THE MASS: Underground. Part IVa: The Mass of the Catacombs. 250-313. 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000 1100 1200 1300 1400 1500 1600 1700 1800 1900 2000. The Mass of the Catacombs.
of the Catacombs
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Date: Begun during the cruel persecutions of Emperors Decius (249-251), Valerianus (253-260) and Diocletian (284-305); ended with the edict of Milan, promulgated by the emperor Constantine in February, 313;
Place: Principally at Rome, but found in other European cities;
Time: The end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries, until the late fourth, early fifth centuries under the papacy of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217); promoted by pope Saint Damasus (366-384);
Attending: Catholic Christians
Preparation: Little was needed but the essentials for the Eucharist the tombs provided the place for celebration;
Environment: Underground caves and corridors with hewn graves from
ground to ceiling;
Pope Saint Damasus 366 - 384
Pope Zephyrin 199-217
Edit of Milan 313
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Candles become a necessity not a devotion. The way of walking,
processing required light; the places for reading--the ambo and
the altar-- required light.
The close spaces of the catacombs inhibited reclining for Eucharist;
standing became the referred posture for prayer.
The praying position (orans) of the presbyter at the altar finds its origins in
the art of the catacombs.
Offering Eucharist on other than a table for reclining (as in house churches);
the altar was the surface of a burial tomb. Some were free-standing
table-height surfaces; from meal to sacrifice.
Prayer after Communion
Presider standing at an Altar
“Vere dignum et justum est”
“Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus”
“Sursum corda” and “Gratias agamus”
Anamnesis and Epiclesis
“Et cum spiritu tuo”
“in secula saeculorum”
Presider took bread and wine
Gave thanks/said a blessing
Said what Jesus said
He broke the bread
Gave the Body of Jesus
to fellow Christians;
Distributed the Precious Blood
to fellow Christians
Mass of the Catacombs
During the persecutions, the catacombs were used as places of momentary refuge for the celebration of the Eucharist. They were not used as secret hiding places of the early Christians. This is only a fiction taken from novels or movies.
After the persecutions, especially in the time of pope St. Damasus (366 - 384) they became real shrines of the martyrs, centers of devotion and of pilgrimage for Christians from every part of the empire.
In those days in Rome there existed cemeteries in the open, but the Christians, for several reasons, preferred underground cemeteries.
First of all, the Christians rejected the pagan custom of cremation; they preferred burial, just as Christ was buried, because they felt they had to respect the bodies that one day would rise from the dead.
This genuine belief of the Christians created a problem of space, which exerted a great influence upon the development of the catacombs. The areas owned by the Christians above ground were very limited in extent. Had they used only open-air cemeteries, since they as a rule did not reuse the tombs, the space available for burial would have quickly been exhausted.
The catacombs came as the solution of the problem; and it proved to be economical, safe and practical. In fact it was cheaper to dig underground corridors and galleries than to buy large pieces of land in the open. As the early Christians were predominantly poor, this way of burying the dead was decisive.
But there were other reasons too for choosing the underground digging.
The Christians felt a lively community sense: they wished to be together even in the "sleep of death". Furthermore such out-of-the-way areas, especially during the persecutions, were very apt for reserved community meetings and for the free displaying of the Christian symbols.
In compliance with the Roman law, which forbade the burial of the dead within the city walls, and the desecration of tombs, all catacombs are located outside the city, along the great consular roads, generally in the immediate suburban area of that age.
The catacombs are, for the most part, excavated in tuff or
in other easily removable but solid soils so as to create
a negative architecture. For this reason, the catacombs
are found especially where there are tufacious types
of soil: that is, in central, southern and insular Italy.
The catacombs entail the presence of ladders that lead
to ambulatories which are called galleries, as in mines.
In the walls of the galleries the “loculi” are arranged: that is, the burial places of ordinary Christians that are made lengthwise. These tombs are closed with marble slabs or bricks.
The loculi represent the humblest and most egalitarian burial system in order to respect the community sense that animated the early Christians.
In any event, in the catacombs more complex tombs are also found, such as the arcosolia, which entail the excavation of an arch on the tuff casket, and the cubicula, which are real and proper burial chambers.
The catacombs were the exclusive work of a specialized guild of workers called “fossores” (“gravediggers”).They dug gallery after gallery by the faint light of their lamps and used baskets or bags to carry the earth away, also through the lucemaria (“sky-lights”) opened in the vault of a crypt or of a cubicle or along the galleries. The lucemaria were ample shafts which reached the surface. When the work of excavation was finished, they remained opened as a vent for air and light, as a means of ventilation and lighting.
The ancient Christians did not use the term “catacomb.” This is a word of Greek origin, meaning “near the hollow.” The Romans applied it to a locality on the Appian Way, where there were caves for the removal of tuff blocks. Nearby were dug the catacombs of Saint Sebastian. In the ninth century the term was extended to all cemeteries, with the specific sense of underground cemetery.
The burials of the early Christians were extremely poor and simple. The corpses, in imitation of Christ, were wrapped in a sheet or shroud and placed in the loculi without any kind of coffin. The loculi were closed with a slab of marble or, in most cases, by tiles fixed by mortar.
On the tombstone the name of the deceased was sometimes engraved, along with a Christian symbol or a wish that the person might find peace in heaven. Oil lamps and small vases containing perfumes would often be placed beside the tombs. The structure of the tombs, arranged in rows superimposed one upon another at different levels, gave one the idea of a vast dormitory, called cemetery, a term coming from Greek and meaning "resting place". In this way the Christians wanted to affirm their faith in the resurrection of the bodies.
There were, besides the loculi, other types of tombs down in the catacombs: the arcosolium, the sarcophagus, the forma, the cubiculum and the crypt.
The arcosolium, a tomb is a much larger niche with an arch above it. The marble-tomb covering was placed horizontally. They usually served as the burial chamber for entire families.
The sarcophagus is a stone- or marble-coffin, usually adorned with sculptured reliefs or inscriptions.
The forma is a tomb dug into the floor of a crypt, of a cubiculum or of a gallery. They were very numerous near the martyrs\' tombs.
The cubicula (meaning "bedrooms") were small rooms, truly family tombs, with a capacity of several loculi. The use of a family tomb was not a privilege reserved to the rich. The cubicles and the arcosoliums were frequently decorated with frescoes portraying biblical scenes and reproducing the themes of Baptism, Eucharist and Resurrection symbolized by the cycle of Jona.
The crypt is a bigger room. Under Pope Damasus, many of the martyrs’ tombs were converted into crypts, that is into small underground churches embellished with paintings, mosaics or other decorations.
The Mass of the Catacombs, Part IVa
The Mass of the Catacombs, Part IVb