Archive for the 'Catacombs' Category

Beneath a City

img_1123.jpg

Today is the last day of Carnevale, the last day before the six weeks of penance; Lent. The beginning of Lent is, of course, marked by the giving of ashes, a reminder that we came from dust, and to dust we will return. Ash Wednesday. Tomorrow.

But today is Tuesday, and the morning was spent several meters beneath Rome in the Catacombe di Priscilla; the Catacombs of Priscilla. 12 kilometers of tunnels on four different levels, constructed in the first half of the first millennium AD. Only a small portion of the catacombs are open to hoi polloi, but, lo! we are not the public, we are young academics under the tutelage of a professor of art history, a professor who has permission from the nuns to go wherever he pleases!

And it pleased him to go many places. You see, the catacombs are, in a sense, policed by the innate human fear of the unknown. They are dark and filled with dead bodies; only a small portion of it is wired with lights and, like moths in the summertime, people like to the stick to the light. Wander off into the darkness? No thanks. But Professor Pace, armed with a nerve wrackingly dull flashlight and a zeal for art history, had no qualms about darting down seemingly random, inky corridors.

The mood was set early on when the professor stopped at an intersection, glanced at the lighted path to the left, the darkened path to the right, and told us to wait right there. He then, of course, went right, lifting the rudimentary iron bar that reminds people to stay on the lighted path and disappeared around the corner into the darkness.

Rustling. Then a bit of silence. Then an arm darts out from around the corner, in its hand half of a decrepit jaw bone. Then a thickly accented voice: “I hope you all brushed your teeth this morning!” as he wiggles the mandible in his hand.

img_1124.jpg

The parts of the catacombs open to the public or otherwise used for clerical purposes have all been cleaned and manicured. Skeletons have been removed, many by early Christians to be venerated in churches as martyrs for the faith (bear in mind, many of these early Christians lived and died before Christianity was legalized in AD 313). The skeletons that were left were dealt with appropriately, with the end result being a clean, well-kept appearance.

But wander down the path less taken and there are bones and dilapidated skeletons everywhere, lying in recessed niches lining countless cavernous hallways, floor to ceiling, as far as the eye can see. It was, in a word, otherworldly. How else can it be described? Like Aeneas with the Sibyl, and Odysseus before him we wandered amongst the dead. At one point, the professor actually grabbed a loose femur, proclaiming himself to be like Hercules, with his club, and attempted to playfully knock me on the head with it — which I expertly parried with my umbrella. And in between all this madness, we were treated to some of the most pithy art I’d ever seen. Early Christian art, from a time when professing your faith meant a certain, gruesome death, here tucked away beneath the city; a bit of spiritual solace from the craziness of the world above.

And tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust.

(Special thanks to Brittany S. for the pictures.)

Advertisements