Among the Dead in Paris and Rome
Trip to shelter
It’s the 4th century AD Paris, France. You are on your way to the place that you are living. The wind is howling and there are a few eerie clouds drifting through. It is two miles from the town to your shelter. You had not planned on staying in town so late. There is a full moon so you should arrive safely. There is not a large population of people at this time in Paris. In the direction you are walking there are no neighbors. There are no street lights in 4th century Paris. No streets, just an uneven cow path which you don’t use regularly because you don’t want a worn path to where you are staying. The trees and grass are not groomed. The further you get from the town the harder it is to see. The wind is blowing hard against your body, off in the distance you see the lightning strike and hear the thunder roll. Soon you will be entering the forest, where the branches seem to be reaching down to grab you and the shadows loom over your path. The tall grass is dry and crackling. Your eyes are now starting to adjust to the pitch black night.
A Walk through the mines
Off in the distance close to where you are headed you see what looks like a shadow moving across the path you are on. But this is not the worst part of your journey. Once you arrive at the opening of the old mines you still have a way to go. Walking in the old mines is cold and dank. To your right you hear a crash! It is dead tree branch toppling down the other branches, bounding to the ground with a bounce. Is something moving around out here or it just the coming storm? You begin looking for the flicker of light that should be coming from the entrance of the mines. Continuing on you soon turn the corner into the mines and see a fine line of smoke drifting from the once lit torch. Grabbing the torch, you place your hand on the side of the bumpy wall of the mine. You slide your hand along it slides over a raised part. Ugh! I don’t want to run my hand there. That is just creepy. You take your hand off the wall and take two steps. You hold out your hand to place it on the wall again, your arm extends full length, you fall into the wall. Ugh! I forgot about the empty one. You right yourself and proceed on down the dusty path. You see the flicker of light in the distance. Someone is returning with a torch. You struggle on a little further and the other person with the torch reaches you. They light your torch and you are on your way to your vault.
The rest of the story...
The rest of this story is that You are a 4th century Christian living among the dead in the catacombs in resistance to religious persecution.
In the month of October our thoughts turn to cooler weather, fall colors, and things that go bump in the night. One of things considered scary is to visit a cemetery and their graves. The “World’s largest graves” are massive hypogeum’s called catacombs.
The dictionaries describe catacombs as “any series of vaults or galleries in an underground burial place.” Wikipedia defines them as” human-made subterranean passages for religious practice.” The Greek’s defined them as a “close to the hollow place” or “underground.”
There are two of these massive hypogeum’s in the world one in Rome, Italy the other in Paris, France. The catacombs of Rome began as burial places, but for a time used by Christian as a hiding place during their persecution. The catacombs in Paris, France began as mining caves and were later turned into burial places.
Catacombs of Rome, Italy
There are fourteen entrances into the Catacombs of Rome. The one visited on March 9, 1980 was the Catacomb of Priscilla which is known as the “The queen of the catacombs.” The catacombs of Rome belong to the Catholic Church and have been the burial place for many throughout the ages. History records that the catacombs were started in the 2nd century AD in response to a shortage of land. It is also a fact that the Christian and Catholic church split during this time over the date of Easter and the canonization of the Holy Bible. It is believed that the catacombs of Rome were used by the Christians to hold their church services and also as a place to live in safety. As you walk through these tombs you see a lot of small graves. Living underground the Christian’s children died from a lack of sunshine thus the large amount of small graves.
To enter the Catacomb of Priscilla you go to the convent of the Benedictine sisters of Priscilla. The tour group gathers in a courtyard like room with arched ceilings. The guide leads you down a staircase that is narrow and dusty. As you descend three sensations hit you is the smell. It is the smell of death the still resides in the air all these centuries later. It is a very distinct smell, one not easily forgotten. It is a musty, sharp smell that can be almost be suffocating. The feel is the temperature dropping as you descend underground. It drops to fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit or thirteen degrees Celsius. Next your vision is impaired as there is only one string of bare lightbulbs strung from the rock surface above you. The darkness starts to close in around you. The steps and paths are uneven, so most of your attention goes to where you are placing your feet. You begin straining to hear what the guide is saying. You then enter a vault or gallery. The guide waits for all the visitors to enter, then he points out an etching on the wall. He states that the catacombs are the place of the “first Christian art” and points out one the many fine frescos found in these tombs. You continue down the rough path passing walls full of empty graves. Then you come to a vault in which the Christians may have held services or had their meals. The vaults are small and would only hold perhaps ten people. The tour continues through more walls of graves and vaults holding frescoes, skeletons and other interesting artifacts.
Frescoes of Catacombs of Priscilla
One of the well-known frescos found in the Catacomb of Priscilla is of the good shepherd. This piece is of Christ with a sheep around his shoulders. The fresco has two additional sheep, two trees, and two birds. This fresco is complete although it is beginning to fade, which is to be expected of something of this age. Another piece found here is “The feast” it is seven women taking Eucharist. This fresco looks as if it has been rubbed many a time. Below the painting large chunks of calcium have fallen away. This catacomb also holds perhaps the oldest picture of the “Virgin Mother Mary.” Almost half of this fresco has fallen away over time and the remaining is faded, but it is fascinating to think that this picture was painted well over two thousand years ago.
Catacombs of Paris, France
Paris, the city, lies in the “Paris basin” which is a low lying continental shelf that is occasionally submerged by ocean water. The flooding prior to the 1600’s caused a build-up of gypsum in the hill or butte Montmartre. During that era a group called the “Commune of National Constituents Assembly” lived on Montmartre and made a living by making wine, stones for building, and mining gypsum. It is from these mines that the once used “Plaster of Paris” was mined.
In the second half of the 18th century these underground passageways were turned into burial places for the Catholic Church. In these catacombs you will find walls of skulls, which were used to reinforce the clasping mining shafts and other spooky artifacts.
Something to think on
As you enjoy the crisp air, array of colors and visit the haunted houses, twisted forest and corn mazes. Think on these massive catacombs where you could have live among the dead.