All You Need to Know about the Catacombs of Priscilla


 

The Catacombs of Priscilla don’t enjoy the same popularity among visitors as the catacombs at Via Appia. Yet, they are one of the most important ancient burial sites in Rome and one of my favorite places on Earth.

Known as Queen of the Catacombs since antiquity, the underground cemetery housed the bones of at least seven early popes and many Christian martyrs. They are also remarkable for the fine pieces of Christian art, including some of the first known Christian frescoes and controversial representations of women.

If you are the type of person that jumps in excitement with the idea of walking through the narrow corridors of an emblematic crypt, here’s all you need to know about the Catacombs of Priscilla.

The history of the catacombs

The Catacombs of Priscilla were used for Christian burials from at the least the 2nd century until between the 4th and 5th century. Although no one knows for sure the origin of their name, some argue the catacombs were named after a devoted noblewoman who donated her land for the construction of a burial site for her family and other Christians.

Priscilla was the wife of Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio, an important man who was executed alongside many others accused of conspiring against Emperor Domitian. According to legend, Glabrio was an early convert to Christianity.

Catacombs of Priscilla by Boris Doesborg – Flickr

In 1888, a tomb belonging to the Acilii Glabriones family, of which Glabrio was part, was found near the Catacombs of Priscilla. At the time, experts affirmed the discovery confirmed that he was indeed an early Christian and that his wife would have truly inspired the name of the catacombs.

In 1931, however, studies pointed to the fact that the tomb did not belong to the catacombs complex, but rather to a different burial chamber destroyed after the 4th century for the constructions of San Silvester’s Basilica, which kept the veracity of the legend unproven.

Archaeologists believe the catacombs held at least 40,000 tombs back in the day, including the tombs of seven popes and Christian martyrs, such as Pope Marcellinus (296-304) and Pope Marcellus I (308-309), and Saints Praxedes, Pudentiana and Philomena.

Saint Pudentiana. Fresco of the 15th century, from the church of Santa Pudenziana in Narni, Italy – WikiCommons

When the burial site fell into disuse, robbers and many Christians who believed the remains of martyrs performed miracles invaded the underground cemetery to collect items and bones from inside the tombs. The relics of saints were also removed by the Catholic Church to be placed in different churches. For those reasons, the crypt is nowadays empty.

Early Christian Art

Despite being empty, visitors still have a lot to see at the Catacombs of Priscilla, notably the frescoes that decorate the walls and ceiling.

Virgin and Child with Balaam the Prophet – WikiCommons

The painting of Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus is one of the most important pieces of art in the burial site – and in the world. It is the earliest known representation of the Virgin Mary with Child, and one of the rare remaining Madonna Lactans (Nursing Madonna) from before the Middle Ages.

Greek Chapel by Steven Zucker – Flickr

At the Greek Chapel, a squared chamber named for two Greek inscriptions on the wall, visitors are amazed by rich frescos in Pompeian style representing episodes from the Old and New Testaments, including Noah on the ark and the resurrection of Lazarus.

The chapel also houses the polemic Fractio Panis, a fresco that portrays seven people at a table sharing bread, probably performing the Eucharist during a Mess. The panting dragged the attention of scholars and stirred up controversy because the figures in the picture seem to be women, which suggests women could have had a much more active and leading role in the Early Church – can you imagine female priests?

Fractio Panis – WikiCommons

While some scholars believe six men and one woman sit around the table, others argue the table is fully composed by women, given their hairstyle and clothes. Part of the head of the central figure is missing, which some believe to be the result of an intentional intervention to make the central figure look like a man. On the left side of the picture, sitting at the extremity of the table, is what seems to be a man with a long beard breaking bread, as in the Eucharist. This character’s gender is also highly debated as some argue the beard was also the result of manipulation.

Veiled woman by Steven Zucker – Flickr

Besides the Fractio Panis, other frescos in the Catacombs of Priscilla illustrate mysterious female characters in positions usually reserved to men. The Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, as the name suggests, houses a picture of a veiled woman raising her arms in prayer. On the woman’s left and right sides, there are images that do not refer to any passage of the Bible and are different from other Christian frescos found in Roman catacombs. This has led archaeologists to conclude that the figures surrounding the woman are episodes of her life, although no one knows who she was.

Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman by Boris Doesborg – Flickr

Visit the catacombs

The Catacombs of Priscilla are open from 9 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 5 pm, except for Mondays, when the catacombs are closed. The last visit in the morning starts at 11:30 am and the last visit in the afternoon starts at 4:30 pm.

Tickets are sold at the catacombs’ ticket office for € 8.

Children aged 7 to 16; Elementary and High School students on school trip; students of Archaeology, Architecture, Art History and Cultural Studies; and priests, religious, seminarians and novices, have access to discounted tickets.

Discounted tickets cost € 5.

Children up to 6 years of age; people with disabilities and their assistant; students from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology; professors, teachers and catechists accompanying groups; certified tour guides; and researchers who issue a request to the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, enter for free.

Entry of the catacombs at Via Salaria, 430 by Andy Rusch – Flickr

The Catacombs of Priscilla are located at Via Salaria, 430

If you are heading to the catacombs by bus, take the lines 63 and 83 from the city center, or lines 92 and 310 from Roma Termini station.

The burial site is a short walk away from S. Agnese Annibaliano and Libia metro stations.

Oh, and don’t forget to take a jacket with you. The temperature inside the catacombs is about 13°C.