Sunday, July 17, 2011

Quo Vadis

When my late mother took me to see the Christian catacombs outside Rome more than 40 years ago things were different.

The tombs back then had bones in some of the graves and I remember distinctly peering into the sarcophagus of a Roman matron dead these two millennia and amidst the collapsed shards of her long dead body one could see long black tresses of hair as well preserved as though alive. Our tour guide this time around said all such remains were removed from the tombs in public view 20 years ago. Such are the penalties of age remembering the past as though it were today.

There are several catacombs available for tours but I chose San Domitilla because they are the largest, they include an underground church unique among catacombs,

and they are slightly off the easiest path for visitors which meant scooter riders like us could still have easy access along the Roman road called the Via Appia. This was the place where St Peter met Jesus on the road and asked where he was going. "Quo vadis, domine?" and Christ said wearily back to town to finish the work you have signally failed to do. So St Peter trudged back and got crucified for his pains. Christ is a hard task master.
Unfortunately the usual restrictions on photography enforced by the 19th century strictures of the Vatican gorgons meant I could take no pictures. All pictures here from the underground tombs are pictures I took digitally with my camera from the tour brochure.

There may be eleven miles of tombs but we walked around a few hundred yards, well illuminated with electricity and easy to navigate though not accessible unless you are nimble on your feet. Our guide told us of flash light walks for hours to the furthest recesses of the corridors, filled as she said with spiders and darkness and sealed tombs, fantastic art and total darkness and silence.

The catacombs's role in the lives of early Christians have been debated and what we were told 40 years ago is no longer the accepted truth about these burial grounds. Te story used to be that we were walking through secret chambers hidden away by early persecuted Christians to preserve their faith. Nowadays it is said that these tombs were simply tombs and were apparently built by a corporation paid to do the work and expand the tunnels as more people died. No one lived here or hid here, indeed Roman law was clear in that once dead even a rebel was entitled to any form of burial preferred and Christians weren't allowed cremation on the curious grounds God may not be able to reconstitute the believer's body for the inevitable resurrection to come. Thus while Romans burned Christians buried and set up their not so secret tombs right up against the main roads out of town. Romans were nothing if not sanitary and bodies could not be stored or buried within city limits.Thus the catacombs.

Probably as much visited today as they were when in use, even though they then slumbered through centuries of neglect until they were dug out after the end of the Papal States in 1873. Historical curiosity or place of Pilgrimage? You decide.

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1 comment:

Chuck and the Pheebs said...

Simple question, complex answer.

It is a reflection of the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each sees but a part of the sum - and describes the experience from their perspective.

such is the case of the catacombs. To the faithful - pilgrimage. For the agnostic - curiosity.

I find time elevates historical experiences; the best piece of modern literature (and yes, it is literature) is A Canticle for Liebowitz. If you're still talking to me in November - I'll gladly loan you my copy.