Tour the Roman Catacombs

Christian and Jewish burial grounds underneath ancient Rome

The earliest examples of demonstrably Christian art come from the catacombs, or burial chambers dug in a maze of underground galleries. Historians of art find in the catacombs a huge variety of iconographic material that reveals much about the artistic production as well as the religious ideas and sensitivities of the early Christian communities that created them. The imagery painted on the walls or engraved onto the stone sarcophagi favors biblical motifs reminiscent of the eternal life, the resurrection, the miraculous powers of various biblical figures, and most importantly, the healing and salvific powers of Jesus Christ.

Catacombs of Priscilla

THE SO-CALLED GREEK CHAPEL in the Catacombs of Priscilla is richly decorated with paintings in the Pompeian style. Named for the two Greek inscriptions found by its discoverers in the right niche, this burial chapel contains numerous episodes from both the Old and New Testament. The central arch (at the back) is depicted with a funeral banquet, which was held at the tomb in honor of the dead and referred to the Eucharist.

A recent article in the Biblical Archaeology Review focused on one specific motif that appears frequently in catacombs—Jesus holding what appears to be a wand. For that discussion, read the article “Jesus the Magician? Why Jesus Holds a Wand in Early Christian Art,” by Lee M. Jefferson, in the Fall 2020 issue of BAR.

Among the most famous subterranean cemeteries are the Catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome. Located on the Via Salaria, this underground is one of the most ancient Christian burial grounds. Its galleries stretch a total length of about eight miles (13 km), containing some 40,000 burials. The Catacombs of Priscilla are sometimes referred to as the “queen of the catacombs,” because they harbor graves of many early Christian martyrs. Dug out between the second and the fifth centuries, the catacombs were rediscovered only in the 16th century.

To admire the extensive system of underground passages and ancient depictions in the famous Catacombs of Priscilla, you can get on the plane, land at the Fiumicino Airport, take a train to Rome and then a subway line B to Annibaliano. From there it is just a few minutes’ walk to the Priscilla catacombs. Alternatively, you can tour the Catacombs of Priscilla virtually. You can also visit the official website.

But you would be wrong to assume that catacombs were a purely Christian way of burying their dead. In the first few centuries of our era, the large Jewish population of Rome created at least five catacombs that scholars now recognize as Jewish.

Among them are the so-called Catacombs of the Hebrews, located beneath the grounds of the Villa Torlonia—for 18 years a residence of Mussolini. Like the abovementioned Catacombs of Priscilla, the Catacombs of the Hebrews were created between the second and the fifth centuries; they host approximately 3,800 burials, arranged on two floors. Their walls and ceilings are decorated with Jewish motifs, such as menorahs, the Ark of the Covenant, and symbolic fruits like the pomegranate and the etrog. Rediscovered during construction work in 1919, the catacombs were looted and badly damaged—partly because they did not enjoy the same level of protection the Christian catacombs received from the Catholic Church.

Jewish Catacombs

THE JEWISH RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY depicted in this burial chapel in the Villa Torlonia catacombs in Rome prominently features the Ark of the Covenant flanked by two menorahs, as well as the pomegranate and the etrog fruit.

The recent restoration of this cultural site not only led to a renewed study of the stunning decorations but also sparked a controversy regarding the ancient burials. Despite the outcry of the scientific community, an ultra-orthodox group was finally allowed to rebury the human remains found within the catacombs, putting them beyond the reach of curious researchers.

To get a sense of what these look like, you can watch this YouTube video.


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