Cults, Catacombs and Crypts

Beneath the High Altar in St. Peter's Basilica Beneath the High Altar in St. Peter's Basilica

L'articolo tratta di catacombe, tombe, delle cripte e del culto delle reliquie presenti ovunque in Italia. Descrive alcune catacombe e cripte esistenti fin dal Medioevo. Tombe e reliquie si trovano anche in Vaticano. Questi luoghi e ossari vari fanno parte della religione e molti turisti le visitano come parte della loro fede. Anche se la Chiesa ha detto che queste sono credenze pagane, ma la gente vuole ancora vederle.

Cults (systems of religious beliefs and rituals) of the departed have been fundamental to the cultures and habits of Italy since prehistory. There are numerous examples of how the dead were treated, buried, and worshiped in ancient times.

The cults of saints and relics emerged in the third century and were an important part of religion up to the Middle Ages. Relics, the remains of a holy person and objects with which they were in contact with, as well as holy sites, were thought to have miraculous powers that could convert pagans and cure the sick. The body of a saint was thought to be the spiritual link between man and God and objects that were touched by Christ or his apostles had healing power. The bones of martyrs, who like Christ, sacrificed themselves for their faith, were believed to provide evidence of God’s power at work in the world, producing miracles and other non-mortal events such as stigmata. 

The Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, built in 1638, houses a hypogeum, or underground crypt. Under the church is a second sanctuary with a rough altar and in the attached rooms are graves, skulls, and wooden boxes full of human remains. This is where the poor were buried, and since they were not given their last Rites, prayers were said for their souls in Purgatory. It was believed per Catholic doctrine, that praying for these souls would help them get to heaven expeditiously. Visitors cared for the skulls and brought gifts in exchange for personal favors from the dead, believing that they were closer to God and had saintly powers. The Cult of the Skulls was formed in Naples and many still believe in their power.

Cultic ceremonies and worship of the dead have been central to the spiritual growth of many civilizations: the dead needed proper care but if not given they would haunt their families. Fear and love moved people to worship the souls of their loved ones. There are many examples where such ceremonies and worship flourished such as the Fontanelle Cemetery Caves, a burial place in Naples and the necropolis of Pantalica, near Syracuse, where around 4,000 chamber tombs were cut into the rock. The Etruscan necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia were the most important cemeteries with very different types of tombs: trenches cut in rock, tumuli which often contain more than one tomb, and some, also carved in rock, in the shape of huts or houses with a wealth of structural detail as well as other Roman burials and tombs and the first Christian graveyards, the Catacombs.

The Catacombs were former underground burial grounds outside of Rome in use from the second to fifth centuries by Christians and Jews. Christians didn’t believe in burning the bodies of their dead like the pagans did, and due to lack of space and the high price of land, they decided to create underground cemeteries outside the cities. Extensive subterranean passageways with rows of niches were dug out for corpses wrapped in a simple cloth with a gravestone carved with their name and a Christian symbol. In Rome, there remain 60 catacombs that hold thousands of tombs but currently only five are open to the public: Catacombs of San Sebastiano, San Callisto, Priscilla, Domitilla, and Sant’Agnese. The catacombs, the dark and damp passageways under Rome, contain small graves for children, larger graves in which whole families were buried as well as Christian artworks and artifacts. The Catacombs were looted in the eighth century when barbarians invaded Italy. It was at this time that the Popes transferred the remaining holy relics to the city’s churches, many to be placed in or under the altars.

A crypt, from Greek or Latin “vault” and “hidden,” is a stone chamber typically beneath the floor of a church or other building, often used as a chapel and containing coffins, sarcophagi (stone coffins often bearing sculptures and inscriptions), or housing religious relics. Originally, they were found below the apse of a church, the domed area where the altar stands. Crypts can also be found in cemeteries: above ground in a mausoleum or underground in a lawn crypt. They typically hold more dead bodies and are often shared by different families.

The Vatican Scavi, also called the Vatican Necropolis, The Tomb of the Dead, or St. Peter’s Tomb, is the area below the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was discovered during an excavation in the 1940s. This stone chamber holds the temple of Emperor Constantine, bone fragments belonging to St. Peter and ancient graffiti stating, “Peter is here.” 

In 1760, on Tiber Island, The Sacconi Rossi Brotherhood was founded by young Christians to redeem souls suffering in purgatory and to support the deceased, especially those who drowned in the Tiber and went unclaimed. The bones of the dead were used to decorate the walls and niches of this ossuary and still exist today. The Capuchin Crypts also used the bones of its nearly 4,000 dead to create artworks.

Practitioners even today believe that these cultic practices are a legitimate form of Catholic worship, but in 1969 the Cardinal of Naples decided to suppress the practice, determining it a superstitious heresy relying too much on ancient folklore and myth. To curtail these cults, many sites have been open to tourism in hopes that admission fees, tourists, and security cameras will deter believers. Yet, it has not.