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491
CATACOMB


excavated deep in the earth, and contain, on either hand as you enter, the bodies of the dead buried in the wall. It is all so dark there that the language of the prophet (Ps. lv. 15) seems to be fulfilled, 'Let them go down quick into hell.' Only occasionally is light let in to mitigate the horror of the gloom, and then not so much through a window as through a hole. You take each step with caution, as, surrounded by deep night, you recall the words of Virgil—

"Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent."[1]

EB1911 Catacomb - Fig. 1.—Plan of part of the Cemetery of Sant’ Agnese.jpg
Fig. 1.—Plan of part of the Cemetery of Sant’ Agnese. (From Martigny.)
 A. Entrance from the Basilica of St Agnes.

1, 2. Ancient staircases leading to the first storey.

 3. Corridors from the staircases.

 4. Two ruined staircases leading to the lower storey. 

 5. Steps of the rock.

 6. Air-shafts, or luminaria.

7. Ruined vault.

8. Blind ways.

9. Passages built up or ruined.

10. Passages obstructed by landslips. 

11. Unfinished passage.

12. Passages destitute of tombs.

 13. Narrow apertures between adjoining galleries.

14-17. Arcosolia.

18-32. Cubicula.

 33. Chapel with vestibule and apse, and two chairs.

 34. Double chapel with three chairs.

 35. Large chapel in five divisions.

In complete agreement with Jerome’s vivid picture the visitor to the Roman Catacombs finds himself in a vast labyrinth of narrow galleries, usually from 3 to 4 ft. in width, interspersed with small chambers, all excavated at successive levels, in the strata of volcanic rock subjacent to the city and its environs, and constructed originally for the interment of the Christian dead. The galleries are not the way of access to the cemeteries, but are themselves the cemeteries, the dead being buried in long low horizontal recesses, excavated in the vertical walls of the passages, rising tier above tier like the berths in a ship, from a few inches above the floor to the springing of the arched ceiling, to the number of five, six or even sometimes twelve ranges. These galleries are not arranged on any definite plan, but, as will be seen from the plan (fig. 1), they intersect one another at different angles, producing an intricate network which it is almost impossible to reduce to any system. They generally run in straight lines, and as a rule preserve the same level. The different storeys of galleries lie one below the other (fig. 2) to the number of four or five (in one part of the cemetery of St Calixtus they reach seven storeys), and communicate with one another by stairs cut out of the living rock. Light and air are introduced by means of vertical shafts (luminaria) running up to the outer air, and often serving for several storeys. The drawing (fig. 3) from Northcote gives a very correct idea of these galleries, with the tiers of graves pierced in the walls. The doorways which are seen interrupting the lines of graves are those of the family sepulchral chambers, or cubicula, of which we shall speak more particularly hereafter.

The graves, or loculi, as they are commonly designated, were, in the Christian cemeteries, with only a few exceptions (Padre Marchi produces some from the cemetery of St Ciriaca, Monum. primitiv. tav. xiv. xliii. xliv.), parallel with the length of the gallery. In the pagan cemeteries, on the other hand, the sepulchral recess as a rule entered the rock like an oven at right angles to the corridor, the body being introduced endways. The plan adopted by the Christians saved labour, economized space, and consulted reverence in the deposition of the corpse. These loculi were usually constructed for a single body only. Some, however, were formed to contain two, three, or four, or even more corpses. Such recesses were known respectively as bisomi, trisomi, quadrisomi, &c., terms which often appear in the sepulchral inscriptions. After the introduction of the body the loculi were closed with the greatest care, either with slabs of marble the whole length of the aperture, or with huge tiles, three being generally employed, cemented together with great exactness so as to prevent the escape of the products of decomposition (fig. 4). Where any epitaph was set up—an immense number are destitute of any inscription at all—it is always painted or engraved on these slabs or tiles. In the earlier interments the

  1. Hieron., Comment. in Ezech. lib xx. c. 40. The translation is Dean Burgon’s.