Catacomba di Santa Tecla is a 4th century set of catacombs at Via Silvio D'Amico 42, in the Ostiense quarter and near the Marconi metro station.
The identity of the St Thecla commemorated here is a real problem.
The obvious candidate would be St Thecla the Apostolic, an alleged companion of St Paul in the so-called Acts of St Paul which is one of the New Testament Apocrypha written about AD 160 in Asia Minor and set there. She features in a surviving section called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and is also known as St Thecla of Seleucia (near Antioch in Syria) where she died.
The latter work, and the cult of the saint, has always been more popular among Eastern churches than in the Roman Catholic Church but St Thecla obtained an entry in the old Roman Martyrology for 23 September. She was also celebrated in the Tridentine Missal (the "Extraordinary Form"). However, the revision of the Roman Martyrology in 2001 included the rejection of spurious and fictional legends ( this was prescribed by the Second Vatican Council) and so deleted her.
The proximity of St Thecla's catacombs with San Paolo fuori le Mura and Tomba di San Timoteo encouraged the belief among pilgrims in the early Middle Ages that the apostolic Thecla was enshrined here. However no legend associates her or her relics with Rome, and scholars were already rejecting this belief centuries ago.
In the 19th century excavation of the nearby Catacomba di Commodilla, an epitaph tablet was found referring to the deceased dying on the dies natalis of Thecla. The technical term refers to the date of a martyrdom, and this is the only evidence that the Thecla in her catacombs was a local Roman martyr.
The question then arises as to why her veneration was not continued. This cannot be answered, although there are other known martyrs' tombs in the catacombs where the occupants went into oblivion instead of being listed in the martyrologies or mentioned in the pilgrimage itineraries. One issue would have been the confessional status of the martyr concerned -the Roman church did not venerate schismatics or heretics who were martyred, and the boundary conditions hardened over time.
The old Roman martyrology did list a local Thecla, one of a group of martyrs associated with the Catacomba di San Castulo on the ancient Via Labicana.
The actual set of catacombs named after St Thecla are actually quite small, but it is now clear that they were only part of a very large surface cemetery which included two other underground nuclei. One of these is the so-called Ipogeo di martire sconoscuto, the "tomb of the unknown martyr", referred to by the archaeologists also as Ipogeo A. The other one, Ipogeo B, is called the Ipogeo con le pitture di S. Tecla di Seleucia. Both of these were not actually underground chamber-tombs as implied by the term ipogeo, but small catacombs with loculi.
This sub divo cemetery in turn was part of a huge and ramifying complex of burial zones around the junction of the ancient roads of the Via Ostiensis and the Via Laurentina. St Paul was buried close to the junction, hence his basilica was built there (the junction was relocated to the south in the process).
The sub divo cemetery arose from quarrying work for pozzolana in the late 1st century AD, which left derelict land available for funerary use. Extensive occupation of the area by sepulchral structures then took place up to the late 3rd century, involving both surface tombs (mausolea and pit-graves called formae) and hypogea (single underground tomb chambers). At this stage, the occupants were mostly pagan.
Towards the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th, three small catacombs were established, involving the classic passages with cubicula (chambers) and loculi (grave-slots in the passage walls). These were apparently purely Christian. Further, two martyrs were enshrined in two of these catacombs during the persecution of the emperor Diocletian. One of these was our putative Thecla, although no epigraphic evidence has been found to confirm her presence here.
Certain of the pagan mausolea were appropriated to create lucinaria or light-shafts for the catacombs.
In the 4th century, both martyr's tombs were enlarged into shrine-crypts, and attention paid to easing the access of pilgrims. Presumably also in the same century a basilica was built over Thecla's catacomb, although the remains of this were never found and nothing is known about it apart from its listing in the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries.
At Thecla's, before the remodellers came along the complex had a single passage with arcosolia and cubicula, with the martyr being buried in a cubiculum near the narrow entrance staircase. The remodelling involved the preservation of the north wall of the passage, but the destruction of the south one as the rock was cut back to form a basilichetta or little underground "basilica" with three naves separated by double-arched arcades. However, there is no evidence that this space was used as a place where Mass was celebrated. The staircase was widened, and led straight into the shrine-crypt. Two other passageways were then added to the first one to give a triangular layout. These gave access to many chambers which were not the usual cubicula, but high-density burial chambers.
