What Are The Catacombs?

The catacombs have played an important part in Catholic history. They were built as underground cemeteries, but later became a place where Christians could worship freely, to escape from government persecution. The catacombs also served as a place for some of the earliest Christian art. The Catacombs were also referred to as sleeping places because the Christians of that time believed that when you die, you sleep before being resurrected, just as Jesus did. Catacombs are found mostly in Rome. Others are found in the Italian cities of Chiusi, Bolsena, Naples, as well as in eastern Sicily, Northern Africa, and Malta. They are very large in size. There were many floors and went down deep into the ground.


The catacombs were built during the first through the fifth centuries. As ancient underground cemeteries used by Roman Christian communities, some were also used by Jewish communities. They made tombs or coffins that are called sarcophagi. Christians did not believe in cremating because they did not want to destroy God's creation. The catacombs provided a common place to bury Christians. In the early stages of the catacombs, Christians would gather around and celebrate the funeral rites of the dead. They would also celebrate the anniversaries of martyrs and whoever else had died and had been placed in the tombs.

The catacombs were protected by law when the emperors Constantine and Licinuis in February 313. Christians no longer had to be afraid of professing their religion. They were now able to build churches in and out of the city. They were allowed to buy plots of land without being afraid of being crucified. They continued to bury the dead in catacombs. Then later in the fifth century, the church built cemeteries for the dead and special basilicas for the dead saints.

The catacombs were made out of galleries or passages with side places or compartments for tombs. The general idea of the catacombs was not created by the Christians, but it was adopted from an existing technique of excavation. They modified it, or changed it, by adding floors and bigger tombs and rooms.

The catacombs were made possible by donations from local wealthy Romans. Some others started as private tombs, that were already in place for family members, but they later expanded them into catacombs. They did this by buying more plots of land and then extending the existing tomb. The catacombs continued to grow at a quick rate.

When the barbarian Goths and Longobards invaded Italy in the early 4th century, many of the monuments and some of the catacombs were destroyed. The catacombs were not protected by law anymore, but instead were illegal. The Pope at this time ordered people to go and take their belongings to churches and stay there. If the Christians were caught worshipping in secret they were hanged or crucified. The catacombs could no longer be visited.

Then centuries later, exploration of the catacombs began by Antonio Bosio in the early 1600's. His work was then later carried out by Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

Catacombs and Spirituality

The catacombs are a spiritual place for Christians, because they are the resting place for thousands of martyrs. The early Christians beheld a great witness to Christ because they shed their blood for Jesus. They did not want the catacombs to be just a symbol of death. They wanted them to resemble life and the joys of life. They expressed their spirituality with paintings and inscriptions on every wall in every passage way. This strengthened their faith in God. The Christians of this time did not spend their whole life underground. They lived normal lives just like ordinary people. They showed their faith in other places too. It was the catacombs that gave them the support and strength to go through with the persecutions of being Christians. The got the inspiration that they needed to continue by the reminder of the dead martyrs that laid in the tombs.

In the catacombs they painted drawings that represented Christocentric spirituality. The Christians that painted the artwork, wanted Christ to be at the center of their lives. Whatever is in the catacombs, may it be the tombs built for the martyrs or the drawings on the wall, Christians of this time wanted everything to be in God's image. There is one particular painting, that can still be seen today that has an image of Mary. In this image, the Madonna, Mary, is carrying Jesus and there is an arrow pointing to a shinning star overhead. In another painting, Mary has Jesus on her knees and the Magi are bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. The Magi are in other paintings and drawings throughout the catacombs. The Magi are also in different sculptures.

There is a sacramental spirituality to the catacombs. Before there were catacombs and large churches, Baptisms were done at home or in secret. The catacombs provided a place for the Christians to celebrate Baptism freely. The early Christians believed that through Baptism we die and we are risen with Christ. They also thought that the Christian martyrs were raised up with Christ. They thought that the catacombs would be a perfect place to hold the sacrament of Baptism.

Artwork & Symbols

There is plenty of artwork throughout the catacombs. The pictures on the walls of the catacombs tell a story, like when Daniel was in the lion's den, and when Isaac was going to be sacrificed by his father to show his love for God.

There are many symbols of the catacombs that are painted on the walls. Some of the symbols are the Good Shepherd, the "orante" and the monogram of Christ. In the Good Shepherd, there is a shepherd with a lamb over its shoulders. The Shepherd represents Christ and the soul that he saved. In the "orante," there is a praying figure with open arms. It represents a soul in peace. In the monogram of Christ, there are two letters that interlace. The two letters are from the Greek alphabet, X (chi), and P (ro). The two letters are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, "Christos." When they were placed on tombstones, it meant that a Christian was buried there.

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