Rome: the Eternal City, the stunning capital of boot-shaped Italy. A true European gem, the city is well known for being full of art. There are galleries peppering the city, and beautiful architecture at every turn - intricate designs on buildings that would look out of place anywhere else, and sculptures that take your breath away. The Vatican is jam-packed with artwork, and the fountains across the city are art in their own right. But tours of the Catacombs in Rome will show you that the art isn’t just up there - it lies beneath the city streets too, hidden from view but there all the same…
The Catacombs History
First, let’s briefly explore what the catacombs actually are. In essence they are underground burial sites, and the ones you can see on a Catacombs of Rome tour are among the oldest in the world. They are important pilgrimage sites and provided the location for some of the earliest Christian worship when the religion was still banned. Now, the catacombs are fascinating to those with an interest in history, art, religion, sociology and death. They offer something a little bit different from tours of churches, museums and piazzas, that’s for sure!
Underground Art Galleries
As well as being the place where early Christians buried their dead, it was also where they stored their artwork - and created some of it too. It is said that the Catacombs in Rome tours give you the opportunity to glimpse the most valuable collection of Christian artworks anywhere in the world!
There are three types of art buried beneath the streets of Rome, in the catacombs: iconographic, stylistic and technical. You can also see early phase art followed by Old Testament and New Testament artwork. It is a chance to see art in a whole new light - rather than hanging in a brightly lit gallery, see it how the artist would have done.
Jesus Healing the Bleeding Woman
One of the paintings that can be found underground is Jesus Healing the Bleeding Woman in the Santi Marcellino and Pietro catacombs. It depicts the scene of one of Jesus’ miracles in the gospels - it appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The story says that a woman had been bleeding for twelve years and grabbed Jesus’ robes in the hope that it would heal her: it did. The scene appears frequently in Christian artwork, but this is one of the most interesting versions given its location!
The Good Shepherd(s)
This is a depiction that can be spotted multiple times during a Catacombs tour. Rome has many versions of this painting, and there are a few that lie beneath the surface of the city. The parable of the Good Shepherd appears in the gospel of John, and in plenty of other parts of the Bible. This is a traditional image of Jesus, and the painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla is a great example. The olive trees and doves are still visible, too.
A rare sight at the time of its creation, the Catacombs of Commodilla are home to one of the earliest paintings where Jesus has a beard. It is a large mural-style painting, and nobody knows exactly who painted it. The colors are still vibrant to this day!
The Story of Jonah
Another popular theme throughout the art in the catacombs was (or rather, still is) the story of Jonah. In the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, two Christian martyrs, an entire ceiling is decorated with a fresco that recounts the entire story. We see Jonah are he boards a ship heading from Joppa to Tardish, avoiding the task he has been given by God, and then being thrown into the raging sea as his punishment for this. We then see him swallowed by a large fish, where he resided for a whole three days and nights before being spewed from the fish’s mouth, preaching repentance to the Ninevites. The final scene depicts Jonah sitting under the shade of a small booth he had built himself as he watches for the impending destruction of Nineveh. The depictions in this particular fresco have some variations from the norm: for example, Jonah is being lowered into the sea, feet first, by sailors. This is actually closer to the Jewish interpretation of the story, which leads historians and art experts to question the Christian origin of this particular fresco.
Adam & Eve
Again, a popular subject for paintings found in the catacombs is the story of Adam and Eve. There is one in particular that has caused debate - in the Catacombs of Via Latina, a painting of Adam and Eve alongside two seated figures can be seen. Some people suggest that the seated pair are Cain and Abel whereas others hypothesize that this cannot be true as one seems to be a woman. The latter group suggest that we are seeing Adam and Eve at two different points in their life - a progression of sorts.
St. Paul as a Philosopher
Discovered just shy of a decade ago, a fresco depicting St. Paul as a philosopher was found in the Catacombs of San Gennaro. Restoration work unearthed this fascinating piece of art, still so vibrant and detailed. St. Paul has an intense and philosophical expression on his face, and wide eyes giving him what has been described as a ‘spiritual air’. Wearing robes and accompanied by images of books and Latin scripture, this is such a brilliant example of catacomb artwork.
As you can see, there are so many examples of art that lies beneath the streets of Rome. Booking a tour of Catacombs, Rome means you’ll get the chance to see some of them up close as well as the pottery pieces and fragments that have been left behind in the burial chambers, and the skull and bone sculptures created at the Bone Chapel that we visit on our Catacombs in Rome tour. It truly is a chance to see the Eternal City - and its wealth of artwork - in a whole new light…