface corridors and spaces and were also responsible for the distribution of the graves and the organisation of funerals.
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The above narrative leads us to the conclusion that early Christians did not use catacombs as hideouts or dwellings, but only as spaces for joint worship, prayers and burials. The notion of a catacomb church is a 20th-century invention. At present, it is used by fanatical schismatics who build underground cellars and call on their misguided followers to go into hiding from the world, abandoning their jobs, families and communities. None of these renegade practices has anything to do with the authentic Christian life or the catacombs of the early Church.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds