Exploring the Subterranean Basilica and Christian Art of the Roman Catacombs of Domitilla

The catacombs of Domitilla are a series of catacombs located near the ancient Via Appia. They are sixteen metres underground and span approximately fifteen kilometres in their layout. They are so-named after the Domitilla family who had these catacombs prepared for use, a family which had familial connections to various Roman emperors such as Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. These catacombs were used from the first through fifth centuries, containing nearly 25,000 tombs in total -- some pagan, some Christian -- before finally being 'lost' for nearly a thousand years until they were again rediscovered in the year 1593 by the archeologist Antonio Bosio. 

These particular catacombs contain some very interesting examples of early Christian art, ranging from depictions of Christ, scenes from the Old Testament, and apparently even a depiction of a young Roman cardinal with Ss. Peter and Paul -- though I have yet to find it myself. 

The catacomb was perhaps most renowned since antiquity as the burial place of the martyrs Ss. Nereus and Achilleus -- and in fact, there is a subterranean basilica dedicated to honour of these two martyrs (which is not to be confused with the other church in Rome also dedicated to Ss. Nereo e Achilleo.)

Basilica of Ss. Nereo e Achilleo in the Catacomb of Domitilla.  Nereo and Achilleo were Roman soldiers martyred in the time of the Emperor Diocletian. 

A view from the outside better shows the underground nature of this basilica. The windows seen here are the same as those seen in the preceding image.

The date of this basilica is disputed. Many would put its construction as early at the late fourth century, while others suggest the fifth or sixth century. Whatever the case, when the basilica was excavated in 1874 they found various references to Ss. Nereus and Achilleus, including on one of the original columns that would have supported the ciborium that stood over the altar (which itself originally stood over the tomb of the two martyrs). They likewise found a relief sculpture depicting what is presumably one of the martyr's martyrdom, his hands tied behind his back, a  Roman solider standing over him, sword in hand, prepared to decapitate him. 

One will certainly take note of classic Roman basilica ordering of this basilica, including the remnants of a balustrade.

Returning to the catacomb proper however, a number of Christian tombs can be found as they sought to be buried near to the the martyrs Nereo and Achilleo.  With these are also found a number of examples of early Christian art.  Two I would like to especially highlight are "apsidal" in nature and one can well imagine how designs like these could translate into the apsidal mosaics of churches as the Church moved out of the dark of the of catacombs and into the full light of Roman society after Constantine. The first is an apsidal style depiction showing the Good Shepherd:

In the second instance we see another apsidal style depiction, this time showing the college of the apostles surrounding Christ:

Apsidal style arrangement in the catacomb of Domitilla depicting the Apostles - one can clearly see the graffiti which Antonio Bosio left for posterity.  

In this latter instance, restorative work was recently done in order to clean and better reveal the work, giving us an opportunity to see it in more of its original vigour and detail:

Let us now turn our attention to some of the other Christian pieces found in the catacomb of Domitilla. 

The Good Shepherd, ca. 300-350 A.D.

Christ and Twelve Apostles are found above and below we see the Chi-Rho and Ss. Peter and Paul.

Christ teaching the Apostles

The martyrs Veneranda and Petronilla

An unknown figure in the "orans" position of prayer.

One will recognize the similarity of this figure, cloaked as he is in robes with clavi and gammadiae, to those seen also in basilicas such as Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and other places. 

All of this is a good reminder that if, in making pilgrimage to Rome, you're only focusing on what's at street level, you're missing out on a significant and rich part of the story that is Christian Rome. 

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