Pay attention to the walls as you walk through the labyrinth of tombs and see some of the world’s earliest Christian art – a striking contrast to the rich decoration of the Vatican.
There are at least 40 catacombs beneath Rome. These were some of the earliest places of Christian burial in the city: Christians preferred interment to cremation, as they believed that when Christ the Redeemer returned to earth to judge the living and the dead the bodies of the faithful would be restored to them in Heaven.
The Christian faith was outlawed for centuries. Its monotheism flew in the face of pagan belief, which upheld the notion of many gods - neighbouring households would have different patron gods to protect them, and the Romans even adopted gods from other faiths. Christians suffered regular persecution, which reached its height under the Emperor Nero when he accused them of starting the Great Fire which blazed through most of Rome in 64 AD - while he reputedly played the violin. This state of fear and confusion persisted until Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 AD. Early Christians were therefore secretive in practising their faith, making use of secret meeting places and communicating with cryptic symbols.
The vast networks of burial chambers were constructed largely through a series of grants and donations by newly converted and wealthy Christians. Open to all members of the faith, the chambers grew into an underground centre of community. Countless Christians and many of the first martyrs and popes were buried in the catacombs.
Christians continued to bury their dead in the catacombs until the 5th century, when the church ordered that people should be buried above ground. They were largely abandoned by the 8th century, and forgotten until their rediscovery in 1578, which sadly saw them stripped of many valuable artworks and artefacts; a full modern excavation was undertaken in the 1800s.
The chambers are a crucial record of early Christian art. Pre-5th century gold glass medallions, fresco and sculpture have all been found here, though much has been looted over the years and most surviving art is now held elsewhere for safekeeping. In a bold response to the iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Vatican ordered thousands of corpses to be exhumed from the catacombs and exported to Catholic churches throughout Europe: these ‘catacomb saints’ were lavishly decorated with gold and jewels and given the fictitious names of Christian martyrs.
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