Mural paintings in the catacombs in Rome (2nd-6th centuries)

Catacombs are subterranean cemeteries outside the walls of Rome, in continuous use from the 2nd to the 6th centuries. The soft volcanic tufa of the region lends itself well to excavation, and when Roman burial practice shifted from cremation to inhumation in the 2nd century AD, the need for more space led to the extension of cemeteries underground. Approximately 35 catacombs are known, ranging in size from a single burial chamber (cubiculum) for the use of one family to vast multi-level networks of underground passages and cubicula. Although such cemeteries were used by the adherents of many faiths that practised inhumation, the majority can be identified as Christian, particularly in the years following the legitimization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I in 313.

The practice of suburban burial, required by ancient Roman law, continued into the early years of the 6th century. The precise circumstances of its discontinuance are unknown, but the phenomenon should probably be linked to the rapidly declining population and the anarchic political conditions prevalent during the Gothic Wars. After the middle of the century, burials appear within the walls in sparsely populated areas, as well as in such urban churches as Santa Maria Antiqua.

The catacombs were extensively decorated with frescoes, rather poor in quality, as well as sarcophagi and a multitude of small objects, such as seals, gold glasses, lamps, rings, most of which were stolen long ago, although many have survived in museums. In the earliest times the subject of frescoes and sculpture were very vague, and could easily be interpreted in a pagan sense, for example Cupid and Psyche (an allegory of the soul), Orpheus and the Animals, the Good Shepherd, Vines (which could stand for Bacchus or for Christ's saying (I am the true vine). They are followed by such allegorical subjects as Daniel in the Lions' Den, Jonah and the Whale. Later there are scenes from the Old and New Testaments and Eucharistic allegories (fish and loaves of bread), as well as pictures of Christ and the Apostles. Many of the scenes represented are very damaged, and their interpretation is therefore often controversiial, as is the dating.

Summary of Early Christian Art
Sculpture | Catacomb paintings | Various paintings
Mosaics | Coptic art