The catacombs of Priscilla and St. Sebastiano

1. Early Christianity in Rome
2. Death and the catacombs
3. How is reality conceived?
4. How are humans conceived?
5. What is the function of representation (memories)?
6. How is experience represented?
7. What is the material available (traditions, genres)?
8. What did catacomb art have to express?
9. Which were the memories available to the artists?
10. Two example slabs

Early Christianity in Rome

Christianity began as a Jewish sect in Jerusalem. Roughly a decade after Jesus' death, the first Christians came to Rome. The apostles Paul and Peter soon followed and they lived, preached and died in the city. In Rome, the believers in Jesus of Nazareth began to separate themselves from the Jewish society. In 49 A.D. they were first recognized as a distinct group by the imperial authorities and in 64 A.D. Christianity was recognized as a new religion. In that same year, Christians were blamed by Nero for the great fire that burned down a quarter of the city. The Christians were prosecuted and many were killed. It took until the beginning of the second century for the religion to blossom again.[4]

In the second and third century, Roman Christians struggled with what they should believe. They recently parted from the Jews and by doing so, they did not have the Jewish law to guide them anymore. The importance and interpretation of the old testament (the Hebrew bible) was the first challenge that the departure imposed on them. The contradictions between the old testament and the new testament had to be solved. Different solutions were put forward to do this.[4]

Also, the Roman Christians now missed a hierarchy. Church leaders had to cooperate to align against heretics, and there were different views how to arrange this. It was an uncertain time for the Christians, not only because the Romans rejected their religion and but also because of their internal difficulties with their faith.

The negative attitude towards the Christians did not change until 313 AD. In this year the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christian worship. During his reign Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire.

Death and the catacombs

Image 1: Impression of the
Catacombs of St. Sebastiano[3]

Until the last decades of the second century, Christians appear to have been buried alongside their non-Christian neighbors. Before the second century, it was custom to use cremation as the funeral tradition. During the second century this gradually changed, inhumation slowly replaced cremation. The rich Romans build mausolea outside the walls of Rome for their dead, but because inhumation demanded far more space, even the wealthy began to excavate underground to find more room for burials. This was easy in Rome, because of the presence of the volcanic stone called tufa.[Image 1] This is a rock that is relatively soft when you excavate it, but hardens when exposed to air. It is also very shock absorbing, which is why many catacombs are still intact today, despite of various earthquakes.

In the beginning of underground burials, excavations often reused old quarries or old underground water channels to make burial corridors. You can still recognize these by their distinct shape.

The earliest Christian en Jewish burials were in private subterranean burial chambers called hypogea, which gradually developed into vast systems of tunnels. By the middle of the third century, catacombs could be found along all the major roads leading out of Rome. They were called cemeteries (sleeping chambers), reflecting the Christian faith of resurrection. The name catacomb, now often used, stems from the cemetery of St. Sebastiano. The Greek words means ‘near the hollows’ (ad catacumbas)[5]. This word refers to a place at the via Appia Antica which is near the St Sebastiano catacomb. There were hollows in the terrain created by the excavation of stone and sand from the quarries located there in ancient times. In the second century these were reused to dig out graves, which grew out and merged in subterranean cities of the dead. The name catacomb was therefore originally not a term for underground burial complexes, but described a particular place, and was originally used only for the St Sebastiano catacomb.

Image 2: Ground plan catacombs of Priscilla (first level) [2] Image 3: Ground plan
catacombs of Priscilla (second
level) [2]
Image 4: Location of Roman catacombs [1]

Most catacombs are enormous. Still visible in many catacombs is that in the beginning of Christian burials the catacombs were relatively private, used for only one family for example. As more and more people needed to be buried, individual hypogea joined and the catacombs were more efficient organized. When a level was full, they extended the catacomb a level lower. If you study the groundplan of the catacombs, a more structured approach in time can be seen. The upper level of a catacomb is often messy and chaotic, while lower levels are more structured, with straight corridors and regular side tunnels. This is clearly visible in the catacomb of Priscilla[Image 2, 3]. The corridors often extend for hundreds of meters (the corridors of Priscilla for example measures a stunning 13 km in total [8]).

