The ancient Romans traditionally cremated their dead. Christians, on the other hand, have traditionally buried their dead unburned as a sign of their belief in the coming resurrection of the body.
But in the 2nd century A.D., the burial of unburnt remains started to become fashionable for Romans. Burial within city limits was illegal, and since land for cemeteries outside the city could be expensive, people started digging elaborate tunnels in layers underground to save space. There are 60 known underground chambers in Rome, some of which go as deep as 62 ft (19 m).
These underground tombs, or catacombs, were most famously used by early Christians for burying their dead, particularly martyrs, and sometimes for celebrating the divine liturgy.
Here is an example of an underground passageway of the catacombs:
These narrow passageways sometimes open up to large rooms. This one is known as the “Crypt of the Popes,” as 16 popes were buried in it or nearby:
Amazingly, despite their importance in the life of the early Church, the early Christian catacombs were lost and forgotten for many centuries. Some of them were accidentally rediscovered in the 16th century, with more discovered in the mid-20th century.
Some of the greatest treasures of these early Christian burial sites have been the beautiful works of Christian art preserved in them.
Below are 15 examples. You can click on any image to see it full size. Enjoy!
Jesus healing the bleeding woman
Jesus with his 12 Apostles
The Good Shepherd
Another “Good Shepherd”
Celebration of the Eucharist
Moses striking the rock in the desert
Fish and loaves
A bearded Christ (rare in iconography for the time period)
A baptism by pouring
The three youths in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel
Noah praying in the ark
Jonah being thrown overboard
Woman and child
Adam and Eve
St. Paul as a philosopher
[See also: 6 of the Oldest Images of Our Lord Jesus Christ]