Catacombs of Callixtus

The catacombs of Saint Callixtus are one of the oldest early Christian catacombs, being almost 2000 years old. They were created around mid-2nd century AD as a private burial place by wealthy Christians and donated to the church for further excavation to be able to bury the increasing amount of Christians. The catacombs are found on the Via Appia, as many other catacombs, a few kilometers from the center of Rome. The administrator of the catacombs at the time was deacon Callixtus, appointed by pope Zephyrinus. The catacombs are renamed after Callixtus who would become pope himself later in life.

The catacombs present an important source of early Christian art to this day. This is not only due to the great extent and therefore huge amount of archeological objects to be discovered there, but also because of the ideal location for conservation of the objects, buried deep down underground. The preserved symbols and icons display the evolution of Christianity in its infancy. The catacombs were a tool in spreading the religion among the pagan population of the city of Rome. The structure offered the possibility to effectively disperse a fundamental Christian message and aid in the transition from paganism into Christianity.

One of the main forms of Christian art that were very important to the evolution of the faith were the symbols and icons. These symbols and icons had two different levels of meaning. The first being the guidance through the catacombs, where they functioned as a navigation system to understand where you were and where you should go. The second being on a spiritual level, where they acted as navigation through life. It explained the stories of the bible in simple forms and reminded them of the norms and values they had to follow to get to heaven. The symbols represented hope and motivated them to live like a good Christian and gave them strength to keep doing so.

The logic behind these meanings, will be explained in the following sections.

1. Early Christianity
2. Catacombs of Rome
3. Origination of the catacombs
4. Symbolism & Iconography
4.1 Origination phase
4.2 Old Testament phase
4.3 New Testament phase
5. Perception of the catacobms
6. Sources

Early Christianity

Christianity started out as a small sect in modern day Israel during and after the life of Jesus Christ. According to most Christians the religion spread to Rome, because of the effort of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in converting the first Romans. Christianity began as one of many sects and cults Rome possessed at the time. The Romans in general, were tolerant towards these minorities next to their own pagan and superstitious beliefs. If Christianity wanted to expand in such a divided city it needed strong rhetorical tools to convert its inhabitants.

Therefore Christianity was different from most cults and sects at the time. Persecutions of the Christians started not long after it's initiation in Rome; in 64 AD, when the sect was officially recognized as a new religion. This was also the year that Emperor Nero (37 - 68 AD) set a big part of Rome on fire and needed a scapegoat to blame. He eventually blamed the Christian minority and infamously punished them by torture and confiscation of their property. The popular idea that the catacombs served as a place of refuge from these persecutions is outdated. Archeologists state that the catacombs were formed a hundred years later than the most wide-spread persecutions. Another argument against this idea is that most of the catacombs are found along the earlier mentioned Via Appia, an important trade route in those days and thus not a very likely place for early Christians to hide.

It would take more than a hundred years for Christianity to restore again. Persecution, however on a smaller scale, would continue depending on the attitude of the ruling consul towards the Christians. Their apocalyptic views (the annunciation of doomsday) and the strong belief in the afterlife would regularly clash with pagan ideology. These convictions on the other hand also created a big share of followers, looking for an escape from their poor and miserable lives. The catacombs offered a solution in these times to spread their views on the afterlife by offering a structure that could preserve the dead to some degree.

The battle of the Milvian Bridge, Giulio Romano (1499-1546). A fresco in the Vatican Museum

A complete reverse in handling the Christians occurred when Constantine (272 - 337 AD) came to power. Legend has it that a vision of Jesus Christ appeared to Constantine in a dream, after his victory on Maxentius at the Milvian bridge. In 313 AD he issued the Edict of Milan, which would change Roman law by fully legalizing Christianity and even supporting the emerging church by excluding them from paying taxes. After Constantine's reign, Christianity would transform into the dominant religion of Rome and eventually the entire continent. It wasn't long after the Edict of Milan that the expansion of the catacombs was at it's peak and more than ever had an important role in distributing Christian stories and values.

Catacombs of Rome

The word catacomb originates from a location near the current catacombs of St. Sebastian at the Via Appia. These ancient burial places in an old quarry were called after their topography namely 'near the hollows', in Latin: 'ad catacumbas'. The word catacombs did not exist in early Christianity, they were then called the underground graves: cryptae (crypts). The generalization of the word catacombs arose in medieval times when they copied the name of the most accessible catacomb back then, those of St. Sebastian.

