Sunday, December 21, 2014

Rome: the Capuchin Crypt, the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, and the Catacombs and Excavations of the Basilica of San Clemente

We decided to go to the Latin Mass at the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore this morning. The Mass switched back and forth between Latin and Italian, so we didn't know what was being said, so we just said the English-language version of the responses and prayers as appropriate. It was nevertheless impressive, with a dozen or more priests (most of them cardinals) concelebrating, sacristans assisting, and perhaps half a dozen ushers assisting the priests and parishioners. We also heard an all male a cappella choir perform during the service.  It was beautiful seeing the church all brightened by the sun.

From Rome & Vatican City (December 2014)

After Mass, we headed to Piazza Barbarini, where we met a tour guide who would take us around to some of the Crypts and Catacombs of Rome. Incidentally, Bernini's Triton Fountain is central to the piazza. (I had initially missed the Papal symbols: Looking below Triton, you can see the Papal tiara and the keys of heaven that were given Peter.)

From Rome & Vatican City (December 2014)

Photography on the tour was not permitted, but I bought a representative sample of postcards I'm going to have to scan and share once we get home.

Our first stop was the Capuchin Crypt and Museum. This was possibly one of the loveliest things I have ever seen, this Capuchin crypt. I could see why visitors might find it disturbing, but the impression I got was that the bones were well cared for, and were revered. The bones were laid out quite artistically. There are six total rooms in the crypt, five of which feature displays of human bones believed to have been taken from the bodies of friars who had died between 1528 and 1870. The Crypt of the Resurrection, the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons all have full skeletons in them as well as groupings that were arranged quite creatively and beautifully. I suspect that many visitors find the crypt macabre or difficult, but the impression I got was that the Capuchins buried there were done so gently and reverently.

Our next stop was the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. They originated about the middle of the second century and are part of a cemetery complex which occupies an area of 90 acres, with a network of galleries about 12 miles long, in four levels, more than twenty meters deep. The underground cemetery includes includes an area in which 16 Popes were buried; only nine have been found so far, although there is some idea as to where at least some of the others are. In the walls you can still see the original inscriptions, in Greek, of five of the popes. St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was buried nearby, although her body has been transferred to Trastevere in the 9th century.

Finally, we visited the catacombs and excavations of the Basilica of San Clemente, which turned out to be atop three other structures: a 12th century basilica, a fourth century basilica, and a first century pagan temple. An Irish priest had apparently suffered from persistent insomnia, in part because he was certain he heard water running; he eventually discovered three layers of previous structures below the Basilica, and discovered that the source of the running water was from a first century pagan temple that had an aqueduct running through it. He also discovered (or rediscovered) the tomb of Saint Cyril, the ninth century Greek missionary who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. (Apparently Cyril and his brother, St. Methodius, were quite the linguists.) The first vernacular Italian writing is also found in this particular church. We were able to go down each level of the structure, and our tour guide was wonderful in pointing out structural and architectural differences between the structures.

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