The Catacombs

Before outlining the radiating figure of Saint Philomena, virgin and roman martyr, it’s appropriate to mention the catacombs, since her mortal remains were discovered in 1802 in Rome at the Catacombs of Priscilla (fig. 1-2-3).

There are prestigious studies regarding this (for ex.: P. TESTINI, Archeologia Cristiana (Christian Archaeology); M. SORDI, I cristiani e l’impero romano (Christians and the roman empire), etc.) In particular, we have decided to relate a page from the illustrious southern historian Gabriele De Rosa, because it seemed to us an effective synthesis and at the same time an accessible and clear exposition of the argument, in line with the style and objectives of this work, limiting us only to add some complementary information in the notes:

“The pagans buried their deceased in the necropolis, the city of the dead, or in monumental tombs reserved for the wealthier ones and positioned along the roads that stretched out of the city. It was forbidden to bury the dead inside an inhabited area, and soon it became customary to burn the bodies. Christians, instead, continued to bury their dead and were granted the authorization to build cemeteries reserved for the faithful and the martyrs in which to celebrate the funeral rituals according to their cults. So they eventually started using, as a cemetery, a site situated on the roadsides of the via Appia called “Catacumbas”, which means “near the cavity”, since it seems that in that area there were tuff mines which had caused hollows the ground. In this way what we know today as “catacombs” is a term extended to all the Christian underground cemeteries. Catacombs, although particularly numerous in Rome because of the nature of its ground, are not exclusive of the capital: there are more in other places of Italy, in Malta, in Northern Africa.
“Many people think that the catacombs were places of refuge in which Christians could hide to escape from persecutions. But this is not accurate since the catacombs were well known to the roman authorities, who had them under strict surveillance. Furthermore, it proves very difficult to live for lengthy periods in these tunnels dug underground without air. It is instead true that catacombs, in addition to being dedicated to burials, were places of worship, in which rituals of the Christian community: the group praying, the Eucharist, the administration of the sacraments were celebrated. Only in special circumstances, when persecutions became very violent, the catacombs were used as a provisional refuge place. The first groups of underground cemeteries began to be dug around the middle of the II century A.D. Later, a corporation was founded called fossors, which specialized in the digging of tunnels.


Fig. 1 – Basilica of San Silvestro, in Rome, built on Priscilla’s catacombs.

061013_2145_2Fig. 2 – Burial niches in the tunnels of Priscilla’s catacombs. In one of these burial niches, on May 25, 1802, the body of the Martyr Philomena was found.



Fig. 3 – The so-called cryptoportcus of Priscilla’s catacombs.

Catacombs were structured on more levels (there could be as many as five), and they could reach a depth of up to thirty meters. The tunnels were tight and long, about three meters tall, and were connected by steep stairs which formed a complex grid, an actual true labyrinth. The niches assigned to the burial of the dead were dug into the walls. After the burial, the niches were closed by a tombstone or bricks.The tunnels were larger rooms and the crypts, were underground churches.

The light, which filtered from tiny openings, was very scarce and it illuminated only the floors nearer the surface.

The catacombs near Rome have not yet been fully explored. Of these, the most important ones are those of St. Callisto, St. Sebastian, Domitilla and St. Agnes.”

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