Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, July 22, 2011

Life in the catacombs

Plan of the catacombs

"O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse,
Without all hope of day!"

"The vast numbers who dwelt below were supplied with provisions by constant communication with the city above. This was done at night. The most resolute and daring of the men volunteered for this dangerous task.(...)Of water there was a plentiful supply in the passage ways of the lowermost tier. Wells and fountains here supplied sufficient for all their wants.
At night, too, were made the most mournful expeditions of all. These were in search of the dead which had been torn by the wild beasts or burned at the stake. These loved remains were obtained at the greatest risk, and brought down amid a thousand dangers. Then the friends of the lost would perform the funeral service and hold the burial feast. After this they would deposit their remains in the narrow cell, and close the place up with a marble tablet graven with the name of the occupant.(...)
In many places the arches had been knocked away and the roof heightened so as to form rooms. None of them were of very great size, but they formed areas where the fugitives might meet in larger companies and breathe more freely. Here they passed much of the time, and here, too, they had their religious services.(....)Yet in that reign of terror the Catacombs opened before the Christian like a city of refuge. Here lay the bones of their fathers who from generation to generation had fought for the truth, and their worn bodies waited here for the resurrection morn. Here they brought their relatives, as one by one they had left them and gone on high. Here the son had borne the body of his aged mother, and the parent had seen his child committed to the tomb. Here they had carried the mangled remains of those who had been torn to pieces by the wild beasts of the arena; the blackened corpses of those who had been given to the flames; or the wasted bodies of those most wretched who had sighed out their lives amid the lingering agonies of death by crucifixion. Every Christian had some friend or relative lying here in death. The very ground was sanctified, the very air hallowed. It was not strange that they should seek for safety in such a place.
Moreover, in these subterranean abodes, they found their only place of refuge from persecution. They could not seek foreign countries nor fly beyond the sea, because for them there were no countries of refuge, and no lands beyond the sea held out a hope. The imperial power of Rome grasped the civilized world in its mighty embrace; her tremendous police system extended through all lands, and none might escape her wrath. (...)

A niche in the catacombs
A passage in the catacombs

Here, then, the persecuted Christians tarried, and their great numbers peopled these paths and grottoes, by day assembling to exchange words of cheer and comfort, or to bewail the death of some new martyr; by night sending forth the boldest among them, like a forlorn hope, to learn tidings of the upper world, or to bring down the blood-stained bodies of some new victims. Through the different persecutions, they lived here so secure that although millions perished throughout the empire, the power of Christianity at Rome was but slightly shaken.

Their safety was secured and life preserved, but on what terms? For what is life without light, or what is the safety of the body in gloom that depresses the soul? The physical nature of man shrinks from such a fate, and his delicate organization is speedily aware of the lack of that subtle renovating principle which is connected with light only. One by one the functions of the body lose their tone and energy. This weakening of the body affects the mind, predisposing it to gloom, apprehension, doubt, and despair. It is greater honor for a man to be true and steadfast under such circumstances than to have died a heroic death in the arena or to have perished unflinchingly at the stake. Here, where there closed around these captives the thickest shades of darkness, they encountered their sorest trial. Fortitude under the persecution itself was admirable; but against the persecution, blended with such horrors as these, it became sublime.
The cold blast that forever drifted through these labyrinths chilled them, but brought no pure air from above; the floors, the walls, the roofs, were covered over with the foul deposits of damp vapors that forever hung around; the atmosphere was thick with impure exhalations and poisonous miasma; the dense smoke from the ever-burning torches might have mitigated the noxious gases, but it oppressed the dwellers here with its blinding and suffocating influence. Yet amid all these accumulated horrors the soul of the martyr stood up unconquered.(...)
The constant efforts which they made to diminish the gloom of their abodes were visible all around. In the ancient world art was cultivated more universally than in the modern. Wherever any large number of men was collected a large proportion had the taste and the talent for art. When the Christians peopled the Catacombs the artist was here too, and his art was not unemployed. In these chapels, which to the population here were like what public squares are to the inhabitants of a city, every effort was made to lessen the surrounding cheerlessness. So the walls were in some places covered over with white stucco, and in others these again were adorned with pictures, not of deified mortals for idolatrous worship, but of those grand old heroes of the truth who in former generations had "through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens." If in the hour of bitter anguish they sought for scenes or thoughts that might relieve their souls and inspire them with fresh strength for the future, they could have found no other objects to look upon so strong to encourage, so mighty to console.
Such were the decorations of the chapels. The only furniture which they contained was a simple wooden table upon which they placed the bread and wine of the sacrament, the symbols of the body and blood of their dying Lord.(...)The walls carry down to later ages the words of grief, of lamentation, and of ever-changing feeling which were marked upon them during successive ages by those who were banished to these Catacombs. They carry down their mournful story to future times, and bring to imagination the forms, the feelings and the deeds of those who were imprisoned here. As the forms of life are taken upon the plates of the camera, so has the great voice once forced out by suffering from the very soul of the martyr become stamped upon the wall."
From The Martyr of the Catacombs. A Tale of Ancient Rome. by Anonymous

Christ with beard. From the catacombs of Commodilla.
Roman catacomb. Picture by tradition in
Rome catacombs. From

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