Catacomb “Copies”

Banner illustration is detail of the "Fractio Panis" mosaic in the chapel sanctuary of the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of St. Priscilla in Rome. 

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, though not necessarily 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 displayed 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, especially drawn to the work of Roman archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894), the scholar credited with bringing Christian archaeology into the modern media age 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" emphasized the extreme antiquity of the Catholic Church in Rome. They were not created in every instance as Catholic 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 (today, of course, most catacomb areas in Rome are dated to the third and fourth centuries CE).

A number of famous "catacomb facsimiles" 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 had excavated. Even more recent fabrications, such as a catacomb display set up on the via della Conciliazione for the 1950 Jubilee in Rome, appear to have been dismantled and discarded. 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. Virtual Reality (VR) has also entered the picture, as a component of "Crypta Manent", which proposes to combine the more traditional museum installation with virtual immersion through open datasets (LOD).  In addition to the "catacomb copies" mentioned above, a select list of examples is provided below, from faithful reproductions to creative copies (including the Catacombs of Paris). 

Valkenburg Catacombs and Museum (Netherlands), built inside of a modern quarry in 1910.

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

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

Ave Maria Grotto - "Jerusalem in Miniature", with catacombs and other holy shrine replicas (St. Bernard Abbey, Cullman, AL).

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

Catacombs of Paris, city ossuary of the late eighteenth century in abandoned quarries below Montrouge district. Open to the public.

Capuchin crypts in Palermo and Rome, fancifully-arranged ossuaries of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries below churches operated by the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M.Cap.). Open to the public.

The Conex-Plus Project "LIT! Reception of catacomb art in European culture and architecture between the 19th and 20th centuries," a Marie Curie Cofund Project led by Prof. Chiara Cecalupo of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, identifies many other modern architectural monuments inspired by catacomb features and devotional engagement. 

(Illustration of the catacomb pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.)





(View of Catacombs, showing St. Benignus Altar, Franciscan Monastery, Washington, D. C. Credit: The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library Arts Department.)