The Lost Gospel
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Introduction & Map

Christians Take to Catacombs

Second Century A.D. to Mid-Fifth Century A.D.

An orante, or prayerful, pose with arms raised to the sky, was common among early Christian paintings in the Roman catacombs.
An orante, or prayerful, pose with arms raised to the sky, was common among early Christian paintings in the Roman catacombs.
Photograph by Araldo de Luca/Corbis

These warrens of tunnels and chambers in Rome are rich in Christian lore. They are often hailed as burial places of early Christian martyrs, but the catacombs are actually a much larger and more public cemetery. Over 6.5 million people are believed to rest in these passages beneath the streets of the Eternal City. Pagan and Jewish remains can be found here, but the larger and better-known Christian burial traditions began in the second century A.D. and continued until the late fifth century.

By interring the dead in underground caverns, the era's poor Christian community was able to make the most of the meager burial space allotted to them. The catacombs formed a ring of public cemeteries around the outskirts of Rome—only royalty could be buried in the city.

To this day the catacombs include a wondrous variety of human-made features. Some caverns consist of only a cavity large enough to hold a body, while others feature entire rooms suitable for gatherings. The whole assembly was carved out of soft volcanic rock that hardens when exposed to air.

Tradition says that early Christians hid in the catacombs' larger rooms to escape persecution. But most scholars contend that these rooms were not regular hiding places—they were facilities where Christians could conduct rituals common to most Romans, Christian or Pagan, such as sharing meals with dead relatives.

The catacombs house spectacular examples of the earliest Christian art—images that reflect the maturation of Christian society during the period that the tombs were in regular use. Gospel scenes are prominent, such as Daniel in the lion's den and Moses striking the rock. Scenes of Jesus performing direct healing, such as the raising of Lazarus, are particularly popular. These are believed to have represented the power of personal salvation to be found in Jesus and through the then young faith.

In the late eighth and early ninth centuries Germanic invaders pillaged many parts of Rome, including the catacombs. Popes of the era removed the valuable relics of martyrs and saints for safekeeping. Visitation dropped after this period, and the catacombs became largely lost to both sight and mind until excavations around A.D. 1600 brought them back into the public eye.