These catacombs share with the Catacomba di Commodilla nearby a very odd and striking arrangement of packing as many tombs as possible into the space available. This is substantially different from other known catacombs, and indicate that the two catacombs here were under the same rather quirky management. Also in common with the other catacombs is a low standard of burial, indicating that the customers were of limited means.
Burials continued into the 5th century.
Pilgrimage destination Edit
The 7th century Salzburg Itinerary has this:
Vadis ad s. Paulum via Ostiensi, et in australi parte cerne ecclesiam s. Teclae supra montem positam, in qua corpus eius quiescit in spelunca in aquilone parte.
("You go to St Paul on the Via Ostiense, and to the south you find the church of St Thecla located on a hill, in which her body rests in a cave in the northern area".)
This makes it clear that St Thecla had a church in the open air, as well as her underground shrine.
The itineraries do not mention the other martyr here at all.
The Church of Rome was abandoning most of its suburban catacomb shrines in the 9th century and bringing the relics of its martyrs into the city, but interestingly this did not seem to have happened here. Rather, the local St Thecla fell into complete oblivion and the Church contented itself with venerating St Thecla the Apostolic of Asia Minor.
This oddity is highlighted by the fact that St Thecla's companion martyr lost even his identity in the process of abandonment, despite having been venerated in the 4th century. There is a hint of damnatio memoriae here, perhaps -the Church might have concluded that the two were unacceptable for veneration, owing to schism or heresy on their part while they were alive.
The catacombs were rediscovered in 1703 by Giovanni Marangoni, and explored by Marcantonio Boldetti in 1720. He drew a plan, and gave the complex the name of Cimitero al ponticello di san Paolo (this is still to be found in the literature).
Mariano Armellini published a description in 1898 (posthumously), and identified the complex with the catacombs of St Thecla mentioned in the sources. He noted that the entrance was in a vineyard, and that the shrine-chapel was being used as a tinnello or a refreshment room of some kind. He probably meant a wine-cellar. The location was in the Vigna Serafini, and this vineyard also contained the entrance to the Catacomba di Commodilla at the time.
Three sets of catacombs Edit
In 1961, a development of the site allowed for archaeological investigations of the surface tombs, supervised by Umberto Maria Fasolo. It was then that a separate little catacomb complex containing a second martyr's shrine was found, which he wrote up in 1966:
Il Complesso Catacombale di S. Tecla: L'Ipogee con la Tomba di Un Martire Sconosciuto (Riv. Arch. Crist., 1966 pp 19-50).
Foundation excavations for substantial new buildings had seriously damaged this set of catacombs before their archaeological survey, and the survey photos show them open to the sunlight. Despite their size (hence the tag ipogeo), they contained the standard catacomb layout of galleries with loculi which were very closely cut in the walls. After the survey, it seems that these remains were sealed off in the foundations.
In the same campaign, another small set of catacombs was found near the Via Cristoforo Colombo. This is the so-called Ipogeo con le pitture di S. Tecla di Seleucia, because two frescoes were found which could be interpreted as being based on the Acts of Paul and Thecla. (This is disputed.) The frescoes were detached and transferred to the catacombs of St Thecla before this locality was also sealed off.
Archaeologists used to think that these catacombs were boring and that the surviving fresco decoration was of poor quality. However, they were surprisingly mistaken. What had happened over the centuries was that the walls had sweated calcium salts, which had converted to a layer of calcium carbonate (as with stalactites in a cave). Hence, much of the walling here was covered in a white mineral layer which concealed frescoes and in places was a couple of centimetres thick.
This sort of thing was familiar in other catacombs, and the layer used to be removed by hand. This was risky for the frescoes, so a thin layer used to be left over the actual paintwork to avoid damage. However, a recent innovation has been to use lasers to burn off the mineral instead, which allows for full cleaning.
In 2008, conservation work on the frescoes in these catacombs was begun. It was discovered that one of the cubicula contained the earliest known portraits of the apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and John. They date from the 4th century.
The area has been completely developed, but the ambience of the Thecla catacombs has been sympathetically treated (unusual in the early Sixties). However, the other two little catacombs in the complex seem to have been sealed off.
The Thecla catacombs are behind a glazed and barred door in a modern office block, easy to walk past. You can (just about) see the entrance if you peer through the glazing.
The modern entrance stairway, down to the ancient ground level with its surface tombs, has a concrete beam lintel over it which, charmingly, has the following inscribed on it:
Area archeologica catacomba e basilica sotterranea di S. Tecla. "Quiescit in spelunca in aquilone parte" (Not. Eccl.).
