Rome and its relics: catacombs, crypts and cities of the dead

Debra Thimmesch | 17/06/2019
The roman catacombs.
Explore the depths of the catacombs.

You’ll notice when visiting Rome that the city proper is free of the massive cemeteries you see in other major cities such as Paris with its well-known and heavily-visited Père Lachaise, Montmartre, and Montparnasse Cemeteries. By law, Romans did not (and still don’t) bury their dead within the city walls, which means you’ll find attractions such as its famous catacombs located outside the city’s boundaries.

Furthermore, there are discrete and in some cases hidden pockets of the peculiar to the bizarre and the discomfiting to the macabre scattered throughout the Eternal City… a city where death, the afterlife, and eternity have persisted as cultural and social fixations.

Read on for the most intriguing places to visit to experience the myriad ways Romans dealt with their dead throughout the centuries.

The Roman Catacombs

Rome is known for its ancient monuments and spectacular vistas. But there is much to see beneath the surface as well. It is a city of layers; the further down you dig, the more ancient the layers. 

By far the most famous subterranean attractions in Rome are its catacombs. Dug out of the tufa stone, which hardens when exposed to air, the extensive passageways of these underground necropoli in total extend for hundreds of kilometers. There are more than sixty catacombs, but only five are open to the public.

Contrary to popular belief, not only Christians but also Jews and pagans were buried in the catacombs. The word itself means “near the hollow”, as the first catacombs were dug near a pozzolan (the kind of sand used to make concrete) quarry on the outskirts of the city between the second and the fifth centuries. 

The catacombs were created as alternative funerary sites for Christians, whom, unlike pagans, did not believe in cremating their dead. Land was expensive and so a smaller portion could be used if they dug below rather than outward. Inside these complex warrens are rows of rectangular niches arranged regularly. Larger chambers were created for families. The dead were wrapped in shrouds and then placed in the individual niches; afterwards, the opening was covered with terra cotta or marble. The name of the deceased person was inscribed in the cover. In the chambers and arched niches of the more affluent of the interred there are often wall paintings, some of which are surprisingly well-preserved.

During the period in which Christianity was illegal, followers of Christ could bury their dead in the catacombs and freely use symbols and images associated with Christianity without being subject to punishment. With the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, the religion was no longer illegal and, aside from sporadic episodes, the persecution of Christians ended. The burials continued for another hundred years as they had become the custom and people wanted to be buried with their loved ones. 

When barbarians invaded Rome in the 8th century, they ransacked a good number of the catacombs searching for loot. As a result, the remains of nearly 20 early popes and some important martyrs such as Saint Cecilia were removed from the catacombs. They were then closed up and forgotten for several centuries. 

How and when to visit Rome’s catacombs

Only five of the catacombs are now open to tourism. We recommend visiting either the Catacombs of San Sebastiano or the Catacombs of San Callisto (or both). The former, named for Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was martyred as a consequence, are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Catacombs of San Callisto, which are named after the original overseer of the site are extensive, stretching about 20 kilometers in length. Sixteen popes were buried there, as were numerous Christian martyrs among thousands of other now largely anonymous people. Opening days and hours are Thursday to Tuesday from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

Note that both of these catacombs are located outside of the city along the Via Appia, the ancient Roman road. It is very easy to get to them by bus, taxi, or your rental car. Of the three other catacombs, Priscilla, Domitilla, and the Sant-Agnese, the Catacombs of Priscilla are most interesting for their frescoes, including what are thought to be the very first artistic representations of the Virgin Mary.

The urge to commemorate your visit will be strong, we know. However, photography at the catacombs is strictly forbidden. Visits are organized into guided tours conducted in several different languages, typically by Roman Catholic priests. Visitors can no longer view human remains as a consequence of persistent vandalism through the years. Admission fees to the different catacombs vary but are generally around 8€ per person.

Capuchin Chapel of the Bones

The macabre artfulness of the Cappella delle Ossa or Bone Chapel mediates the potential discomfort most visitors experience when visiting this profoundly strange ossuary of the Capuchin monks of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of the Capuchins). The church, which is located close to the Piazza Barberini on the Via Veneto, has its own crypt, which is not unusual, as many Christian churches have doubled as burial sites, especially for esteemed members and patrons. 

However, most crypts conceal human remains behind and beneath tastefully designed, engraved marble slabs, sculptures of angels or even effigies of the dead and skeletons. For that matter, members of religious orders were often buried in and around the church premises, whether the church was in a city or in some remote region. There was ample space beyond church grounds for disposing of the dead in a dignified way. The point was to bury the dead in sacred ground. The monks of the Bone Chapel, however, got creative — to an extreme.

