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catacombs (katˈəkōmz), cemeteries of the early Christians and contemporary Jews, arranged in extensive subterranean vaults and galleries. Besides serving as places of burial, the catacombs were used as hiding places from persecution, as shrines to saints and martyrs, and for funeral feasts; it is doubtful that they were ever regularly used for religious services. Catacombs exist at Rome and also at Naples, Venosa, Chiusi, and Syracuse, Italy, and at Alexandria, Carthage, and Susah in N Africa as well as in Asia Minor and other areas. The cemeteries at Paris that were once thought to be catacombs are actually depleted stone quarries and were not used for burial until the late 18th cent.

Human burial in subterranean rock chambers is an ancient pre-Christian, pre-Roman custom in the Mediterranean. Although cremation was the rule among Greeks and Romans, there was no bar against burial for Christians or Jews, and the catacombs were not constructed in secrecy. Ordinances forbade interment within the city limits. All the Roman catacombs consequently are outside the city gates.

The Roman catacombs lie from 22 to 65 ft (6.7–19.8 m) beneath ground level in a space of more than 600 acres (243 hectares); much of this is in several levels. They date from the 1st cent. A.D. until the early 5th cent. Lining the walls of the narrow passages, generally 3 ft (91 cm) wide, are the recesses for the bodies. Some passages contained separate chambers or cubicula, usually about 12 ft (4 m) square but sometimes circular or polygonal, which were privately owned family vaults or contained the tomb of a martyr. In these the bodies were often placed in carved sarcophagi that stood within arched niches. In some catacombs rooms are arranged in groups; in the catacombs of Sant'Agnese such a group forms a miniature church. The spreading of the catacombs eventually produced burial places of labyrinthine character. The walls and ceilings of plaster were customarily painted with fresco decorations, and in these can be studied the beginnings of Christian art.

Even after official recognition of Christianity in 313, burials continued, through a desire for interment near the martyrs. The invasions of Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Saracens brought about the plundering of the catacombs and the robbing of their graves for the bones of saints. Several popes worked at restoring these sacred places, but by the 8th cent. the bodies had been mainly transferred to churches; by the 10th cent. the catacombs, filled with debris, were forgotten.

In 1578 the catacombs were rediscovered. Exhaustive publications based on researches in the catacombs were produced by the archaeologist Battista de Rossi (1822–94). The catacombs discovered in the vicinity of Rome in 1956 and 1959 contain frescoes of notable historical interest. In the Roman liturgy the requirement that Mass be said in the presence of lighted candles and over martyrs' relics is in conscious reminiscence of the catacombs.


See W. H. Adams, Famous Caves and Catacombs (1886, repr. 1972); S. Benko and J. J. O'Rourke, ed., The Catacombs and the Colosseum (1971).

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Subterranean burial places consisting of galleries with niches for sarcophagi and small chapels for funeral feasts and commemorative services.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



subterranean passages of artificial or natural origin, used in antiquity for the fulfillment of religious rites and for the burial of the dead. They were known in the vicinity of Rome, in Naples, on the islands of Sicily and Malta, in Egypt (Alexandria), and in North Africa, Southwest Asia, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and other locations. The most extensive catacombs are the Roman ones. The catacombs were widely used by early Christian communities in the second to the fourth centuries. They consist of branched labyrinths of narrow galleries and small halls; some of them are decorated with rich murals from the late classical and from the early medieval period. Structures similar to the catacombs have been preserved from the ancient Rus’ period in the Kiev-Pecherskaia Laura (monastery). The term catacombs is sometimes used for large, abandoned subterranean excavations—large quarries and so forth.

The catacombs of Odessa and Adzhimushkai, which were used during the partisan struggle, are famous.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
As to burial in underground galleries with recesses to receive the dead bodies, there are or were catacombs in Oria, Venosa, Sardinia, Malta, Noto Vecchio, and Syracuse in Sicily, and especially Rome.
In Paris or in Prague, Prose's characters construct their own emotional catacombs, then remember imperfectly how the walls were built in the first place, or how to break through them in the second.
The sudden death of Louis Reekmans on 29 June 1992 deprived scholarship relating to the Roman Catacombs of one of its masters.
In the first section the reader is introduced to the types of artifacts and images, both ancient and medieval, that were discovered at first by antiquarians and eventually by historians as evidence for the personae and events of the past: types of portraiture like coins, medals and sculpted busts; vehicles of historical narrative, including frescoes, mosaics and manuscript illuminations; and monuments like the Christian frescoes in the catacombs, whose very existence was in itself proof of the reality of that past.
The US Charge d'Affaires, Thomas Goldberger, and the Minister of Antiquities, Khaled El-Anany, and the Alexandria Governor, Abdul Aziz Qansua, announced the completion of a groundwater lowering system at the catacombs of Kom El-Shuqafa, Alexandria.
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