The reference is from the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries.
At the bottom of these stairs is a below-ground modern space containing well-preserved mosaic floors from the pagan mausolea that used to occupy the ground here before the 4th century.
The actual entrance stairway to the catacombs, which is original, leads straight into the shrine-crypt. From the right hand end of this run two passages, at an acute angle to each other. The far right hand one is the original hypogeum passage, dating from before the creation of the shrine-crypt. The near right hand one is contemporary with the latter. This near passage runs on beyond a junction with a cross-passage, and this runs to the left to make a T-junction with the far passage. It then itself runs on to end in the now famous "Cubicle of the Apostles".
The shrine-crypt has a vaguely rectangular plan, aligned perpendicular to the axis of the stairs. This space is divided into three "naves" or zones by two double-arch arcades supported by a pier and a pair of engaged pilasters. These arcades are parallel to the stairs and not to the long sides of the rectangle, and so do not match the classic basilical church plan. The stairs enter the left hand zone of the three thus created.
The dimensions are about 14.6 by 6.4 metres, with a height of 4.2 metres.
The actual shrine of the martyr is at the end to the left, and occupies a large arcosolium which was closely packed around with tomb-slots for those who wanted to be buried close to her. The shrine was lit by a large light-shaft.
The walls were rendered in white, and painted with geometrical patterns it seems. However little of the decoration has survived the use of the crypt as a wine-cellar, except for a low area showing rosettes. This section of walling is near the entrance.
The far wall was the original wall of the passage off which the cubiculum of the martyr opened before the excavation. You can still see the springing of the barrel vault of the passage here.
Two fragments of fresco are kept here, which were brought from one of the other two little catacombs in the complex -this one was the Ipogeo con le pitture di S. Tecla di Seleucia on the Via Cristoforo Colombo. One depicts a veiled woman being hurried along by a man, and is probably the depiction of a martyrdom. The other depicts two people viewing a star, with one pointing at it.
Armellini, writing at the end of the 19th century, was rather dismissive about the fresco work that he saw (unfairly -see below). He noted the following Biblical scenes: Moses Striking the Rock for Water, Daniel Praying in the Den of Lions (he is depicted in the nude), Jonah Thrown Overboard (other scenes from his story also occur), The Sacrifice of Abraham.
High density Edit
Oddly, this little catacomb was not extended with new passages but was very intensively occupied. Perhaps the proprietors only owned a small area of land under which they could tunnel, but one wonders why a second, lower level was not added.
The passages were deepened to accommodate new loculi, and are five metres high in places.
As well as the usual loculi and cubicula, the little set of passages accesses a series of tomb-chambers or pozzi (wells), so-called because their floors were excavated well below their entrances. The walls of these chambers were filled with loculi, systematically and carefully dug to maximise the wall-space available.
These high-density arrangements are similar to those at the nearby Catacomba di Commodilla, which might have been under the same management when open for burials. However what is really odd here is, that once these tomb-chambers had their loculi occupied, they were completely filled with a multi-layer packing of tombs separated by brick partitions and horizontal slabs of stone. When the entire void was packed, the doorway was walled up.
The archaeologists found no grave goods or epitaphs, so these were not rich people. They did find that some layers of tombs were separated by strata of lime, indicating that the smell was a problem. After the recent discoveries at Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros, it is a fair surmise that these people were victims of epidemics.
Another oddity noted was that the bricks used were new, not re-used as is usual for rough work in catacombs. Also, most had the same factory stamp with a date in the mid 3rd century. This hints that the proprietors managed to source a supply of surplus bricks (perhaps corruptly, if they were originally made for imperial government projects).
Cubicolo dei Apostoli Edit
The transverse corridor ends in a set of cubicula, including one to the right which has had its fresco work restored and freed from incrustations. The results have been spectacular. This cubiculum is small, on a square plan with an arcosolium in the three available sides. The restoration revealed that the entire space had been painted in bright colours, with red predominating. The ceiling vault featured a large central tondo depicting The Good Shepherd, and in the diagonals were four smaller tondi depicting the apostles Paul, Peter, John and Andrew.
Paul was the first to be revealed, and it is striking that his traditional iconographic depiction has not changed over the centuries since the fresco work was executed in the 4th century. He is shown as a thin-faced man with a dark pointed beard. In contrast, St Andrew is shown as a youngish man which is not his tradition depiction in the Byzantine iconographic canon.