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Catacombs of Domitilla

A Rhetorical Analysis Of The Catacombs And Their Art.

History of Burial Practices in Rome Domitilla, Achilleus and Nereus Iconography of the Catacombs

Timeline of events surrounding
the catacombs in Rome

The catacombs of Domitilla were the largest burial ground in ancient Rome, providing a practical solution for many early Christians: it allowed them to, what is also the most common practice for us today, bury the bodies of the dead. According to their belief in resurrection this was crucial. However, they were also bound to Roman law of storing the bodies outside the city walls.
Apart from only providing a space for burials, the catacombs were also the birthplace of early Christian art and symbolism. This can seem rather odd since the catacombs were mostly dark and not made for visitors. The faith in the resurrected soul might be also the answer to this anomaly. It represents a unique audience for the Christian frescoes and symbols, of which a few can still be seen today. The art pieces were created to comfort the faithful after their dead and reassure them of heaven and their belief in Christ.

1. Catacombs in Rome
2. Structural Design of Catacombs
3. The Basilica
4. Art of the Catacombs
5. Experiencing the Catacombs
6. Fall of Rome and After
7. Sources

Catacombs in Rome

Rome is home to many catacombs, even to this day parts catacombs are being rediscovered. Some noteworthy examples of catacombs in Rome are: catacombs of San Callisto, several popes are buried here, the catacombs of Priscilla, contains the first depiction of Virgin Mary, and of course the catacombs of Domitilla, known for their underground basilica.
The formation of the catacombs in Rome started in the first part of the second century under influences from the Christian and Jewish religion. Both, unlike the Roman custom to cremate, desired to bury their dead according to their believes. This quickly led to a space issue with the rise of the two monotheistic religions in Rome, forcing them to dig down into the earth and thus creating the catacombs.
Carving entire catacombs into the earth seems like an intensive task. However, many such catacombs were present in Rome because of its ground composition, which consists out of compressed volcanic ashes called tufa [1]. Tufa is a soft rock and easy to dig in, but as soon as it makes contact with air, it hardens. This provided ideal conditions to build catacombs. The actual digging and carving work was a done by a gravedigger, a Fossor.

Structural Design of the Catacombs

Figure 1. An example of loculi
in a typical Catacomb
Figure 2. A monk looking at a
Cubicoli in the Catacombs of Domitilla

In contrast to wealthy Roman burials, which were very elaborate to show the deceased person's riches, catacombs were relatively simple burial places to allow everyone to be buried. Because of this catacombs made use of more simple burial places called Loculi (Fig.1). These were small cavities inside the wall, big enough for one person. Children had their own smaller Loculi and these were quite common, since infant death rate was high in the early centuries. On average, the catacombs contained 10 Loculi every 6 feet, most often these were closed off by a flat piece of terracotta, for the poor, or marble, for the rich. However, these were barely decorated, if at all. Sometimes they contained a symbol or rarely a name, contrasting clearly the elaborate decorations of entire life stories depicted on Pagan Roman sarcophagi. This most likely can be traced back to the fact that the catacombs were not commonly visited, so noone would see these life stories. Additionally, the Christian belief in resurrection meant that their life story did not end when they died. Wealthier families often possessed bigger cavities, called Arcosolia (Fig.2), these consisted of a grave with an arc which was decorated with a fresco, these frescos however were not depicting the dead, but most often referred to biblical stories or figures. Lastly there were even bigger rooms called Cubiculi , which were made for entire families and also contained frescos[2].
Since the catacombs could get extensive, over 17km for the Catacombs of Domitilla, people not well acquainted with their structure would get lost. Moreover, it was dark underground, with only occasional light shafts that were dug or small oil lamps placed in excavated holes in the wall. Despite this, the lightning was scarce. Additionally, it was extremely unhealthy the be in the catacombs over longer periods of time: the smell was almost unbearable due to the rotting bodies and mold[2]. This also breaks the common myth about the catacombs being used to take shelter during the persecutions of Christians, since it was almost impossible to stay there for longer than a day.

The Basilica

The unique feature of the catacombs of Domitilla when compared with the various other ones around the city of Rome is the basilica, devoted to the saints Achilleus and Nereus, that is attached to it. [3]

Partly reconstructed Basilica of Sts. Nereus and Achilleus, Catacombs of Domitilla.

The three-naved basilica was built in the 4th century by pope Damasus [4]. In contrast to churches within the city walls, this was not a place for mass, rather it was used by pilgrims to worship the saints in ceremonies. Moreover, it was later used as an extended burial place for wealthier Romans that were able to afford sarcophagi and that wanted to be buried close to the saints of the basilica. Some of these sarcophagi that can still be seen today.

A restoration of the church was commissioned by pope John I (523-526), after the damage of the earthquakes of the 5th and 6th century. Eventually, this proved fruitless since the basilica was destroyed by another earthquake in the 8th century. It remained that way until its rediscovery in 1593 and later reconstruction [5]. Nowadays, it is opened for visitors that want to attend guided tours through parts of the catacombs.