The catacombs were constructed and developed over hundreds of years. It is difficult to state that the catacombs are a fully Christian monument due to the archeological evidence of many pagan tombs and fresco's. Christian habits, rituals and ideology did not originate over night. A transition from the old pagan traditions into Christian tradition is clearly visible in the catacombs.

When early Christian societies started to grow it was already common for non-christians to cremate their dead. The ashes were collected in urns in small family tombs under the ground (hypogea). During the second century AD however, a new trend appeared under the rule of Emperor Hadrian. Inhumation became more popular among both Christian and non-christian Romans. The choice of burial instead of the accustomed cremation made it increasingly difficult in a city where suburban land was scarce and costly.

The first catacombs were mainly created by wealthy Roman Christians expanding their family graves and throwing them open for a bigger audience out of charity (an important touted Christian value). Sometimes they would donate their catacombs to the church, which would excavate it further so more people could be buried in the same place.

The catacombs greatly expanded when Christianity became legal under the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. An important role then was reserved for the fossores, grave keepers of the catacombs, in this period of early Christianity. They were responsible for burying the dead, expanding the catacombs and possibly big parts of Christian art still perceived today. Logistically they formed a solution for the continuous increase of the Christian population and their needs to be inhumated.

In the middle-ages the catacombs stayed popular, but as a shrine, where Christians could behold and worship the graves of the early martyrs, buried there. Later on, when the church decided to translocate the bodies of martyrs and artifacts in the catacombs on a large scale to basilicas and churches, the catacombs became deserted and forgotten for years. It was not until the Italian scholar, Antonio Bosio (1575 - 1629 AD) rediscovered the catacombs and his 'Roma Sotteranea' was published in 1632 AD, that the interest for the catacombs grew again. After centuries of exploration, restoration and research of the catacombs by the church and archeologists, the catacombs have been restored for a big part and are main tourist attraction for interested people from all over the world.

Origination of the catacombs

At first, there were several small separate catacombs. But after 313, when Constantine issued the edict of Milan, the amount of Christians increased greatly, increasing the demand for burial places. This led to huge excavations of the catacombs, combining the small catacombs, creating one big catacomb. After about 200 years of excavation, this lead to 20 km of tunnels, having 5 levels and being 20 meters deep total; making it the biggest catacomb. This was due to the fact that it became the official burial ground when Zephyrinus was the pope. This meant that most of the Christians were buried here; including many popes and martyrs. At its peak it contained 16 popes and over 50 martyrs, making it one of the most - if not the most - important catacomb.

The catacomb not only contained simple single-layered tombs, but also many family tombs, chapels, meeting areas, dining rooms and even places to sleep. This made it not only a burial ground, but an important religious place for Christians. They came there to visit their beloved ones who were at rest - according to Christianity - and to pray for them and themselves.

Because of the many popes buried there, they created a special crypt for popes. It was a crypt with many frescoes and texts appointed to the popes buried there, including 9 of the early Roman bishops. Pope Damasus (366-384 AD) called the crypt a chapel to commemorate these holy people who suffered for the sake of Christianity. In this crypt there is an inscription written by Pope Damasus saying;

Here lies gathered, if you seek it, a host of holy people.
The venerated tombs hold the bodies of the saints,
The court of heaven has taken their sublime souls to itself.
Here are the companions of Sixtus, who bore off the trophy from the enemy;
Here is a group of Popes who guard the altars of Christ;
Here lies the bishop who lived long in peace;
Here are the holy confessors that Greece sent;
Here are the youths and children, old men and their chaste grandchildren
Who preferred to keep their virginal purity.
Here I, Damasus, confess I would have liked to be buried
But that I feared to vex the holy ashes of the saints.

This is a unique crypt, not found in other catacombs. It must have been another important reason to visit the catacombs, commemorating all these martyrs - creating the foundation of Christianity - in one room. Another tool to transmit Christian ideology among the early Romans visiting the catacombs.

St Cecilia

In this crypt, also St. Cecilia was buried. St Cecilia was a virgin and a martyr during the beginning of the 3rd century. At the moment there is a statue of St Cecilia, showing the way she died. Being unsuccessfully decapitated, dying due to the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is said that when she died, she held up one finger with her left hand and two fingers with her right hand, denoting her belief in the holy trinity.

