‘Twitters’ of Antiquity in the Catacombs

The Appointment Is Coming Round with the Day Dedicated to the Rediscovery of Cemeteries with Paleo-Christian Symbols and Testimonies

The catacombs of Priscilla (C) Vatican Media

The appointment is coming round with the Day of the Catacombs, which will be held in Rome this October 16 and in other sites of Lazio on the 17th. It is an event promoted by the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, which will enable one to visit for free also some catacombs normally not open to the public. It is an appointment dedicated in particular to Paleo-Christian symbols.

Symbols to Decipher

 In fact, the pilgrim or visitor who walks through the Catacombs’ galleries and meanders, who pauses to admire the frescoed and decorated cubicles and tombs is inevitably attracted — in addition to the thought-provoking representations of biblical scenes and daily life, — by a new and proper world of symbols, at times as paintings at times as graffiti or engraved in stone.

The meaning of some of them is known, others seem more mysterious and difficult to decipher. All, however, recall a language all the more essential, which was used by the first Christian generations to affirm their faith and connote in a Christian way the tombs of their dear ones or of the martyrs, first witnesses of the faith.

Christ’s monogram, in different formulations — the Cross with the apocalyptic letters alpha and omega, the fish, the lamb, the anchor, the peacock, and the phoenix, the dove with the olive sprig in its beak, the worshipper and the Good Shepherd, the ship and lighthouse, the baskets with loaves are some of the more frequent symbols that are found in the catacombs, and each one has its meaning, a message that acquires even more vigor from the context in which it is inserted.

Messages Dense with Meaning

 In fact, these symbols, next to the sepulchers of the first communities, tell and proclaim Christian hope, the vision of the world and of life that flows from the paschal mystery of Christ, dead, and Risen. We can describe them as the twitters of antiquity, essential messages but dense in meaning, charged with an appeal for the living that visit the cemeteries, where believers “sleep” while awaiting the resurrection.

The 4th Day of the Catacombs is organized as a digital event as well as a manifestation to live in presence. The objective is to propose a series of itineraries to discover the word of Christian symbols of antiquity. On Saturday, October 16, the Day will unfold exclusively in Rome. Then on Sunday, October 17, some catacombs of Lazio will be of interest. One must book for the free visits. Moreover, it’s necessary to have a green pass and a mask. All the necessary information and the Day’s program is available on the Web sites www.giornatadellecatacombe.it and www.catacombeditalia.va

Among other things, the program includes laboratories for children and guided visits in the language of the signs. Again on Saturday, at 7:00 pm, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, will celebrate Mass in Saint Agnes’ parish.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester