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(Apolog. c. 39), were common among the early Christians, as over those existing among the heathen population of Rome.

We may then completely dismiss the notion of there being any studied secrecy in connexion with the early Christian cemeteries, and proceed to inquire into the mode of their formation. Almost without exception, they had their origin in small burial areas,Mode of
the property of private persons or of families, gradually ramifying and receiving additions of one subterranean storey after another as each was required for interments. The first step would be the acquisition of a plot of ground either by gift or purchase for the formation of a tomb, Christians were not beyond the pale of the law, and their faith presented no hindrance to the property being secured to them in perpetuity. To adapt the ground for its purpose as a cemetery, a gallery was run all round the area in the tufa rock at a convenient depth below the surface, reached by staircases at the corners. In the upright walls of these galleries loculi were cut as needed to receive the dead. When these first four galleries were full others were mined on the same level at right angles to them, thus gradually converting the whole area into a net-work of corridors. If a family vault was required, or a burial chapel for a martyr or person of distinction, a small square room was excavated by the side of the gallery and communicating with it. When the original area had been mined in this way as far as was consistent with stability, a second storey of galleries was begun at a lower level, reached by a new staircase. This was succeeded by a third, or a fourth, and sometimes even by a fifth. When adjacent burial areas belonged to members of the same Christian confraternity, or by gift or purchase fell into the same hands, communications were opened between the respective cemeteries, which thus spread laterally, and gradually acquired that enormous extent which, “even when their fabulous dimensions are reduced to their right measure, form an immense work.”[1] This could only be executed by a large and powerful Christian community unimpeded by legal enactments or police regulations, “a living witness of its immense development corresponding to the importance of the capital.” But although, as we have said, in ordinary times there was no necessity for secrecy, yet when the peace of the Church was broken by the fierce and often protracted persecutions of the heathen emperors, it became essential to adopt precautions to conceal the entrance to the cemeteries, which became the temporary hiding-places of the Christian fugitives, and to baffle the search of their pursuers. To these stormy periods we may safely assign the alterations which may be traced in the staircases, which are sometimes abruptly cut off, leaving a gap requiring a ladder, and the formation of secret passages communicating with the arenariae, and through them with the open country.

When the storms of persecution ceased and Christianity had become the imperial faith, the evil fruits of prosperity were not slow to appear. Cemetery interment became a regular trade in the hands of the fossores, or grave-diggers, who appear to have established a kind of property in the catacombs, and whose greed of gain led to that destruction of the religious paintings with which the walls were decorated, for the quarrying of fresh loculi, to which we have already alluded. Monumental epitaphs record the purchase of a grave from the fossores, in many cases during the lifetime of the individual, not unfrequently stating the price. A very curious fresco, found in the cemetery of Calixtus, preserved by the engravings of the earlier investigators (Bottari, tom. ii. p. 126, tav. 99), represents a “fossor” with his lamp in his hand and his pick over his shoulder, and his tools lying about him. Above is the inscription, “Diogenes Fossor in Pace depositus.”

It is unnecessary to enter on any detailed description of the frescoes which cover the walls and ceilings of the burial-chapels in the richest abundance. It must suffice to say that the earliest examples are only to be distinguished from the mural decorations employed byDecoration.their pagan contemporaries (as seen at Pompeii and elsewhere) by the absence of all that was immoral or idolatrous, and that it was only very slowly and timidly that any distinctly religious representations were introduced. These were at first purely symbolical, meaningless to any but a Christian eye, such as the Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Sheep, the Fisherman, the Fish, &c. Even the personages of ancient mythology were pressed into the service of early Christian art, and Orpheus, taming the wild beasts with his lyre, symbolized the peaceful sway of Christ; and Ulysses, deaf to the Siren’s song, represented the Believer triumphing over the allurements of sensual pleasure. The person of Christ appeared but rarely, and then commonly simply as the chief personage in an historical picture. The events depicted from the life of Christ are but few, and always conform rigidly to the same traditional type. The most frequent are the miracle at Cana, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the paralytic carrying his bed, the healing of the woman with the issue of blood, the raising of Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Crucifixion, and subjects from the Passion, are never represented. The cycle of Old Testament subjects is equally limited. The most common are the history of Jonah as a type of the Resurrection, the Fall, Noah receiving the dove with the olive branch, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Moses taking off his shoes, David with the sling, Daniel in the lions’ den, and the Three Children in the fiery furnace. The mode of representation is always conventional, the treatment of the subject no less than its choice being dictated by an authority to which the artist was compelled to bow. All the more valuable of these paintings have been produced in J. H. Parker’s series of photographs taken in the catacombs by the magnesium light.[2] Wilpert’s great work, in which these frescoes are reproduced in colours, now enables the student even better to distinguish the styles of different centuries and follow the course of artistic development or decay.

EB1911 Catacomb - Fig. 17.—Fresco Ceiling.jpg
Fig. 17.—Fresco Ceiling. (From Bosio.)
The subjects, beginning at the top and going to the right, are—

(1) The paralytic carrying his bed.

(2) The seven baskets full of fragments. 

(3) Raising of Lazarus.

(4) Daniel in the lions’ den.

In the centre, the Good

(5) Jonah swallowed by the fish.

(6) Jonah vomited forth.

(7) Moses striking the rock.

(8) Noah and the dove.


Beyond Rome and its suburbs the most remarkable Christian catacombs are those in the vicinity of Naples, described by Pelliccia (De Christ. Eccl. Polit. vol. iv. Dissert. 5), and in separate treatises by Bellerman and Schultze. Plans of them are also given by Agincourt in his great work on Christian art. These

  1. Mommsen’s chosen example of an ancient burial-chamber, extending itself into a catacomb, or gathering subterranean additions round it till a catacomb was established, is that of the cemetery of St Domitilla, traditionally identified with a granddaughter of Vespasian, and the catacomb of Santi Nereo ed Achilleo on the Appian and Ardeatine way.
  2. Parker’s invaluable series of Roman photographs may be seen at the library of the Victoria and Albert museum, at the Ashmolean museum and the Bodleian library, Oxford.