The first depiction of the Madonna and Child.
The Priscilla Catacombs, Roma.




atacombs are underground cemeteries, with narrow winding tunnels normally about 8' high that lead to rooms dug out expressly for the burial of bodies, and funerals. They can house ordinary people and/or religious persons. Crypts are normally located beneath a church, and often consist of one room where the coffins of nobility and those high up in the church are stored. Underground graveyards are fascinating places, frequently deep below ground level, and each with a history of its own. The ancient Romans cremated their dead, and in Italy, catacombs and crypts were specifically for Jewish and Christian burials.




ncient Roman catacombs exist in abundance in Roma--there are 60, although only 5 are open to the public. We visited three, the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla; the Catacomb of St. Callixtus; and the Catacomb of St. Sebastian. All are from the the 2nd to 5th centuries A.D. Earlier catacombs were destroyed when the Romans expanded their city. Initially Jews built them, and then early Christians, both of whom because of constant persecution liked the idea of having a secret and secure burial ground. These catacombs are usually several levels underground, and viewing them is by group tour only. The information for each is incredibly similar, with only slight variations, and we had that déja vu feeling a lot. The Pricilla catacombs has the oldest remaining depiction of the Madonna and Child, painted on the wall.


Entrance to the
The Catacomb of St. Callixtus.

A view of the stairwell down into the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, reflecting the depth of these crypts.
The Priscilla Catacomb,
where stone walls are crammed with
rectangular burial niches.

The Priscilla Catacombs.
The majority of burial niches are sealed.
A few are open, but the bodies have been removed.




e went to Napoli for the Cimitero della Fontanelle, which has an ossuary that contains the bones of plague victims. After a furious one-hour taxi ride around the city, finally we reached a dangerous-looking area. Our driver asked directions of an Italian biker-type who informed us that the cemetery was closed for repairs; our driver refused to let us out of the cab. Disappointed, we ended up visiting churches in the old section of Napoli, where stone coffins rest in the church proper, and/or underground in the vaults. The complex market area of Napoli dates from before the Roman emperors and the churches date from the 3rd century.


A stone crypt inside the Chiesa di Santa Chiara.
Stone coffins were used for royalty and high religious leaders.

These urns in the Chiesa di Gesu Nuovo hold the remains of popes and cardinals.

Ex votos from l'Église du Gesù Nuovo. Ex votos
typically represent the area of the body needing to be healed.
Nancy bought a small modern silver heart,
then found an antique heart, which she also purchased.



ompeii is the famous ancient Roman resort town which was devastated in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Pliney the Younger wrote that the city "was covered with a cloud of ash 20 miles tall as the lava raced down the mountainside." About 17% of the 20,000 mostly-sleeping residents of Pompei and the nearby town of Herculaneum died. Two thousand years later, Pompeii remains remarkably intact, with fragments of frescoes and wall paintings still vivid.


Falling ash rapidly accumulated around the bodies,
the incandescence crystallizing body shapes as tissue and organs within turned to dust.

Much like photographic development when a negative turns into a positive,
plaster was introduced into the cavities, creating moulds of the bodies.

A mummified rat found at the entrance of Pompeii.

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