The San Callisto catacombs of Rome
With time catacombs lost much of their purpose, as the “new” religion grew into acceptance in the first place, and because they had become prime pillaging grounds when the Empire fell, and invading populations sweep the riches of the former oppressor. To counter this, all the important relics were transferred to above-ground churches and sanctuaries, which were now safer than the hidden tunnels. While this gave origin to a whole industry of pilgrimage, art and more, the net effect for the catacombs was to phase them out of the public discourse. In just a few years most of them were completely forgotten and they disappeared as nature claimed the ground around their entrances, hiding them for centuries.
Dug between the second and the fifth century, the San Callisto catacombs include several different “regions” with varying characteristics. The most important one is called Little Vatican, as it held the remains of nine popes and many bishops and other Church higher-ups. While the tombs themselves are empty now, the walls are still full of commemorative stones and carvings from which you can grasp a sense of the history and the cult as it was practiced in the past. The various regions are differently preserved, but most of them have been ransacked and there is little trace of the mosaics and frescoes that made a visit to this complex a unique art experience too. The architectural design however still stands as a monument to ingenuity, and it is a frequently overlooked marvel in itself. The most touching areas are probably those in which the commoners were buried, as their relatives and lovers used to write extensive memories of the dead, and they offer a rare, direct glimpse to the minds and troubles of those who lived almost two millennia ago. The most famous one can be found in the so-called Sophronia’s cubicle, in the form of a series of lines apparently written over time. They read:
O Sophronia, may you live with your loved ones;
O Sophronia, you will live in the Lord;
O sweet Sophronia, you will live in God forever;
Yes, Sophronia: you will live!
And indeed, her memory lives on.