Catacombs and archeology

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Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks

After the Vatican yesterday, we took another tour that, unfortunately, forbid all pictures.  The ones I’ve included are from the internet. Our tour took us to two of the catacombs in Rome, as well as an ancient church with a rather surprising basement.  First, the Capuchin Crypts.

The Capuchin Crypts were burial places for about 3000 Capuchin monks who died before the 1800s.  At some point, probably in the 17th century, an especially artistic monk decided to get creative with all the bones that were lying around.  He began to arrange the bones in decorative designs and artistic patterns that he nailed to the walls and ceilings.  Soon, the whole order participated and the designs took on more meaning. For example, an hourglass made out of finger bones, with clavicle “wings” signified that time flies and that we will soon be as dead as they are. (See the center of the picture above.) It wasn’t a morbid thing for the monks, but a joyful reminder of the resurrection.  The monks’ work was ended in about 1870 when the new king of Italy forbid the practice because foreigners might not understand it.

The next catacomb we visited was much more like what you’d expect.  It was very like the one depicted in the Indiana Jones movie, except no water and, thankfully, no rats.  Also, the passageways were very narrow and the ceilings very low.  There were tunnels with niches where the bodies were laid.  They were built by, originally, 1st century Christians who didn’t want to bury their dead in the way of the pagans.  Over the next couple hundred years, they built 17 kilometers of tunnels on 5 different levels.  They started the tunnels when all the land on the surface was used up.

Our last stop was my favorite, a church built in honor of St. Clement (I think he was the 5th pope).  He’s the guy who died when they hung an anchor around his neck and pushed him overboard.  Anyway, his church is a beautifully maintained 12th century church.  But when they were doing some work in the basement in about the 1500s, they discovered the first church built in honor of St. Clement that was built in the 2nd century.  They didn’t just find the foundations, either.  They found the entire church which had been filled up with earth and building materials to make it a good base for the current church.  Even the altar was still in pace, perfectly preserved.

But that wasn’t the end of the explorations.  They heard water and they were trying to find its source, so they kept looking.  What they found is the 2nd century church was built on top of an even earlier temple, and that was built on an even earlier workshop which is thought to be a mint of ancient Roman coins.  All of these levels were just filled in and built over; the walls, the doors, the decorations, everything is still perfectly preserved.  The reason they built this way was the Tiber River flooded twice a year, so the higher the building, the safer it was from flooding.  Today’s streets are 30-40 feet higher than the streets at the time of Christ.

It’s little wonder that Rome has earned the description of archeological lasagna.

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This is the 4th century church, just under the current church.  It was filled in with earth and building materials and when it was excavated, the columns were built to give the structure above the support it needs.  However, the floor and walls are all original.  The alter in the picture above is actually the 12th century altar that was originally in the church above.  When the original 4th century alter was discovered in such good condition, it was placed in the church above and the one from above was moved below.  Interestingly, they are nearly identical and both have an anchor on the front.

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This was a side chapel in honor of St. Cyril and his brother (I can’t remember his name) who were sent to the Baltic Sea more than 800 years after St. Clement died there. They were told to bring back Clement’s body.  Good luck!  They knew it was an impossible mission so they decided to make the best of it and convert as many of the people they could along the way.  To do this, they had to translate the bible into the languages of the locals, but the locals didn’t have a written language.  So, St. Cyril created the Cyrillic alphabet, the one still used by Russian and other languages to this day.  In this chapel are plaques from many countries acknowledging the great give St. Cyril gave to them.  St. Cyril and his brother are both buried here.

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This is the temple in honor of the god Mithras.  It’s buried below the oldest version of St. Clement’s church. Only men could be members of the religion that worshipped Mithras and their religious ceremony consisted of re-enacting a famous banquet in honor of the god. Everything about the religious was kept in strict secrecy, even the temples were built with no windows so their ceremony couldn’t be observed.  I think it was the original fraternity, men’s club, or maybe the invention of the man-cave.  In any case, a good time was had by all.

Interestingly, the most important date to the faithful was Mithras’ birthday — December 25th.  Way back in time when the bishops were talking about establishing the date of Jesus’ birth as a holy day, it was suggestion they adopt the biggest party day of the year–Mithras’ birthday.  Only in that way could they hope to gain more converts.

I don’t know who I don’t have pictures of the mint that was found beneath Mithras’ temple. It still has water running through it. Current thinking is the mint was built there because the water was necessary to the minting process, so everything was convenient. This mint would have been the one the made the Roman coins mentioned in the time of Jesus and before.

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