By Chris Petitt
The Catacomb of Commodilla, currently undergoing restoration, will open to the public for the first time ever by the inauguration of the Jubilee of 2025, according to the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology.
Constructed in the fourth century, the catacomb is located near the ancient Via Ostiensis and not far from the legendary site of St. Paul’s martyrdom and the basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura. The modern address is Via delle Sette Chiese 42 in the Garbatella neighborhood of Rome.
The location of the catacomb was discovered in the eighteenth century, and modern analysis of this catacomb began around the year 1900. Like other catacombs, Commodilla is notable for frescoes that are exemplars of early Christian art. Among the subjects are one of the earliest images of a bearded Christ, Peter’s denial of Christ, Moses striking the Rock, and the traditio clavium, which depicts the martyrs together with Peter, Paul and Stephen protomartyr.
There is another fresco of the martyrs alongside the Madonna and Child that also includes the presumed benefactrix Turtura. This fresco is unique because of the inscription composed together with the image, and the famous graffito of Commodilla, which is etched on the left-hand side of the dark border that frames the image. Scholars have identified it as a specimen that shows the transition from Latin to Italian. Dated to the late ninth or tenth century, it reads, Non dicere ille secrita a bboce, “Do not speak the secrets aloud.” Other pilgrim graffiti from different periods can also be seen.
The Commission’s statement didn’t announce the precise date of the opening, nor did it clarify whether the site would be open to the public on a regular or a limited basis. Currently, five catacombs are open daily. Others are open to the public on occasion, while the remainder, including Commodilla, are accessible by special permit, which is possible to attain in theory but isn’t a simple thing to arrange. Not all applications are approved. Consult the Commission’s website to learn how that might be done.
The catacombs of San Callisto, San Sebastiano and Santa Domitilla, located close to each on the southern side of the city near the ancient Via Appia, are the most touristed of these. Busses fill these sites with thick crowds of visitors. Less than two miles from this cluster, Commodilla can be reached on foot or otherwise along the Via delle Sette Chiese.
On the north side of Rome the catacombs of Santa Priscilla and Sant’Agnese sit on parallel ancient roads a pleasant walk from each other, Priscilla on the Via Salaria and further east Sant’Agnese fuori le mura on the Via Nomentana. Above ground at Sant’Agnese are also the ruins of the large basilica built by Constantine the Great, the Mausoleum of Costanza, his daughter, and the exquisite seventh-century church of Sant’Agnese, one of the most beautiful in Rome. Crowds here are sparse and less harried. They can be reached by bus or subway, or, for the mildly adventurous visitor, by foot.
Catacombs and the cult of martyrs
Beginning in the second century AD, inhumation supplanted cremation as the primary method by which Romans of all religious persuasions disposed of the dead. The long-established practice of placing human remains outside of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome, continued. Roman custom allotted space for tombs and open-air cemeteries along roads that radiated in all directions from the city and the development of catacombs became part of this practice.
Commodilla is one of between 35 and 60 catacomb sites (depending on how you define them) in the environs of Rome. Some are Christian, others Jewish or pagan, though many host the bodies of more than religious background, even within the same family tomb. The best known of these were developed between the second and fifth centuries. The establishment of these sites became less common after this period, but the twelfth-century catacomb created for the suburban church of Annunziatella on the Via Ardeatina indicates the practice continued throughout the Middle Ages.
In addition to the frescoes, which were produced at different times within the early Middle Ages, a variety of written evidence demonstrates that the catacomb of Commodilla was a much-frequented site within the spiritual landscape of Rome.
In Late Antiquity, after the peace of Christianity instituted by the emperor Constantine, the Roman Church promoted the cult of martyrs and their presumed presence in the catacombs. Christian writers presented the catacombs as alternative sites to the traditional places of prestige and authority in Rome.
The earliest written evidence for the catacombs is the verse inscription composed by Pope Damasus (d. 384), a fragment of which was found on site:
“O once and again, in truth Felix [happy] by name you with undefiled faith, spurning the prince of the world, a confessor asked Christ for heavenly rule. O truly precious faith of the brother -know this- by which Adauctus the victor went fourth to heaven. The actual priest-in-charge for these by the order of Damasus the ruler, put in order the tomb of the saints and decorated its limits.”
St. Jerome, in a letter written to a spiritual protégée in the years between the closing of the pagan temples in 395 and the Visigothic sack of 410, propounds the theme of ascendant Christian culture:
“The gilded Capitol today looks dingy, all the temples in Rome are covered with soot and filled with cobwebs, the city is shaken to its foundations, and the people hurry past the ruined shrines and pour out to visit the martyrs’ graves.”
Damasus installed similar compositions at the tombs of famous martyrs in other catacombs that encircled the city.
The contents inscriptions often, though not always, were fleshed out by the later gesta martyrum, fictional martyrs’ tales composed between the fifth and seventh centuries to promote the cult of martyrs and pilgrimage sites. The passio of Felix and Adauctus is brief, even by the character of the genre. In it, the priest Felix is condemned after refusing to venerate pagan idols. The bystander Adauctus confesses his own faith as he sees Felix conveyed to the execution site on the Via Ostiensis, and they are killed then entombed together.
The earliest reference to the name Commodilla occurs in the fifth-century Martyrologium Hieronymianum: “Rome, on the via Ostiense [in the cemetery] of Commodilla, August 30”. On the pilgrimage route, however, two itineraries, dated to the seventh century but probably derived from earlier sources, identify the catacomb by the famous martyrs there: And so you go westward [from the catacomb of Domitilla on Via Ardeatina] and find Felix, bishop and martyr, and descend the staircase to his body …. De locis santis martyrum names Felix and his companion: And not far from there [the churches of Tecla and San Paolo fuori le mura] is the church of blessed Felix, where he lies in peace, and with him in the same place, Adauctus, along with many others.
The suburban pilgrimage circuit became less busy (but continued as various graffiti indicates) after the ninth century. Relics, the primary attraction for catacomb visits, were translated to urban churches in ever-greater volume due to insecurity in the hinterland caused by various invaders, Lombards and Saracens among others. This includes the grave robbers and black market traders whose work cut into the protected relic traffic of the Roman church. Many popes provided relics to their Carolingian partners in power, which partly accounts for the dispersion of Roman relics in Francia. Pope Leo IV, most famous for the construction of the Leonine Walls around St. Peter’s basilica, gave relics of Felix and Adauctus to the empress Irmengard, wife of Lothar, who deposited them at an Alsatian nunnery. The relics of St. Emerita, another of the dead of Commodilla, are now beneath the altar of San Marcello on the Corso in Rome. Her feast is celebrated September 22.
Chris Petitt (M.Phil.—Medieval History) is preparing an anthology of eyewitness writing about Rome from antiquity to the present day. Contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter, @realchrispetitt.
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