The Christian catacombs are so special because they provide powerful evidence of the desire of Christians to be buried together. Their decorations are the first examples of Christian art. The grave inscriptions of which 40.000 survive[4] reveal the faith and the life of the community as well as giving evidence about its social composition. About sixty catacombs and hypogea have been found all around Rome[Image 4]. About three quarters of a million people were buried in them. They stand as remarkable evidence of the size and vitality of the roman church between circa 250 - 350 A.D. and of its appeal to people who found the Christian belief in resurrection and their burial customs probably the greatest attraction of this new faith.

How is reality conceived?

Reality was perceived by the Christians as created (made) by God. It is a deeply linguistic reality, it is a text (written by God): the bible. Pictures are of less importance, the old testament of the bible even forbids making representations of God.

Image 5: ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichtus) [5]

Pictures are less important in Christianity then in the pagan roman culture. This is visible in the decorations of the loculi. They are often inscribed with text, about the life of the deceased. The symbols are not meant as decoration, but more as representations. One of the most popular symbols was that of the fish. This symbol has multiple meanings. First it refers to the story which Jesus told about catching fish: the deceased was someone caught by the Lord in his net. The fish also reminded of Jesus feeding the five thousand. And the fish also stands for Christ himself.

Image 6: Chi-Rho

This last meaning is also found is the Greek word for fish, ichtus, which is also often written on slabs.[Image 5] The letters of ichthus are an acronym for 'Jesus Christ, god's son, saviour' (Iesous CHristos THeou HUios Soter: ΙΧΘΥΣ: 'Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ).

Another symbol which often occurs on slabs is a cross made of the letter rho (Ρ) and the chi (Χ) often joined by the alpha (Α) on the left and omega (Ω) on the right.[Image 6] The letters which make the cross are the first letters of the Greek word Christ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ), the alpha and omega meaning from alpha till omega: for all. Here the linguistic importance and the symbolic nature is again present.

How are humans conceived?

Humans are the image of Christ – son of God – which means equality and absence of hierarchy (religion for the poor). This equality was very important in early Christianity.

"Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), and Christians must be conformed to his likeness (2 Cor 3:18; Gal 4:19; Eph 4:13; Col 3:10)"

Poor people, for example converted ex-slaves, were treated equally as other Christians. This is displayed in the catacombs, where the poor were also buried. Their graves were financed by the church. This made Christianity very attractive for poor Romans, because it promised them a decent future after death, ánd a decent burial. In the non-Christian community of Rome, the corpses of poor people, who didn't have someone to bury them, were thrown in big holes in the ground (puticuli), together with animal corpses and litter. It was an awful and anonymous end, probably feared by many.

What is the function of representation (memories)?

Image 7: The Good Shepherd,
Catacombs of Priscilla [2]

Representations were conceived as texts – either from God, or about God, or directed to God. Christian mythical experience is represented. The symbols and texts on the loculi were not intended to have some magical property or explain any natural phenomenon. Rather, they add value to certain virtues that were important to the Christians.

Besides the symbols and texts on the slabs, the graves of the rich were decorated with frescoes. Besides having a symbolic function, most of the drawings are decorative too. The frescoes often refer to ancient stories, which were adopted by the Christians for their own purposes. For example, a image in the catacombs of Priscilla shows a young man carrying a lamb around his neck[Image 7], which was directly borrowed from the much older pagan Kriophoros story.[9] For the Christians this image was representing Christ as the good shepherd, who would guide his sheep.

"As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness."
Ezekiel 34:12

How is experience represented?

According to the theory by van Heusden[7], culture evolves through four stages: Mimesis (imitation), Imagination (artifacts), Concepts (language) and Structures (theory). Since these stages are built upon each other, it should be possible to see Christian experience represented in all these stages. In the light of this theory, (early) Christianity is mostly a linguistic, mythical culture, so the catacomb art should represent experience mainly through concepts.

In Christianity, the life of Christ is exemplary, which indicates a Mimetic aspect. Christ is a very important figure in the catacomb art, as many of the symbols (Ichtus, Chi-Rho, the good shepherd) refer directly to him. The imaginative aspect of Christianity can be observed in the depiction of Christ and other holy figures, but also in exemplary narratives and parables. In the catacombs, many of these narratives are depicted.

The structure and theory in Christianity is through theological argument. The letters of the apostles and other texts from the new testament are the method to convince others about these theories. In the catacomb art, there is no sign of this analytical aspect of Christianity. It could be argued that this is because maybe the concepts of Christianity were not yet ‘ready’ to be captured into solid theories. This could be a result of the uncertainty caused by the struggle with the contradictions between the old en the new testament.

