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Blog In Christianity

Great Christian Art - Part 2

By Sheba
Posted Aug 3, 2008 in
Early Christian Art
Less than a mile outside of the city of Rome you come to Quo Vadis church, the Pretextatus and then St. Sebastian Catacombs. Further on you come to the tomb of Cecilia Metella. The center of this archeological area contains a large area about 90 acres, half of which consist of catacombs. The galleries which sometimes are in four levels stretch for 12 miles. About half a million tombs reside in these catacombs
This complex developed from different nuclei over the centuries. Some have even been joined to one another. Their names are: the Cemetery of St. Callixtus, the Crypts of Lucina, the Cemetery of St. Soter, the Cemetery of St. Mark, Marcellianus and Damasus and lastly the Cemetery of Balbina.
The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are the most important and imposing of the about sixty catacombs of Rome. They may be considered as "the cradle of Christianity and the Archives of the primitive Church", because they illustrate the usage and customs of the early Christians, the "Credo" (the religious beliefs) they professed and the history of martyrdom.
About the middle of the second century various grants and donations by private landowners who had converted to Christianity and gave/shared their tombs and estates with their fellow brothers in the faith for burial sites gave birth to these catacombs. They came under the jurisdiction of the Church of Rome at the beginning of the third century.
The oldest parts of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus are the Area of the Popes, St. Cecilia and the Crypts of Lucina. They hold the most sacred memories of the place (along wiith the Cubicula of Sacraments). Also, the areas named after St. Gaius, St. Eusebius, the Western area, and the Liberian Area (which all date from the end of the 3rd century to the second half of the 4th century).
The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are the historical proof that the Church in its origin was a Church of Martyrs. 46 Martyrs known by name are buried in these catacombs, but surely many more unknown martyrs were buried here during the persecutions.
The Church of the time was also a Church of true, authentic Christians, who did not bury their faith underground, in the catacombs, but witnessed it openly and courageously in every state of life, in their families, at work, in every trade and profession, with their loyalty to the emperor and to the State, with their goodness shown towards everyone, so much so that they excited the general admiration of those who were not Christian.
We have described a cemetery where everything speaks of life more than death. Each gallery we passed through, each crypt and cubicle we visited, each painting, sculpture and inscription we saw, gave us a message in a silent yet understandable language: the message of faith, of a Christian testimony in everyday life and, during the persecution, of martyrdom.
For this reason Pope John Paul II said that "in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 the Catacombs of Rome will rise to a privileged place of prayer and of pilgrimage. Along with the great Roman basilicas, the catacombs must represent for the pilgrims of the Holy Year a goal which cannot be renounced.
The Crypt of the Popes
There are nine popes buried in this Crypt dating back to the second century. It is considered the most sacred and important place in the Roman Catacombs. This chamber was discovered by archeologist de Rossi in 1854 and he named it “the little Vatican, the central monument of all Christian cemeteries.” It was originally a private crypt, later when the “First Area” came under the control of the Roman Church that burial chamber was converted into the cemetery of the popes.
The lower part had four inches containing Sarcophagi, twelve tombs with six on either side of the room, with a total of 16 sepulchers. Once containing the remains of nine popes and eight bishops, they are now empty. The original inscriptions regarding five of the popes can still be seen on the wall although they are broken and incomplete. The language is Greek which was the official language of the church at the time.
On four tombstones next to the name of the Pontiff there is a title Epi (Scopos), which means Bishop. The title of pope (papa-father) was used exclusive for the Bishop of Rome in the 4th century. Later on two slabs nearby the inscription MRT (‘martyr’, which means witness) was added. This title was reserved for Christians who had their blood shed for their witness to the faith.
La Cripta dei Papi
The Crypt of the Popes
Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra
The names of the popes on the tombstones are:
St. Pontianus (230-235), died a martyr in Sardinia, where he had been exiled and condemned to hard labour in the mines, ad metalla. Shortly after his arrival there, he abdicated in order to avoid making difficulties for the Church during his absence.
The unhealthy climate, the racking work in the mines and the bad treatment probably hastened his end. When he died, the Church considered him a true martyr. A few years later. pope Fabian had his body brought back from Sardinia and given honourable burial in the Crypt of the Popes in St. Callixtus.
St. Antherus (235-236), of Greek origin, had a very brief pontificate, only 43 days, all of them passed in prison.
St. Fabian (236-250) was a Roman and was elected pope on the death of St. Antherus. His pastoral ministry of 14 years coincided with a period of religious peace. He was a great organiser of the Church of Rome. He divided the city into seven ecclesiastical regions, each with its tituli (parishes), clergy and catacombs He died by decapitation during the persecution of emperor Decius.
St.Lucius I (253-254). His pontificate was short: eight months in all, part of which passed in exile at Civitavecchia.
St. Eutichian (275-283), from Luni, in Liguria (Italy), was the last of the nine Popes to be buried in this crypt.