Next to the tombs and crypts, the walls were full with symbols and frescoes, the frescoes being one of the first Christian forms of art. They all depicted a simplistic form of the story of Christ.

Symbolism & Iconography

When more information became available on dating the catacombs, scientists tried to define the development of early Christian art and culture. Christian art in its infancy did not diverge much from the existing Roman art from a stylistic or technical perspective. It was mainly the content of the symbols and icons that characterized the difference from existing beliefs.

Biblical themes slowly replaced the classic Roman themes and tales. This change of front was a process over many years and analogous to the dispersion of Christianity, not a sudden turning point. The evolution of early Christian art can therefore be split up in different phases: the origination phase, Old Testament phase and eventually the New Testament phase.

Origination phase

The origination phase includes the earliest forms of Christian art in the catacombs. When looking closely at the symbolism of the Christians that used the catacombs in this phase, two trends can be seen. Christians on one hand created objects that pagan contemporaries also employed and did not derive from Christianity. These objects however are not really interesting when examining Christian art, aside from the fact that they point out its evolution. On the other hand is a vast amount of objects available at the time, that Christians could give a new meaning. Important examples of these objects are the dove, fish, anchor and fisherman.All these objects, also widely represented in the pastoral Roman art, could be used as symbols referring to biblical stories.

Drawing of an early Christian anchor
, fish and Chi-Rho sign in the
catacombs of St. Sebastian.
Drawing of early Christian symbols
, including the dove with olive
branch in the catacombs of St. Sebastian.

The evolution of paganism into Christianity was facilitated by using existing symbols and giving them a new meaning. A great example of a symbol that has been given a new significance in the Origination phase is that of the Kriophoros. The Kriophoros is a representation of a young boy carrying a lamb around his neck. In ancient Greek culture the Kriophoros or ram-bearer symbolizes the classic god Hermes. In Christianity the ram-bearer icon could be imparted the story of Christ as the good shepherd. Christ as the good shepherd derives from the New Testament in the story of John. Jesus is depicted here as the shepherd that takes care of his sheep (followers).

Painting of Christ as the Good shepherd in
the catacombs of St. Callixtus.

Striking in the Origination phase is not only the similarity and implementation of pagan existing art, but also the simplicity and scarcity of Christian art to be discovered. Although the catacombs created an ideal condition for conservation of the several objects, their overall presence is relatively low compared to the presence of the preceding Roman art. Several causes could be accredited to these observations. One explanation could be the aniconism, described by the bible and found in descriptions in the catacombs. The bible namely states that making and venerating God and other religious figures is idolatry and should be avoided.

An explanation for the simplicity could be the necessity of using symbols that could easily be recognized and drawn by all Christians. The importance of the content instead of the appearance and prevalence would spread the Christian message further and faster, ensuring its expansion. Examples of these symbols are the earlier mentioned fish, alpha and omega and Chi-Rho. Whatever the true explanation is, the obvious aversion towards pagan idolatry and symbolism could be used as an important rhetorical tool in establishing a more Christian society.

Old Testament phase (± 230 AD - 300 AD)

Conventional figures described in the collection of the Origination phase above, formed the basis of transforming existing and accepted motives. The stylistic and technical aspect of painting and drawings of the early Christians still does not differ from that of the pagans. In contrary, archeologists discovered that Christians and non-Christians in the same period of time made use of exactly the same techniques. This fact suggests that Christians employed the same ateliers and artists as their contemporaries did.

An important difference to note is again the content and message that the Christians wanted to spread. Two main themes in contemporary pagan art were an important influential factor on Christian art. One is the bucolic or pastoral theme, expressing the pleasant and ideal farm-life. The second theme is a maritime theme which included life on and around the sea. These two conventional themes make sense in rural Roman life, where farming and fishing were the main pursuits. Mythological classical characters connected to these themes were greatly represented in pagan art. These mythological characters could for the Christians often be linked to biblical stories. An example of such a take-over is the story of the biblical prophet Jonah from the ancient Greek youngster Endymion. The typical resting Endymion in a bucolic setting under the tree was transformed into Jonah. The fish that spits out Jonah in the tale is not depicted as the whale from the biblical story, but as a ketos (mythological Greek sea-dragon), indicating also the influence of the pagan maritime theme. Other biblical stories influenced by both themes that can be found in the catacombs are the sacrifice of Isaac and Daniel in the lion's den.