The conceptual stage of cultural evolution is the most prominent in early Christianity. Reality is created by God and is a written text, namely the bible. The most appearing forms of art in the catacombs are the texts and symbols written on the slabs, which are clearly linguistic. The other form of art, the frescoes, depict the stories that are important for the Christians. Besides some decorations, the images all have a symbolic meaning and refer to some story or some concept.

What is the material available (traditions, genres)?

The materials available were the slabs, which were inscribed and the walls on which the frescoes were painted. The Christian religion was spread through narratives and songs, but also through the bible for the literate. The early catacomb art is a perfect example, since all art in the catacombs tell a story. The slabs tell a story with written words, the frescoes tell it with pictures.

One of the problems for the early Christians was that there were not yet many Christian stories to tell. The solution to this problem was to adopt some pagan stories that were (made) exemplary for showing the virtues of a good Christian.

What did catacomb art have to express?

Image 8: Jonah and the Whale, Catacombs of Callistus [5]
Image 10: Fresco of people eating, found in the Priscilla catacomb [8]

The art often has a symbolic nature, to commemorate the deceased. Many symbols do for example refer to how faithful they were, or the occupation of the person[image 12 & 13]. At the cubicula (the bigger burial chambers of the rich families) is often more art than just the symbols. These had partly the function of showing how faithful and wealthy the family was. They picture biblical stories, like Jonah and the whale[Image 8] or members of the family, often in a praying posture.[Image 9] Interestingly, these rooms were not private, everyone, also the poor, were allowed in there. This is again a little sign of the equality aspired in Christianity.

Image 9: The Velatio, Catacombs of
Priscilla [2]

This is also visible in the change wrought by Christianity in the social relations of master and slave. There is only an exceedingly small number of inscriptions containing the words servus (slave), or libertus (freedman), words which are constantly seen on pagan gravestones; the often recurring expression alumnus (foster-child) characterizes the new relation between the owner and the owned.[10]

The catacombs also may have had a social function, expressed in the art. People came together to remember the dead. They even had meals there, as shown in decorations on the walls or ceilings of the bigger rooms.[Image 10] This custom is borrowed from pagan culture.

Which were the memories available to the artists?

Image 11: Roman villa
decorative art [3]

The Christians used the techniques provided by Pagan art. The decorations of the St Sebastiano catacombs for example, are very familiar to the decorations found in the Roman villa which is also found in the same excavation site.[Image 11] One difference is that the art, and the depiction of stories, is simpler then in Roman art. Figures are symbolic, the art is symbolic, and therefore they do not have to be very pretty or realistic. You often see simple figures, which are not very detailed. The symbols depicted are also often borrowed, and the meaning is changed, like for example the symbol of Jesus as the good shepherd.

Two example slabs

Image 12: Decorated slab coming from the
catacombs, photographed in the Vatican museum

Slab of Gentianus:

Faithful Genantius, in peace. who
lived 21 years, eight months,
16 days, and in your prayers
beseech for us, because we know
that you are in Christ.
Image 13: Decorated slab coming from the
catacombs, photographed in the Vatican museum

Slab of Laurentia: This slab is very clumsy, which is characteristic for some of the found slabs. In some cases it is as if the 'writer' can barely write. The characters are sloppy and sometimes corrections are made, for example characters are added later to correct a spelling error.

A partial translation:
Laurentia who lived 20 years.


  1. J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink. De Romeinsche catacomben en haar fresco’s. D. A. Daamen’s uitgevers, ’s Gravenhage, 1933.
  2. Sandro Carletti. Guide to the catacombs of Priscilla. Pontifical commission for sacred archaeology, Vatican city, 2007.
  3. Antonio Ferrua. Basilika und katakombe san sebastiano. Päpstliche kommission für sakrale archäologie, Vatikanstadt, 1982.
  4. Bernard Green. Christianity in ancient Rome. The first three centuries. T & T Clark, 2010.
  5. L.V. Rutgers. Onderaards Rome. Peeters & Damon, Leuven, 2000.
  6. J Stevenson. The catacombs. Thames & Hudson, London, 1978.
  7. Barend van Heusden. Semiotic cognition and the logic of culture. Pragmatics & Cognition, 17(3):611-627, 2009.
  9. 99.489