Domitilla catacombs unveiled after years of renovation

By , on May 31, 2017


The catacombs of Domitilla. (Photo: Domitilla)
The catacombs of Domitilla. (Photo: Domitilla)

ROME—The catacombs of Domitilla, close to the Appian Way, have been restored with laser and scanning technology, reviving the fading tale of life and death in Rome’s early Christian community.

After decades of delays, two separate areas of the vast labyrinth of catacombs were unveiled Tuesday. They were restored by German and Austrian archaeological institutes, sponsored by the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology.

The Domitilla catacombs, named after a member of the Roman family that had commissioned the burial grounds, are the largest in Rome, stretching over 12 kilometres (7.4 miles) and descending four levels with 26,250 tombs, dating from the second to the fifth centuries.

The renovated areas include frescoes from both pagan mythology and Christian faith, showing how intertwined the two were in the early Church.

“These tombs represent the roots of our deepest identity, the roots of Rome and of Christianity,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the pontifical commission, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The new area also includes a small museum displaying statues, parts of sarcophagi and other artifacts from the tombs.

The first area that was restored without the use of laser dates back to the third century and still has many references to pagan art, from grape vines adorning the vaults of the passages, to the cupids used for the smaller tombs, most likely belonging to children.

Many of the crypts have frescoes that seem blotted out. In fact, they were stripped by “ripping,” when catacombs were looted and frescoes cut out and removed as trophies in the Middle Ages. This ancient form of art theft can be found in a museum in Catania, which displays examples that were originally brought to Sicily by a nobleman to decorate his home.

This area also includes two biblical scenes, Daniel and the lions, and Noah with his ark, as well as a number of frescoes depicting Christ and the apostles.

These scenes often include slices of daily life. But the intertwining of the spiritual and the prosaic really comes to life in the second area, known as the “room of the bakers.” Here the laser revives vivid depictions of Christ and the Apostles accompanied by scenes from the life of a baker. Not only do they tell the story of life in Rome, but they highlight the importance of bread in both Christian and pagan symbolism.

“These works show the difficult path the Romans walked on the way to their new faith,” said Monsignor Giovanni Carru of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Art.

Final touches still have to be put on the museum, which the organizers hope to open to the public by the end of June. It will be several months longer before the restored areas are opened. In the meantime, the rest of the vast archaeological site is open to visitors throughout the summer.