Painting of the Jonah-cycle from the catacombs of St. Callixtus.

New Testament phase

The position of the Christians in society started to change significantly in the fourth century AD. The Edict of Milan labeled Christianity as one of the official recognized religions in Rome, causing its amount of followers to increase. This impact is also evident in the metamorphosis of Christian art at the time. A unique Christian iconography ascended in this period that would transform Christian art once and for all. Influences of pagan art gradually seem to fade. Pagan symbols and objects that once were popular, such as the ram-bearer, start to disappear in this era. Christianity blossomed and so did Christian art by adapting its content.

The Christians developed their own identity by disconnecting from pagan stories and art by implementing stories that only exist in Christian society. This explains why the prevalence of stories from the New Testament increases and neutral and Old Testament stories take place in the background. The agony of Christ starts to play a more central role in Christian art in images and so does Jesus himself. In the early stages of Christian art, Jesus was depicted as a youngster among the people (good shepherd). In the fourth century and beyond Christ receives more central, royal and senior characteristics. Worshiping and picturing Christ as an emperor was a solution to the gap of power that Christianity needed to fill. The great Roman Empire was crumbling and Christianity would reign by putting their own emperor on the throne; an invisible and unreal emperor in the form of the prophet Jesus Christ.

Perception of the catacobms

The catacombs provided an important tool to aid in the transmission of Christianity. They became a place of worship and a clever form of marketing by the usage of symbols and iconography. To understand how important these symbols were for the Christians at the time, it is important to understand how they were perceived. The symbols were simple, explaining the biblical story, also understood by the less educated. It was a story that represented hope for a better life after this one, giving people strength to live like the bible told them to, for them to eventually ascend to a better afterlife. People had suffered for them and this gave a strong connection between Christians and between the people and their belief. This message explains the dispersion of Christianity. It was a tempting belief for many of the poor and deprived Romans at the time.

Their belief in the afterlife was completely new and really diverged from what was believed before them, this might also be a reason why they became so large in such a small time. It gave a whole new dimension to life itself. The catacombs were therefore an important place for the Christians, because it was not only a burial ground, but also the resting place where the deceased waited for their resurrection. People went there to pray for their loved ones and the martyrs buried there.

The way we see the catacombs in current times is much different from how they were perceived during the 3rd century. The Via Appia was located about 10 km from the center of Rome, connected with roads of sand and stones. Most Christians, being poor, had no other way to travel than by foot, this itself being a challenge to get to the catacombs. In the summer it could get 30-40 degrees Celsius, not making the trip any more convenient. When the catacombs would have been reached, the next challenge arrived. Going down the catacomb was easy, but navigating through the catacombs was nearly impossible. The difference in temperature is very striking, from the searing heat of Rome during summer to a moist atmosphere of around 10 degrees Celsius. Also, when walking down the stairs, it becomes darker, after one corner there would be not enough light left to see anything, so you would have to bring a torch to navigate through the mazes of the catacombs. Though this torch is useful for sight, it is burning and creates a lot of smoke, given that the catacombs are underground and have very small hallways, it can be quite dangerous standing in the same room for too long with the risk of suffocation. But even with this torch and some sight, the smell might have been too overwhelming for some; the normal hallways had about 4 to 5 rotting bodies on each side and every 3 meters there were 4 to 5 new rotting bodies on each side, giving a penetrating smell that is not easily ignored. Then the maze itself, the hallways are kilometers long, it was the challenge to find that one grave where the one was buried that was searched for in a cold, moist, immense maze with a rotting smell, using a torch that could stop burning and that suffocates you if not moving quick enough. The way they did this was using the symbols. The symbols were spread throughout the catacombs and people navigated through the catacombs using these symbols, literally leading the way, until they eventually reached the grave with the inscription that was unique for the grave. Then they could pray to the deceased. It is as if the symbols lead the Christians to peace and the afterlife in the catacombs in literal sense, and it might be that this was also the case outside the catacombs, in a more spiritual sense.

The symbols helped the early Christians find structure and reason, guiding them through life until they might finally find the peace they are looking for, after death. These ideas on the afterlife together with the symbols and icons present were important in the function of the catacombs. They assisted in the reinforcement of the ideology of Christian Romans. The catacombs formed a solution by facilitating the cultural evolution that was taking place from a pagan into a Christian Rome.


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