The Catacomb of Priscilla: Rome’s Ancient Christian Burial Site Explored

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A Detailed Look at the Frescoes and Relics of the Catacomb of Priscilla.

The Catacomb of Priscilla is situated along the Via Salaria in Rome, Italy. In antiquity, the site functioned as a quarry, which was later repurposed for Christian burials spanning from the late 2nd century to the 4th century.


Featured image: View of the atrium in the Capella Graeca (Greek Chapel) within the Catacombe di Priscilla. The image’s origin is uncertain, as it could either represent the original site in Rome or the reconstructed version in Valkenburg, The Netherlands. The visual is sourced from a picture card booklet (source)

Related articles: Catacombs of Callixtus; The Roman Underworld: Catacombs, Sewers and Hidden Routes

Origin of the Name

The name “Priscilla” is traditionally attributed to the wife of Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio. Historical accounts suggest that Manius Acilius Glabrio converted to Christianity and was subsequently executed on orders from the Roman Emperor Domitian.

Architectural and Artistic Features

Visitors to the catacomb enter through the Via Salaria, accessing the site via the cloister belonging to the monastery of the Benedictines of Priscilla. The Catacomb of Priscilla consists of three major sections: an arenarium (a sand-covered area for burials), a cryptoporticus (an underground corridor) that was part of a large Roman villa, and an underground burial chamber for the ancient Roman family of Acilius Glabrio.

Artistic embellishments can be found throughout the catacomb, including wall paintings that depict saints and early Christian symbols. Notably, Giovanni Gaetano Bottari’s 1754 folio reproduced a painting from the catacomb that portrays the Good Shepherd feeding lambs, flanked by crowing cocks on both sides.

Depiction of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus in Rome’s Catacomb of Priscilla, showing Mary nursing Jesus. Identified as the earliest standalone portrayal of Mary and Jesus separate from the Magi episode, the image also features a figure on the left, believed to be the prophet Balaam, gesturing toward a star not visible in the frame, as referenced in Numbers 24:17, source

The Greek Chapel (Capella Greca)

A special feature within the catacomb is the “Greek Chapel.” This square chamber is adorned with an arch and houses 3rd-century frescoes. These frescoes generally depict scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, including the Fractio Panis, an early Christian rite. Above the apse, a representation of the Last Judgment can be seen.

Interpretative Debates

Recent research has sparked debate over the traditional interpretation of some scenes. For instance, what was once believed to be the deuterocanonical story of Susannah (Daniel 13) may actually represent the life of an eminent Christian woman from the 2nd century AD.

Detail of an Orant figure in the Cubicolo della Velatio room within the Catacombs of Priscilla
Detail of an Orant figure in the Cubicolo della Velatio room within the Catacombs of Priscilla, located in Rome. The artwork dates back to the middle of the 3rd century, source

Notable Figures and Relics

The catacomb is significant for containing perhaps the earliest known Marian paintings, dated to the early 3rd century. These paintings feature Mary holding Jesus on her lap. While it’s believed that the Annunciation may also be depicted, this interpretation is disputed.

Due to the fact that seven early popes and numerous martyrs were interred here, the Catacomb of Priscilla earned the moniker “Queen of the Catacombs” in antiquity. Among these are Popes Marcellinus (served 296-304) and Marcellus I (served 308-309). Their stories of martyrdom were later illustrated in artworks commissioned by subsequent popes like Damasus, Siricius, Celestine, and Virgilius.

Saints Praxedes and Pudentiana were originally buried in this catacomb until their relics were transferred in the 9th century by Pope Paschal I to Santa Prassede. Furthermore, the relics of Saint Philomena were discovered within this catacomb.

Topics: Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, Early Christian Art in Catacombs, Historical Significance of Catacomb of Priscilla, Ancient Frescoes in Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome’s Ancient Christian Burial Sites, Relics Found in Catacomb of Priscilla, Marian Paintings in Catacomb of Priscilla, Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio and Catacomb of Priscilla, Debates Surrounding Catacomb of Priscilla Interpretation


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