The Vatican, while notoriously secretive about things buried in its vaults and archives, is being as public as the digital age allows it to be about the nearly completed restoration of catacombs early Christians used as secret churches as well as burial sites.
Contractors, archaeologists and art experts spent the past five years restoring the Priscilla catacombs under the Vatican using lasers, among other techniques, to restore frescoes painted on the walls of the burial chambers.
The Vatican unveiled the work Nov. 19 with a press conference in the Basilica of San Silvestro outside the burial tunnels, along with a press release and virtual tour of the Priscilla catacombs provided by Google Maps. (The link is here, or is accessible by clicking “more info” on the Google Map window tag identifying the catacombs. Search Google Maps for Catacombe di Priscilla to get there.)
The basilica is divided into an area for religious services and another that acts as a deposit for sculptures and artifacts dug up during excavations of the catacombs and other areas underneath the Vatican.
Among the artifacts stored there, and now made part of a museum in the basilica, are more than 700 fragments of sarcophagi from the latter days of the Roman Empire and bits of funerary sculptural works from the same period.
The catacombs are a living and breathing symbol of the first Christians, of their daily lives,” according to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, quoted in the Vatican announcement before he led a contingent of guests on a tour of the catacombs.
Among the restored artifacts displayed are more than 700 pieces of sarcophagi dating from the latter years of the Roman Empire and the early days of the Christian church. The basilica is the burial site of 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. Christianity didn’t become the official religion of Rome until 380.
Image:Google Maps/Vatican Priscilla catacombs museum