Excavated in the tuff, a soft volcanic rock used for the construction of bricks and lime, the galleries extend for about 13 km. in length, in various levels of depth. The first floor, the oldest, winds through irregular paths of galleries, in the walls of which the “loculi” are obtained, the common tombs where the body was placed, wrapped in a sheet, directly on the ground, sprinkled with lime to prevent its rapid rot, and walled up with marble or tiles. On the tombs the inscriptions were in Greek or Latin, or there were small objects to allow the recognition of the anepigraph tombs. Only on this first floor, where the Martyrs were buried, do we find small rooms, the “cubicles”, tombs of wealthy families or martyrs, and the arcosoli, another noble type of tomb, often decorated with religious paintings. Mostly, biblical stories from the Old or New Testament are depicted, which express faith in the salvation and resurrection obtained for us by Jesus. Symbols are also frequent on tombstones, meaningful for Christians and incomprehensible to pagans. : the best known is the fish, which hides the five words “Jesus Christ Son of God the Savior” through the initials of the five Greek letters that make up the word “ICTUS”, fish.
THE CUBICULUM OF THE VEILED WOMAN
The room takes its name from the painting in the “back lunetta”, a young woman with a rich liturgical dress and a veil on her head, with her arms raised in an attitude of praying. On the sides of the praying woman are represented two unique scenes in cemetery painting, probably episodes from her life. At the center of the vault is the painting of the Good Shepherd in the paradise garden, between peacocks and doves, preceded, in the entrance arch, by the scene of the prophet Jonah coming out of the mouth of the sea monster, a clear expression of faith in the resurrection. In the left “lunetta” of the cubicle the sacrifice of Isaac is depicted and in the right one the three young people in the furnace of Babylon, both examples of total faith in the God who saves and for the first Christian prefiguration of the salvation brought by Jesus.
The paintings, well preserved, date back to the second half of the third century.
THE NICHE WITH THE MOST ANCIENT IMAGE OF THE VIRGIN
In the ceiling of a niche, deepened as a gallery most likely due to the presence of a venerated tomb, there is the stucco, unfortunately largely fallen, of the Good Shepherd among trees, also in stucco but ending in lively frond painting and red fruits. At the end of the ceiling two scenes: the left one completely fallen, on the right the figure of the Virgin Mary with the Child on her knees is preserved and next to it a prophet, who in the left holds a scroll and with the right points to a star. It should be Balaam’s prophecy: “a star rises from Jacob and a scepter rises from Israel” (Num. 24,15-17). The presence of the prophet indicates in the Child the Messiah expected for centuries.
The painting, due to the primitive Pompeian style, can date back to the end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 3rd century, so this is considered the oldest depiction of the Virgin.
THE GREEK CHAPEL
Environment found full of earth thrown from the open skylight in the ceiling, takes its name from two inscriptions in Greek painted in the right niche, first seen by the discoverers.
Richly decorated with Pompeian-style paintings and stuccoes, it has a particular shape with three niches for sarcophagi and a counter for funeral banquets, called “refrigeri” or “agapi” which took place near the tombs in honor of the dead. The painting, on a red background in the central arch, is really a banquet, which however has a clear reference to the Eucharistic banquet (occasionally celebrated by Christians at the venerated tombs). At the sides of the table where seven people are seated, the first of whom holds out her hands in the act of breaking the bread, seven baskets are depicted, alluding to the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, when Jesus promises the bread of eternal life.
There are numerous episodes from the Old Testament: Noah coming out of the ark and Moses making water flow from the rock, prefiguration of the saving water of baptism; the sacrifice of Isaac; the three stories of miraculous salvation from the book of Daniel (Daniel among the lions, the three Youths in the furnace, Susanna accused of adultery by the old Babylonian judges and saved by Daniel). The New Testament depicts the resurrection of Lazarus (Jesus has power over death); the healing of the paralytic (Jesus has power over sin); and the adoration of the Magi. This last scene is frequently represented in the cemeteries of Rome as a sign of the universality of salvation since the three kings are the first pagans who adore Christ.