St. Sixtus II (257-258), called by St. Ciprian "a good and peace-loving priest", is certainly one of the most illustrious martyrs of the early Church. He is considered the martyr par excellence of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. While he was conducting a religious service in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Sixtus was arrested by the Emperor Valerian's soldiers. After a very hasty trial he was beheaded on the spot on that same day, the 6th of August 258, and with him four deacons.
Two poems by St. Damascus are also inscribed on the right hand wall of the crypt of the popes, fragments of which remain. They celebrate Sixtus II’s martyrdom. Three other popes are also buried in the crypt, St. Stephen (254-257), St. Dionysius (259-268) and St.Felix(269-274); there is no trace of their epitaphs.
Foto del carme di Papa Damaso
Marble slab, poem inscribed reads: "If you are looking for, know that here lies a host of the Blessed. The venerable sepulchres enclose the bodies of the Saints, but the royal palace of heaven carried off to itself their sublime souls. Here lie the companions of Sixtus who bear the trophies won from the enemy. Here the group of the elders who keep guard of the altars of Christ. Here the bishop who lived through the long peace. Here the holy Confessors sent to us from Greece. Here the young men a
Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra
In the 4th century pope Damasus transformed the crypt into a small underground church. The walls were decorated with marbles; and two skylights were opened in the roof; an altar was placed in front of the marble slab; and two spiral columns rested on high basis which still remain in place. They supported an architrave which carried, according to custom, lamps, crosses and ornamental wreaths. "Before the tomb of Sixtus II, on the lower part of the wall, pope Damasus placed a poem in Latin hexameters, perhaps the most famous of all his compositions. He commemorates the martyrs and confessors buried in the crypt and in the entire catacomb:"
If you are looking for, know that here lies a host of the Blessed.
The venerable sepulchers enclose the bodies of the Saints,
but the royal palace of heaven carried off to itself their sublime souls.
Here lie the companions of Sixtus who bear the trophies won from the enemy.
Here the group of the elders who keep guard of the altars of Christ.
Here the bishop who lived through the long peace.
Here the holy Confessors sent to us from Greece.
Here the young men and children, the old men and their chaste nephews
who preferred to keep their virgineal purity.
Here too,I, Damasus, confess I would have liked to have been buried
were it not for fear of vexing the holy ashes of the Blessed.
“The companions of Sixtus” are the four deacons who were martyred with him; Gennarius, Magnus, Vincent and Stephen. “The group of the elders who keep guard of the altars of Christ” evidently refers to the popes buried there. “The bishop who lived through the long peace” refers to a pope who lived during the period before the great persecutions by Diocletian, between the end of the 3rd and beginning years of the 4th century. He is believed to be Fabian, Dionysius, or Eutichian. “The holy confessors sent to us from Greece” possibly refers to a group of martyrs: Martia, Neon, Hippolytus, Adria, Paulina, Martha, Valeria, Eusebius and Marcellus, who were buried in the "Callixtian Complex".
The Crypt of St. Cecilia
The sarcophagus containing the body of St. Cecilia was placed in a great niche along the left wall of the crypt. There it stayed until pope Paschal I had the remains transferred to Trastevere in 821, in the basilica dedicated to her.
The statue is a copy of Stefano Maderno’s (1566-1636) work which was carried out in 1599. Her body was found in the same position represented by the sculptor. He made the cut of the sword on her neck and the position of her fingers pronounced to highlight her devotion to her faith. Three fingers open on the right hand and one on the left, representing the saint’s wish to show her faith in the Trinity and in the Unity of God.
Foto della cripta di santa Cecilia
The Crypt of St. Cecilia
Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra
The crypt was covered with mosaics and frescoes, which eventually wore away. Of the last ones there remain some figures. On the left wall near the statue there are two pictures in Byzantine style, which date to the end of the 8th C. and the beginning of the 9th. In the small niche below there is the image of Christ "pantocràtor" (omnipotent) holding a Gospel. Above the niche there is the figure of St. Cecilia as an "Orante". Below, to the right, is the figure of St. Urban I, pope and martyr, united in the martyr's Passio. On the wall of the skykight we can see a cross between two lambs and the three martyrs Polycamus, Sebastian and Quirinus.
Some inscriptions are preserved in the crypt. The most important one refers to a certain Septimius Fronton of senatorial rank. It is written in Greek and dates back to the end of the 3rd century. It reads:
"I, Septimius Fronton, Pretextatus Licinianus
servant of God, repose here .
I shall have no regret for having lived an honest life.
I will serve you also in heaven ( o Lord)
and will praise your Name (for ever).
I gave back my soul to God at the age of
33 years and 6 months".
Take a tour of the catacombs at the links below if you find this fascinating. The art work is magnificent, if only the photos did justice to them. Imagine what it would be like to actually be in the presence of all that history. Truly inspiring. To know we have such witnesses of the faith who have gone on before us. They leave for us an example to follow.
Related links:
Great Christian Art - Part 1
*Next, my favourite, Byzantine Art!*