Catacombe di San Pancrazio under the basilica in Trastevere, Rome

Beneath the cypress and pine trees along the Appian Way and other roads leading out of ancient Rome extends a vast city of the dead.  Here, in the first centuries AD, early Christians carved out labyrinths of dark tunnels, some on three or four levels, to host underground tombs and secret chapels.


St. Sebastian is entered through an open courtyard, porch and a seventeenth-century facade.  At this point visitors will undoubtedly be accompanied by a guide, who leads them along the dank tufa passages, on three different levels, where thousands of loculi (rectangular graves) were hollowed into the walls for common Christian burials.  Family burial chambers (cubicoli) open out of the maze of tunnels; these have larger arched graves (arcosoli) for several family members, and are often decorated with frescoes or inscriptions.  At several points, ancient shafts (lucenari) allow light and air into the tunnels.

In one chamber guides usually point out symbols of the dove, the fish, and the inscription for the child ‘Libera’, who died in AD 360 at the age of three years and two days.  A touching wall-drawing of a child appears below; she stands with tiny outstretched arms, between a lamb and a dove.  In one of the galleries we find the elaborately carved ‘Lot Sarcophagus’, named for its description of the Old Testament episode.  The sarcophagus came from one of the wealthier Christian tombs built near the later fourth-century basilica.

The catacomb’s most venerated martyr was a Christian soldier in the Praetorian Guard of Diocletian (284-305).  Sentenced to death and shot by archers of his own company, Sebastian was nursed back to health by the pious matron Irene.  He recovered, only to be clubbed to death, and was buried by another devoted lady, Lucina, on the Appian Way.  His former crypt on the lower level (his remains have been transferred to the basilica above) still contains its original sarcophagus and a marble bust, attributed to the Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, of Sebastian as an extremely handsome arrow-pierced youth.

Next is the surprising piazzuola, or subterranean piazza, with its three richly decorated second-century mausoleums.  The first tomb, according to an inscription, belonged to Marcus Clodius Hermes, and has lovely Pompeii-style frescoes on the walls and ceilings.  Some scholars interpret a few of these paintings as Christian symbols: the Good Shepherd with his flock; the multiplication of the loaves; grapevines and opulent vases of fruits as symbols of paradise.  The two other tombs have magnificent, perfectly preserved stucco ceilings, which appear as fresh as if they were carved yesterday and are almost Baroque in style.  In fact they have been here for nearly two millennia.  Here archaeologists also found some Christian graffiti.

Apparently these large elegant tombs were covered by sand in the third century for construction of what was St. Sebastian’s most important, and most mysterious, monument, the Memoria Apostolorum.


Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome.  (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.

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