Catacomb “Copies”

The art and architecture of ancient catacombs (especially those in Rome) have inspired not only later tomb and shrine construction, but also the creation of catacombs "copies" that recall the appearance and atmosphere of the communal cemeteries of the Late Roman era, but not necessary their mortuary function.

An example near and dear to ICS is the painted Jewish funerary "cubiculum" or chamber commissioned by the society in 1988 for the exhibit of "Vaults of Memory" at the Spertus Institute of Judaica in Chicago. More recently, the exhibit "The Jews, An Italian Story - The First 1,000 Years" at the Museum of Italian Judaism and of the Shoah (MEIS) in Ferrara through 16 September 2018 also displays three reproductions of painted tombs from catacombs at Rome and Venosa, in addition to a number of casts of sarcophagi and epitaphs (the vast majority of the objects in the Ferrara show, however, are the real deal from antiquity). 

Not surprisingly, given the intense public attention on the "rediscovery" of the catacombs in the 19th century, centered upon the work of Roman archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894), who brought Christian archaeology into the modern media age well over a century before digital platforms went viral with self-published bulletins and other forms of public advocacy for catacomb study and preservation, modern "catacomb" displays that survive date to the mid-19th century and later. With a focus on wall-paintings, labyrinthine layout, and Christian protagonists, these "facsimiles" evoked the "origins" of the Catholic Church in Rome. They were not created in every case as Church propaganda, but reinforced popular notions of catacombs as Christian community sites dating as far back as sub-apostolic times (late first century CE), with a clear devotional use, especially at the tombs of Christian martyrs and early Church leaders, the first popes. 

A number of famous "catacomb facsimilies" have not come down to us, like the Papal State's catacomb pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 or de Rossi's private apartments near the Ara Coeli in Rome decorated with copies of paintings in the catacombs he himself excavated. Others survive in unusual settings - like Bible theme parks or private crypts. New examples of this type are reported to be under construction in California. A select list of examples is below, from faithful reproductions to creative copies. 

Valkenburg Catacombs and Museum (Netherlands), built in 1910.

Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Catacomb crypt (Washington, DC), early 20th century. 

National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, DC), on "catacombal design" 

Basilica of the Santi Apostoli, Crypt (Rome), built and painted to resemble Christian catacombs of Rome.

Chapel of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla, Catacombs of Priscilla (Rome) - mosaic copy of the "Fractio Panis" scene

Pio Cristiano Collection, Vatican Museums (Vatican City) - copies of paintings and inscriptions in the catacombs