The Oldest Known Catacombs from the Early Church have been Reopened to Visitors

Source: FSSPX News

The Church of Sts. Nereus and Achillius

The oldest Christian cemetery has been reopened after several years of extensive restoration work using new laser and scanner technologies.

On May 20, the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology, which oversees the upkeep and preservation of more than 100 early Christian catacombs in Italy, presented the restored Domitilla catacombs to the press. “These tombs represent the roots of our deepest identity, the roots of Rome and of Christianity,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the pontifical commission, declared. 

The oldest Christian cemetery has been reopened after several years of extensive restoration work using laser and scanner technologies developed by German and Austrian institutions. Barbara Mazzei, who oversaw the restoration of the funeral chamber (cubicula) frescoes, explained: “When we started work, you couldn’t see anything – it was totally black. Different wavelengths and chromatic selection enabled us to burn away the black disfiguration (soot, algae, calcium carbonate) without touching the colors beneath. Until recently, we weren’t able to carry out this sort of restoration – if we had done it manually we would have risked destroying the frescoes.” 

The Domitilla catacombs are among the largest catacombs in Italy, with a total of 150,000 burial sites: over seven miles of tunnels on four different levels full of little niches (loculi) carved into the walls and sealed with marble slabs or walled up with bricks, run between the round, sumptuously decorated funeral chambers. The catacombs are located along the former Via Ardeatina, on the grounds that belonged to a noble lady, Flavia Domitilla, the niece of Flavius Clemens, consul in 95, who married a niece of Emperor Domitian (81-96) whose name was also Flavia Domitilla. Domitian had Flavius Clemens condemned to death for religious reasons, and exiled his wife and niece. Before leaving, the consul’s niece placed her property on the Via Ardeatina at the disposal of the Christian community, and it would become the site of the largest underground Christian cemetery in Rome. Christians belonging to the imperial family of the Flavians were buried there, with Christian tombs decorated with scenes from Sacred Scripture.

The cemetery is also home to the relics of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, two soldiers serving under Flavia Domitilla, killed during Diocletian’s persecutions (304 A.D.) They were buried under the apses of the majestic basilica with three naves and a narthex built by Pope Siricius (384-399) around 390-395.

The Commission for Sacred Archeology was created on January 6, 1852, by Pius IX “to take care of the ancient sacred cemeteries, look after their preventive preservation, further explorations, research and study, and also safeguard the oldest mementos of the early Christian centuries, the outstanding monuments and venerable Basilicas in Rome, in the Roman suburbs and soil, and in the other Dioceses in agreement with the respective Ordinaries”.  It was made a pontifical commission by Pius XI (December 11, 1925), who expanded its powers