BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Catacomb of Priscilla

Visiting Rome's early Christian burials

Fresco of the Good Shepherd. By Wilpert, Joseph (1857—1944). Public Domain.

Fresco of the Good Shepherd. By Wilpert, Joseph (1857—1944). Public Domain.

A short walk through Rome confirms the richness of its history. From the Pantheon to the Colosseum, the city boasts magnificent architecture and art. Yet it might surprise that some of the city’s most significant art lies beneath its surface.

Rome has more than 40 catacombs scattered around its ancient perimeter, often along major roads, that date from the second through fifth centuries CE. These underground burial sites consist of halls and chambers with burial niches. They also contain funerary inscriptions and art that provide insight into the city’s ancient pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants.

For the intrepid traveler who wishes to see some of the earliest Christian art—from not only Rome, but also the entire world—a visit to the Catacomb of Priscilla is essential. Sometimes called the Queen Catacomb because of the many martyrs and popes buried there, the Catacomb of Priscilla has miles of subterranean tunnels spread across two main levels. Walking through the catacomb in the dim light gives the feeling of being in a labyrinth. Fortunately, you’re never unescorted, so you won’t get lost!


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Planning Your Visit

The catacomb sits along the Via Salaria in the Trieste neighborhood of Rome, about a 20-minute drive from the city center. Access is by guided tour only, and reservations tend to fill up quickly, especially during the spring and summer. I’d recommend booking your tour at least a week beforehand. If your schedule is not flexible, you would want to book it even earlier, to secure your desired tour time. Just a note that the Catacomb of Priscilla is closed on Mondays, so be sure to plan accordingly.

Tours are available in three languages: English, Italian, and Spanish. Tickets are about $10—or a little more if booked online, as booking fees apply. Children under age 6 can enter for free. You can make a reservation directly through their website or find a third-party tour that will take you through several catacombs. The latter would be a better option for those who wish to see both Jewish and Christian funerary art.

Your Journey Through the Catacomb of Priscilla

Your tour of the Catacomb of Priscilla begins at the ticket office and gift shop, located in a cloister of the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla. After meeting your guide and the rest of your group, you descend together into the catacomb via a staircase. It is significantly colder in the catacomb than outside. I’d suggest bringing a long-sleeved layer, such as a light jacket or sweater.

They advise arriving 15 minutes before the time of your reservation, which is wise considering the irregularities of traffic in Rome. The tour will not wait for latecomers, and it’s not always possible to slip into a later time slot, as they are often full. However, if you are late, not all is lost. Someone at the ticket office may escort you to join up with the rest of the group.

Tours last 30 minutes and take visitors on a partial route of the vast catacomb. Highlights include third-century frescoes of the magi with Mary and Jesus as an infant (Matthew 2:11) … and of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11; see image above). The scene of the magi is the earliest extant depiction of the magi, or three wise men. It also competes as being the earliest depiction of Mary—and maybe even Jesus.a The catacomb contains numerous scenes and figures from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as well, including Noah, Jonah, and Daniel.

On your tour, you will likely be shown two more frescoes that supposedly depict Mary: a scene of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38) and of the Madonna and Child next to a prophet pointing at a star (Numbers 24:17; Matthew 2:9), but these may not be biblical. Prior to modern restorations, they resembled traditional Roman funerary scenes.

Photography is not permitted in the catacomb, as exposure to light damages the delicate frescoes. However, for those who wish to remember their visit, postcards and books are available in the gift shop.

After exploring the most famous portions of the catacomb, the guide leads you back through the winding passageways to the gift shop, where the tour ends. Before continuing on your exploration of Rome, you may wish to use the lavatories at the rear of the gift shop or rest in the connecting shaded courtyard.

Rome is a special city, as its past is intertwined with its present. This is especially apparent with the catacomb, whose tunnels sprawl beneath the Villa Ada Park, which sits across the street from cafés, restaurants, and shops. The catacomb entrance itself is connected to a functioning convent. And both the convent and the catacomb bear the name “Priscilla,” probably the patroness who donated the land for the burials nearly 2,000 years ago. She and those buried in the catacomb certainly left their mark on a city that has served as a political, commercial, and religious capital for millennia.


Notes:

a. For more on the earliest Christian art, including frescoes from Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, see Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary“, BAR, March/April 2017.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Tour the Roman Catacombs

Classical Corner: A Subterranean Surprise in the Roman Catacombs

Priscilla in the New Testament

Millions of Mummified Dogs Uncovered at Saqqara


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