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Catacombs of San Callisto

Catacombs of San Callisto (96)

In ancient Rome, when Christianity was still very much a minority religion, it was prohibited to bury the dead within the city walls for reasons of hygiene. The Romans cremated their dead, placed the ashes in urns and buried them. In contrast, the Christians, believing in the resurrection, began to bury their dead in underground cemeteries outside the city walls: the catacombs. They shrouded their dead with cloth soaked in "aqua lixiva" (a type of detergent solution) and placed them in superimposed niches. Contrary to what was believed, the Christians did not use the catacombs as refuges but rather as centres of pilgrimage, which is why the relics of many saints were kept there.

On the outskirts of Rome there are 69 catacombs and more than one thousand graves. Only five are open to the public. 

The catacombs of Saint Callistus are 20 kilometres long and are the most famous in Rome. Pope Callistus designed this necropolis as the official cemetery of the Roman Church. 

Here you will also find the remains of 50 martyrs and 16 pontiffs. This situation meant that the catacombs became a site of pilgrimage.

The excavations undertaken revealed five different levels of niches where the bodies were placed. The central axis of the route, however, is the papal crypt, with the remains of nine martyred pontiffs from the period. Close to this is the Chamber of Saint Cecilia. The body of Saint Cecilia was conserved here in the sarcophagus until 820 AD, when Pope Paschal I separated the remains of Saint Cecilia from those of her husband, Saint Valerian, and moved them to the church of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere. Worship of Cecilia is due to the legend about her life and death. Cecilia converted her husband to Christianity and persuaded him to live in chastity. In the persecutions against the Christians organised by Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD, Valerian was the first to die martyred by refusing to deny his faith. Cecilia was sentenced to be hung, but she survived and recovered singing (which is why she is the Patron Saint of Music).

She was sentenced to be beheaded but the axe failed on three occasions and once again she managed to survive. During the days preceding her death many conversions took place.

The statue, which you will see positioned here, is a copy of the famous statue by Esteban Maderno (1566-1636), sculpted in 1599, when the mortal remains of Cecilia were identified. The sculptor faithfully reproduced the position in which she was found, just as he also wanted to place in relief the cut of the sword in her neck and the position of her fingers: three open on the right hand and one open finger on the left hand to show in this way her faith in the Unity and Trinity of God.

Today very little can be seen of the decoration with mosaics and paintings that embellished the crypt.

Do not miss the mural paintings dating from the first centuries of Christianity, in the crypt of the Sacrament and in that of Lucina.

Also, in the area of Saint Miltiades, you will see the famous sarcophagus of the Infant, so called for its smallness and which preserves the richly carved front part. This sarcophagus can be considered a tiny illustrated catechism. 

In the area of Pope Miltiades you will find the tombstone on which it says lie the remains of Irene, a Christian child represented praying in the peace of heaven. You will see beside that she has the symbol par excellence of peace: the dove.

The catacombs of Saint Callistus can be considered as “the birthplace of Christianity and the archives of the early Church”, because they illustrate its life, uses and customs, the Creed it professed, and bear witness to its history of martyrdom.

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