Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Saints, Popes and martyrs


We had planned the next day to go to the Catacombs of the Appian Way which were a tram, then Metro, then bus ride away so it was a relatively early start to get there before the two hour lunch shut down at noon. Now practised, confident and carrying our trusty Roma Passes we made it to Termini, the central train station and the beginning of many of our Roman journeys. Through the turnstile and onto the train was easy too. Even catching the 218 bus from San Giovanni Metro stop was a cinch- it was waiting right across the road. Trying to work out the correct stop? Not so easy. We guessed and pulled the buzzer probably a couple of stops too early and ended up trotting at a fair clip to get to the ticket booth before the cut off time. Up the little country lane, into the well marked driveway and through some beautiful serene rural scenery not even an hour out of central Rome.


The Via Appia Antica was the first of Rome's great roads stretching all the way from here, Saint Sebastians Gate...



...to Brindisi in the south -where we would be heading in a day or two's time.

Since it was illegal to bury their dead inside the city walls it makes sense that Roman tombs were located, here, just outside the city limits, where they could be still be visited and cared for easily. Pagan Romans tended to be cremated but for Christians, who believed in resurrection, this wasn't an option, so they needed land. A few wealthy Christians allowed their land to be used as burial places as most Christians were too poor to be landowners. To make the most of the donated land they dug tunnels, an estimated 375 miles of tomb lined tunnels, as deep as five layers, in the volcanic tuff. Tuff is soft enough to cut relatively easily but durable and not prone to collapse, perfect for the 60 or so known catacombs outside Rome. At a time when Christians, in particular, were persecuted, the Catacombs became a relatively safe place to bury the dead.

There are three sites tourists can visit today each with different opening times and days. We had chosen the Catacombe de San Callisto because it was open when we wnated to go and the closest option.


The five euro ticket gets you a guided tour by an expert and if you are lucky an enthusiast but 'no photos allowed'. The morning was sunny and the 20 or so minute wait for the start of the English tour was warm and pleasant and there was plenty of people watching to do.



See the dog collars? Incidently my mum used to make dads clerical collars out of washed Janola bottles long before recycling was trendy.

The Callixtian Complex is a large area of nearly 90 acres of land, homes, school buildings, dormatories and the Catacombs, which cover about half the area, underfoot. People have been coming to this area to bury, tend to or pay homage to their dead since about 5 CE (or maybe in this case it is appropriate to use the term AD). The Christianisation of Rome, in 313 AD, led to a cult of pilgrimage. As there would be no more recently persecuted martyrs to connect and to inspire they needed to be regularly reminded. The Pope of the time, St. Zephyrinus, entrusted the administration of these particular Catacombs to Callixtus, a decon. He had to provide a tomb for every Christian, the poor and slaves, so that each would have a worthy burial. On Zephyrinus' death, Callixtus was elected pope. He enlarged the Catacombs, which became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.

The most ancient parts of the Catacombs of St.Callixtus include the 'Crypts of Lucina', the 'Area of the Popes' and the 'Tomb of St. Cecilia'. It is thought that maybe even the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul may have been bought here for safe keeping during the 3rd century.

Our guide was an energetic nun dressed in modern civies, her only tell a simple cross around her neck and a cross pin on her collar. She led us down a box lined garden path and into a chapel where we sat on low wooden benches. Using a set of large painted panels that slid in and out of a frame she gave quite an entertaining historical summary and background to the symbols we could already see in the marble pieces mounted in the chapel walls- which she pointed out were the real deal. In fact everything that we were about to see in the underground chambers and corridors is as it was, except for the lack of bodies which is largely due to looting by relic mongers rather than more sinister reasons. I had sat next to B in an effort to relay as many of the main points as possible which was taking significant concentration as her thick Italian accented English kept getting swallowed by the dense walls but I think we did okay. I was glad I had read up beforehand.

The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are the most important and imposing of the catacombs of Rome. They are considered by Christians, historians and anthropologists alike as 'the cradle of Christianity', 'the Archives of the primitive Church' because of the way they illustrate the usage and customs of the early Christians, their religious beliefs, the way they were expressed and the history of martyrdom. They provide an intriguing way of studying early Christian symbols too. Their secret language.