The chapel holds the skeletal remains of upwards of 3,700 bodies. The Capuchins insist that the bone art of the crypt, rather than being a form of macabre entertainment for locals and tourists, is intended as a powerful and omnipresent memento mori — a reminder of death. The Capuchins (“Cappuccini” in Italian; “cappuccino” is so named as it resembles the color of the monks’ robes) moved to their current church and monastery of Santa Maria della Concezione in 1631 from an older church. Perhaps because they had taken vows of poverty and couldn’t claim ownership of much of anything at all, they had space in the moving carts for the bones of their deceased brethren. The monks arrived at their new church along with 300 cartloads of skeletal remains. 

The crypt itself — even without the bones — has untold spiritual power. The soil lining its floors was brought to Rome from Jerusalem by Pope Urban VIII, who was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church from 1623 until he died in 1644. 

As the monks passed away, the newly dead replaced the longest-dead-and-buried in that sacred soil. Buried without a coffin, the newly deceased Capuchin would rest undisturbed, decomposing in the Jerusalem dirt (on average, for 30 years) while the bones of the veteran would be exhumed and repurposed.

In one of the most original repurposing efforts imaginable, the exhumed bones were used to create decorative schemes in the various chambers of the crypts. The six chambers feature unique sculptures. Three of the chambers have rather unsurprising names: there’s the Crypt of Skulls, the Crypt of Pelvises, the Cripta delle ossa delle gambe (the Crypt of Leg Bones). 

In the Crypt of the Resurrection, there’s a painting of The Raising of Lazarus, which is framed by a variety of human skeletal parts. In the Mass Chapel, you won’t see monks’ bones, but you will see an elaborate altarpiece in which Mary and Jesus plead with three Italian saints to release all of the souls from purgatory. You’ll also find a plaque that reads “DOM”: “Deo optimo maximo,” which means, “To God, the best and the greatest.” The plaque is special because it contains the actual heart of a woman named Maria Felice Peretti, the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V and a wealthy benefactor of the Capuchins. What better tribute? 

The Crypt of the Three Skeletons is the most elaborate from an iconographical and material perspective. One skeleton in the center is contained within an oval, which symbolizes the womb, of life coming into being. In one hand it holds a scythe and the symbolism there is probably obvious. In its left hand, this angel of life and death holds a set of scales, which symbolizes the weighing of the souls’ deeds. And if the symbolism throughout the crypt isn’t flagrantly obvious, there’s a plaque in that final, larger crypt that reads (in five languages): “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…” In other bad news: no photos are allowed in any of the chapels. 

Some famous visitors to the Cappella delle Ossa were Nathaniel Hawthorne, who mentioned the crypts in his novel, The Marble Faun, written in 1860. Mark Twain visited and wrote about it, and the Marquis de Sade commented that his visit in 1775 was well worth the trouble. The crypt was opened to the public in 1851 and the monks make a decent profit from the admission fee they charge. Visits during the week following All Souls Day (two days after Halloween on November 2) are free. The crypt and the small museum are open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets are 8,50€.

Vatican Necropolis

Vatican City may be the smallest country in the world, but it isn’t short on interest. Plan to spend several hours in the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel alone. Underneath the magnificent Basilica of St. Peter’s, however, is another world waiting to be explored: the Vatican Necropolis also known as “The Scavi” (“Excavations”). Beginning in the 1940s, the Vatican launched an excavation project that uncovered an ancient necropolis. It wasn’t merely out of curiosity that Pope Pius XI ordered the digging to begin. He wanted to locate the burial site of Saint Peter, the first Roman Catholic pontiff. 

Archaeologists discovered the necropolis, which had once been above ground on the slope of Vatican Hill and facing the Emperor Caligula’s Circus (a circus originally being a large, outdoor venue for events such as chariot races and gladiatorial combat). In fact, the obelisk that’s now in St. Peter’s Square was once at the far end of Caligula’s Circus. The necropolis is also close to the site of Nero’s Circus where it is thought that St. Peter was martyred around the year 65 CE. It was still in use when the first version of St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed at the orders of the Emperor Constantine but most of it was filled in to create the foundation for the earlier church.

The ancient necropolis included mausoleums shared by multiple, well-to-do families and used over several generations. Just one mausoleum, for example, contained the remains of at least 120 people. Around 22 tombs have been excavated to date, revealing more than a thousand dead. 

