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The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, eight miles of tunnels off the Via Salaria, reopened to the public this week after years of restoration. Catacombs were used for Christian burial in Rome from the late 2nd century to the 4th century. These series of burial chambers, carved out of tufo (volcanic rock), were found outside the city walls as Roman law prohibited burial within the city limits.
There are some 40 catacombs in Rome but only a handful are open to the public. They are still considered consecrated ground by the Vatican (and thus photography is usually not allowed). Upon excavation, the catacombs revealed important early Christian art.
What makes this restoration and re-opening unique is that soon virtual visitors can to experience the restored frescoes and sculptures at Priscilla via an online Google Maps tour. The collaboration between Google and the Vatican at a press conference at the Basilica of San Silvestro, just outside the burial tunnels. Pope Sylvester, who held office from the year 314 – a year after the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, to 335, two years before Constantine’s deathbed baptism, is buried here. Christianity didn’t become the official religion of Rome until 380.
Images of women in the frescoes found in the Catacombs of Priscilla have prompted debate on whether there were female priests in early Christianity. According to Reuters, “One, in a room called the ‘Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman,’ shows a woman whose arms are outstretched like those of a priest saying Mass. She wears what the catacombs’ Italian website calls “a rich liturgical garment”. The word ‘liturgical’ does not appear in the English version. She also wears what appears to be a stole, a vestment worn by priests. Another fresco, in a room known as “The Greek Chapel,” shows a group of women sitting around a table, their arms outstretched like those of priests celebrating Mass.” The Vatican calls the assertions “fairy tales.”
The Catacombs of Priscilla are now open to the public every day except Monday; guided visits are available. Or of course, take the virtual tour.
If you would like to visit another one of Rome’s catacombs, join Italyacations.com’s Crypts & Catacombs Tour.
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