Did you know that the Roman Catacombs were not built to serve as secret churches? The Catacombs were truly just burial places. Just like today’s cemeteries which have chapels on-site, these early burial places also had built in chapels to perform the final blessing of a body before entombment. While Christians were persecuted at various times, they celebrated Mass in people’s homes, under the guise of a friendly gathering, and not in underground chapels.
the entrance to these early Christian burial sites are found in some of
the most unexpected places. The Catacombs of St. Thecla, which I had
the privilege of visiting Tuesday, are found in the basement of a
building belonging to an Italian insurance company in a residential
neighbourhood of Rome. No joking. Of course, the insurance company is a
recent addition to the landscape.
The Catacombs of St. Thecla appear on pilgrimage maps as early as the
seventh century. It’s believed there was a shrine to St. Thecla not far
from today’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in the place
Thecla was believed to have been buried. However, today it is not
certain if the St. Thecla referred to was the virgin saint referred to
in ancient legends.
It was in the 19th century that the Catacombs were rediscovered by archeologists.
Fast forward to 2008 when the Pontifical Commission for Sacred
Archeology was attempting to restore a portion of the Catacombs. Most of
the Catacombs are chambers with crypts all the way up the wall. It
seems at some point there was a plague and large numbers of people
needed to be buried all at once. Hence these mass crypt chambers that
could then be sealed off. In one wing of the Catacombs, however, was a
crypt that seemed to have housed only two bodies. It was this chamber
that the Commission for Sacred Archeology wanted to restore. Generally a
private crypt means a noble family, which means it was no doubt
decorated. In fact, faints hints of frescoes were evident in this
special crypt, referred to in archeological terms as a double cubiculum.
The conditions in the Catacombs are cool
and very humid. The archeological team set out to restore the frescoes
using mechanical processes to remove calcium lime buildup (the water in
Rome is highly calcified, good for bones, bad for cleaning).
Then the team heard about lasers being used in the restoration of
facades of churches and statues. The idea was floated, “why not try
using a laser on this crypt?” So a special laser was brought in and
modified to work in highly humid conditions.
According to Dr. Barbara Mazzei the laser works on tiny portions at a
time. The beam hits the calcified material and causes a chemical
reaction that produces a mini-explosion. That mini-explosion causes the
calcium lime to fall off the surface of the fresco, revealing the
years of work revealed four images that have been identified as images
of the Apostles Peter, Paul, John and Andrew, as well as an image we
would recognize as The Good Shepherd. Over the main entrance to the
cubiculum one can see an image of what looks like hands outstretched
around a table. The Twelve Apostles.
Over one of the actual burial slots there is a visible image of a woman in noble dress.
There’s one slight problem with this Catacomb. It’s very, very
delicate. The area above the Catacombs is very moist and that constant
exposure to humidity is damaging to the frescoes. As one archeologist
told journalists, “we’ve got a choice, preserved Catacombs or pretty
flowers” referring to the fact that there is a garden above one portion
of the Catacomb and the water from the flower bed filters into the
Catacombs. However, placing dehumidifiers in the Catacombs alters the
delicate micro-environment and can cause a whole host of other problems.