Art in the Catacombs

The catacombs are scattered with a great many images that are closely linked to the early Christian movement; from symbols of a logotype characteristic to elaborate frescoes that decorate the walls of the catacombs, all are found. The former were often of a very simple appearance, however, they carried with them a profound meaning for the Christians. The latter frescoes often depicted religious stories, however, the line between pagan and Christian symbolism (especially more significant with the 2nd and 3rd century frescoes) was quite often blurred.

The Greco-Roman art of the 2nd and 3rd centuries had a great impact on the artistic styles of the Christians[6]. Naturally, the Christians artists of the day borrowed extensively from such a rich and developed artistic landscape around them. Moreover, the early Christians were not as unified and organized as today, hence the penetration of the culture around them into their belief system[7]. The early frescoes found in the catacombs often portray Roman mythological figures which have been transformed into Christ-like figures.

late 3rd century fresco; LEFT-The Good Shepherd with his Flock; RIGHT-Jesus the Orator with the Twelve Apostles; "Bosio" grafiti added in 16th century by Antonio Bosio;

What makes this ceiling fresco in the catacombs of Domitilla unique, is the transposition of a more recognizable portrayal of Christ and the apostles with that of the good shepherd (a Hermes-like Christ) directly across from each other. Therefore, the successful adoption of a pagan character into Christianity can be seen.

The later frescoes of the catacombs of Domitilla portray scenes that are directly linked with Christian beliefs, and are more closely associated with today’s Church artistic styles. In this period of time the Council of Nicea (325 AD) occurred, solidifying and structurizing the Early Christian world into the Early Church. The construction of the basilica commenced in a time after Christianity became legalized and afterwards becoming the state religion, in 380 AD, of the Roman Empire. A fundamental change of the style of the Christian art and practice occurred. Whereas before the art pieces served to portray more personal beliefs in the afterlife and Christ, the later ones showed the organized strength of Christ’s church[8].

Considering the lack of a light source, and also the fact that these places were rarely visited for prolonged periods of time, the deep corridors of catacombs as a location for such vivid religious imagery seems misjudged. If there was nobody alive to see these images, then what could explain the great effort that these painters went through? It seems that the strong belief in resurrection by the early Christians is the answer. For in those days, Christianity took a substantially strong belief in the afterlife, and its imminent arrival, more specifically Jesus Christ’s second coming whereby the dead shall rise. Moreover the adoption of Greco-Roman mythological figures associated with the afterlife by the early Christians supplements this point[9]. Such an approach does explain the deeply religious imagery found on the frescoes, as well as the shrine like appearance of some of the fresco layout.

Experiencing the Caracombs

As aforementioned, during the centuries when the catacombs were still in use, mostly no one apart from the people who worked there went inside. Thus, elaborate art displays may seem paradoxical. The Christian community, however, created this imagery to serve a particular purpose: the expression of faith in resurrection and heaven at the place most central to this process, the burial place. Probably directed at the resurrected soul and god, which were the only ‘persons’ exposed to the art, the displays aim at comforting and guiding the deceased. The catacombs as a whole therefore represent a clear manifestation and presentation of the Christian faith.

Fall of Rome and After

In time, the catacombs became a place of pilgrimage, specifically the basilica as it housed martyrs of the faith. As the capital was moved to Constantinople, letting the Roman city to fall into decay, the catacombs did not escape this fate. It seems that the rate of pilgrimages declined in the 6th century, eventually even an earthquake damaged the catacombs, therefore allowing them to be forgotten.

In 1593 Antonio Bosio (1576-1629) rediscovered these catacombs, leaving his marks behind as graffiti on the walls (eg. “Bosio” drawn above Jesus in the late century fresco). Nowadays, the catacombs serve both a touristic purpose and a religious one. The ground underneath the top constitutes Vatican City sovereignty and is maintained in order to preserve the relics of the Early Christian world. Although there is vandalism that occurs even now, and also damage due to fungi among others, there are projects that aim to find more of the frescoes, specifically those that have been covered by centuries of mould and stagnation.


  1. Heiken, Grant; Funiciello, Renato; de Rita, Donatella (2005). Princeton University Press (published 2013). p. 42.
  2. Umberto M. Fasola. (2011). Toman and Italian catacombs: The Catacombs of Domitilla and the basilica of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus. Translated by Christopher S. Houston adn Fausto Barbarito.
  3. Spencer, E., & Stechow, W. (2014). Sts. nereus and achilleus in the fifteenth century. The Art Bulletin, 48(2), 207-209. doi:10.1080/00043079.1966.10788943
  4. Trout, D. (2003). Damasus and the invention of early christian rome. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 33(3), 517-536.
  5. Ferrari-Bravo, A. (2007), Catacombe di Domitilla, Guida d'Italia — Roma (in Italian), Milan: Mondadori, pp. 817–818.
  6. Lamberton, Clark D. "The Development of Christian Symbolism as Illustrated in Roman Catacomb Painting." American Journal of Archaeology 15, no. 4 (1911): 507-22. doi:10.2307/497187.
  7. "The Portrayal of Christ." The Open Court, December 1913. Accessed November 19, 2017. http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5219&context=ocj
  8. "Early Christian Art and Architecture." Accessed November 13, 2017. http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/smarthistory/early_christianity_smarthistory.html
  9. "The Portrayal of Christ." The Open Court, December 1913. Accessed November 19, 2017. http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5219&context=ocj

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