The Good Shepherd, carrying a sheep, represents Jesus waiting to guide his followers to heaven, the sheep is the saved soul. The fish, representing both Jesus and his disciples, taken from the biblical reference 'I will make you fishers of men' in the book of Matthew and because the first letters of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour spelled 'fish' in Greek. The dove, representing the soul, can be seen quenching its thirst (worshipping), with an olive branch (resting ), or happily perched (arrived in paradise). Peacocks embodied immortality. The anchor, used to disguise a cross, was already a symbol of hope so it seemed appropriate. A simple banana shaped boat with a hoisted sail, a symbol of safe passage in a turbulent world, could also hide a cross. The capital letter M signified the tomb of a martyr and the 'chi-rho' symbol, the first two letters of Christ in Greek XP making a kind of star.


The entrance steps lead straight to the second level past more pieces of engraved sealing stones, epitaphs and a statue of the Good Shepherd on the landing. The enscriptions on the epitaphal stones give a 'birth day' rather than a death date as the belief was they would be reborn 'into the light', 'Cuius dies inluxit'. In fact I think I remember our guide saying that the word 'Catacomb' means bed, as they like to think of their loved ones just falling asleep and waking in heaven rather than dying. There is even pilgrim grafitti scratched on the wall.

The tunnels are more than tall enough to walk comfortably through and wide enough to pass. There are hollows in the walls sized to fit the occupier, usually poor and unable to afford a room, the most poignant are child or even baby sized.

The first stop, the Crypt of the Popes which although now empty, once held 9 Popes and 8 Bishops of the 3rd century. Original inscriptions, broken and now incomplete, are still on the wall indicate their names and titles in Greek and symbols. There is also a large plaque with parts of a poem by Damasus. Further down the cool packed dirt corridor is the Crypt of Saint Cecilia, another notable martyr, the patron saint of muscians and church music, who died a terrible long drawn out death after her brother and husband were killed by Turcius Almachius. They apparently tried to kill her by smothering her with steam and when that didn't work somehow tried and failed to cut her head off- how thats even possible I don't know! She was holding out to receive the Last Rights. Her body was later found, where she finally succombed, three fingers outstretched on one hand and one on the other, signifying her eternal belief in the Holy Trinity. In her tomb now lies a white marble statue in the position she was discovered complete with sword cuts to the neck!

The rest of the tour took us through rooms which once held families in a similar way to how a cemetery plot can be reserved for generations now. There are regular shaped holes like the drawers have been pulled out and left and sometimes still artifacts such as pots and utensils. There was often a table in the room and space enough for the remaining family members to hold services and ritual feasts. Some of the rooms still have parts of frescos and mosaics depicting Baptism, the Eucharist and other biblical scenes and stories.

What we saw was but a small part of the huge underground burial chamber. Walking through the chambers among the tombs of so many faithful in the footsteps that so many have walked before really does leave an impression on you. It took incredible effort and sacrifice against sometimes, it must have seemed, insurmountable odds, especially during the persecution, to hold on so tight to their faith to a God they couldn't see and it must have seemed, at times, had completely forsaken them. Our guide led us into one of the last family tombs and asked permission to say a simple prayer which, considering the company we were in, seemed appropriate, and then we climbed the steps back out into the sunlight.

4 comments:

Natalie said...

Eerie and facinating, and what a moving place to visit. While we readers may be sad about the no photos rule, I'll bet taking photographs would have detracted from the experience.

Verity said...

Wow. Your trip looks amazing. We're planning a trip to Italy in April (just for a week - hopefully to spend some time in the country side but with a couple of day trips). Your posts have got me looking forward to it so much!

Tanya said...

So true Natalie as much as I like taking photos it is a different experience looking through eyes instead of the lens all the time. We managed to get some small town time at the end of our trip Verity but not enough. I would have loved to have walked through the villages in Cinque Terra or rented a place for a week somewhere in rural Florence but we just didnt have time this time around...next time... Even in the sometimes rain and snow what we saw from the train was beautiful!

Juggling Motherhood said...

You're blog is just filled with such beautiful photos! What rich history they have other there!Thanks so much for your comment on my blog.