Catacombs of Callixtus and the Crypt of the Popes

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From Creation to Decline: The Lifecycle of the Catacombs of Callixtus.


The Catacombs of Callixtus, also referred to as the Cemetery of Callixtus, are situated on Rome’s Appian Way. They are particularly significant for housing the Crypt of the Popes (Cappella dei Papi), which served as the burial site for multiple pontiffs from the 2nd to the 4th centuries. At the height of its significance, this sprawling 15-hectare (37-acre) burial site held the remains of 16 popes and 50 martyrs. The Crypt of the Popes, a specific section within the catacomb, was the burial site for nine of these popes. Recognizing its importance, Pope Damasus I commissioned the construction of a staircase leading to this crypt in the 4th century.

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Founding and Development

The catacombs were likely initiated under the auspices of Callixtus I, who was a deacon in Rome at the time and would later become Pope. The project was supervised by Pope Zephyrinus and involved the expansion of pre-existing Christian underground burial sites, known as hypogea. Notably, Callixtus I was not buried in the Catacombs of Callixtus; he was instead laid to rest in the Catacomb of Calepodius, located on the Aurelian Way. This effort expanded upon the pre-existing early Christian burial chambers known as hypogea. Callixtus I’s final resting place was not in this catacomb but in the Catacomb of Calepodius located on the Aurelian Way.

Catacomb of Callistus (reconstruction), 1867, Giovanni Battista DeRossi, source

Decline and Relocation of Relics

Over time, the Crypt of the Popes fell into a state of neglect and deterioration. The relics it held were gradually transferred to different churches within Rome for better preservation and veneration. The last significant transfer of relics took place in the 9th century, under the direction of Pope Sergius II. Most of these relics found a new home at the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, which had the advantage of being inside the protective Aurelian Walls.

Grave of Saint Cecilia
Grave of Saint Cecilia

Rediscovery in the 19th Century

After many centuries of being forgotten, the Catacombs and the Crypt were brought to light once more in 1854. Giovanni Battista de Rossi, a pioneering Italian archaeologist, was responsible for this significant rediscovery. His work rekindled interest in early Christian burial practices and provided valuable insights into the religious and cultural aspects of the time.

Featured image source: wikimedia


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