Most importantly for the Roman Catholic Church, the Tomb of Saint Peter lies in the scavi; it’s the last stop on the hour-and-a-half-long tour of the necropolis, for which you must make a reservation. The tour is well worth the trouble and can be conducted in your language. Contact the office of the scavi to make your reservation. Only 10 to 15 people are allowed in a tour group as a means to protect the site. No photographs are permitted. Opening hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is 13€ per person.

Museum of the Holy Souls of Purgatory

Leave behind the bones of the distantly departed and subterranean Rome and top off your day with a trip to a museum that pays tribute to those tragic souls trapped in Purgatory. This is superstition — or faith, depending upon your perspective — at its most fascinating. According to Catholics since at least the 11th century, souls that have not yet atoned sufficiently for their earthly sins must remain in this in-between state until the prayers of living loved ones release them to make their way up to heaven and eternal loitering and leisuring. 

One might wonder what sort of objects a museum such as this would exhibit. The small collection of the Museo delle anime del Purgatorio includes an assortment of prayer books and bibles, some clothing, and even a table top. All of the objects are exhibited in a display case in the sacristy (the room in which the priest dons his ceremonial garments). 

What is so unique about these items? They are said to have been burned by the hands of souls waiting out their days in Purgatory. Apparently, the museum was inspired by a small disaster: a fire began burning atop the altar of the church during Mass on July 2, 1897. The painting above the altar was spared from the blaze, which was considered a miraculous event. More importantly, while the fire burned, attendees at the service claimed to have seen the image of a tortured, suffering visage in the flames. That image was burned into the wall and is still visible, although it’s currently covered by a painting titled, The Sorrowful Among the Angels. 

After a great deal of debate, it was agreed that the face was that of a suffering soul bound in Purgatory. Although belief in the supernatural is frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Church, exceptions are definitely made — for instance, in the case of possession by the Devil and in situations such as this, which can be flagrantly instructive. Thus, in 1907, Pope Pius X declared that he would not forbid the faithful to put stock in these fantastical manifestations since they didn’t contradict Church doctrine.

To visit the Museum of Purgatory, enter through the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio (Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage), a beautiful gothic-style church at the side of the Tiber River along the Lungotevere Prati. Ask at the sacristy to be admitted to the museum. Admission is free, although donations are welcome.

Seeking out Rome’s religious relics

Last but not least, the churches of Rome are host to all manner of relics. Since the medieval period, the veneration of relics has become common practice and the cult of relics was both competitive and extremely lucrative. The most eerie relics in Rome are what is known as “corporeal” or “of the body” — human remains. Non-corporeal relics could be almost anything, from slivers of the True Cross to a tiny shred of tattered fabric from the veil of the Virgin Mary, for instance. If it came into contact with a holy person, it was a relic and provided a tangible means to commemorate someone of great spiritual importance. In the 8th century, church leaders required that all churches contain a relic within the altar, kicking off centuries of buying, selling, and trading in relics that were not especially easy to authenticate; faith was key.

We’ve selected some of the more interesting relics this unflinching city has to offer so you can incorporate them into your itinerary — a relic a day… 

Start with the bones of St. Peter, which the Vatican just began displaying in 2013. You can also head below the altar in St. Peter’s to the crypt where the remains of multiple pontiffs are kept and in some cases displayed. 

Cross the Tiber to San Pietro in Vincoli (“Saint Peter in Chains”) to see the chains that restrained Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. Note that the majority of relics are kept in special containers known as reliquaries, which provided lucrative commissions for artisans and were often quite elaborate and sometimes directly reflective of nature of the object they were housing. For instance, a foot-shaped, gold-leafed and gem encrusted reliquary would hold a fragment of bone from the foot of a saint. 

Another must-see is the ostensible skull of Saint Valentine on display in a small, gold-leafed, box-shaped reliquary with a glass front for viewing the relic. There are several contenders for holding the authentic skull of the saint. This relic is in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the very old church behind the portico where you’ll find the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth). 

Finally, make it a point to visit Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem), which claims to have relics related to the torture and execution of Jesus: two thorns from the crown of thorns, two shards from the True Cross, and the pièce de résistance: one accusatory finger bone from the famously skeptical Apostle Thomas or Doubting Thomas.

Explore an ancient city’s fixation with the afterlife

Compiling a complete list of Rome’s fascinating and in some cases rather morbid offerings would be a worthwhile undertaking, but our short one offers a curious glimpse into this ancient culture’s fixation with death and the afterlife.