Underground Pagan Basilica with Dark History Revealed to the Public for the First Time

Underground Pagan Basilica with Dark History Revealed to the Public for the First Time

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A pagan basilica of first century AD Rome dedicated to Pythagoras’ and Plato’s metaphysics but depicting many types of Greek and Roman mythical beings has opened to the public. The family that founded the temple built it underground and was later accused of black magic. The patriarch, a rich, powerful consul and proconsul, committed suicide rather than await the Roman Senate’s verdict.

The basilica, which features many types of scenes carved into the volcanic tufa-rock walls, is the only one of its kind in the world. The rich, influential Statilius family built the basilica as a place to practice the cult of Neopythagoreanism, a mystical, ascetic Greek philosophical sect established in the first century BC that was based on the writings of Plato and Pythagoras, says the Telegraph in an article about the temple.

The underground Porta Maggiore basilica is 12 meters (40 feet) long was discovered during construction of a railway line. Expert restorers are removing mold and deposits of calcium with tools, lasers and chemicals to renovate the basilica’s interior. They are removing thick layers of calcium deposits with hand tools and scalpels first and then with drills such as the type dentists use. They have erected scaffolding to allow access to the arched ceiling, which has stucco reliefs on its surface. Some are well preserved while some have decayed, the Telegraph says.

The basilica has an apse and three naves lined by six stone pillars. All are decorated with images of satyrs, griffins and centaurs. There are also fine depictions of the heroes Hercules, Orpheus, Achilles and Paris, the Telegraph says.

While Titus Statilius Taurus IV was accused of having magical superstitions, a serious charge, historians say the imperial family had their eye on his family’s riches.

Ancient Roman historian Tacitus wrote in the Annals:

Statilius Taurus, whose wealth was famous, and whose gardens aroused [Agrippina's] cupidity, she ruined with an accusation brought by Tarquitius Priscus. He had been the legate of Taurus when he was governing Africa with proconsular powers, and now on their return charged him with a few acts of malversation, but more seriously with addiction to magical superstitions. Without tolerating longer a lying accuser and an unworthy humiliation, Taurus took his own life before the verdict of the senate.

Screenshot from an video of the Porta Maggiore basilica showing a griffin with a hunter

Agrippina was the wife of the strange and dangerous Emperor Claudius. Even though Statilius Taurus was a consul or chief magistrate of Rome in 41 AD and then proconsul of Africa from 51 to 53 BC, his money and power were not enough to save him. His grand-niece Statilia Messalina, though, became third wife of the future Emperor Nero, says The History Blog , which has a good analysis of the basilica and the history of the family. The blog describes the decorations:

The Porta Maggiore basilica is not a temple and it’s not Christian, but it’s definitely a religious building. The decoration attests to that, as does the fact that it was built underground in the first place. Above a wainscoting-like band of red paint of which there are sections extant, the walls and vaults are covered with exquisite white stucco reliefs of mythological scenes like Sappho’s legendary suicide by throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff into the ocean, Zeus’ eagle abducting Ganymede, Medea offering a magical narcotic beverage to knock out the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, Orpheus leading Eurydice back from the underworld, Hercules rescuing Hesione from the sea monster, Paris and Helen, Hippolytus and Phaedra, the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, and one of the Dioscuri kidnapping one of the Leucippides for his bride.

The blog says the walls also display children at play, a wedding, animals, plants and supernatural beings such as Medusas, Nereids and bacchantes. The walls have a scene of a pygmy returning to his hut after a hunt, a still life of a table with food and drink, stylized landscapes, worshipers at altars and many types of floral and geometric flourishes. The blog states the reliefs’ quality is “exceptionally high” and dates to the first century AD.

Featured image: The interior of the underground basilica, which opened in April 2015 ( Photo by )

By: Mark Miller

    Rome's Basilica di San Clemente

    Rome is a city built upon layers and layers of history, and in few places is that more evident than at the Basilica di San Clemente, located near the Colosseum. A somber-looking church and residence for priests studying in Rome, San Clemente is surrounded by a tall, nondescript wall and bears a small, simple sign at the entrance. In fact, it would be easy to walk right past and in doing so, miss one of the most important underground archaeological sites in Rome.

    Step inside San Clemente's humble doors and you'll be dazzled by an ornate 12th-century Catholic church, with a gold mosaicked apse, gilded and frescoed ceilings, and inlaid marble floors. Then descend downstairs, to a 4th-century church containing some of the earliest Christian wall paintings in Rome. Beneath that are the remains of a 3rd-century pagan temple. There are also remains of a 1st-century residence, a secret Christian worship site, and the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer system of ancient Rome. To understand the complex architectural and archaeological history of Rome, a visit to San Clemente is a must.

    Roman Forum

    The Roman Forum or Forum Romanum of ancient Rome was the bustling religious, administrative, legal, and commercial heart of the city from the 7th century BCE onwards. Made increasingly grandiose and ceremonial in function by the Imperial Period, the Forum became a monumental symbol in stone and marble of Roman power and vanity with temples of deified emperors, dedicatory columns and massive triumphal arches celebrating military victories from far corners of the Empire. Although wrecked by earthquake, weathering, pollution, and centuries of architects robbing it of its stones and columns, the Forum Romanum, nevertheless, remains one of the most impressive sites surviving from antiquity and a unique window into the once great glorious world that was Rome.


    The Forum Romanum is located between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills of Rome. According to Roman legend, it was the site of a battle between Romans and Sabines in the second half of the 8th century BCE. Excavations at the Forum Romanum have revealed the presence of Iron Age cemeteries which were in use from the 11th century BCE until the 9th century BCE. The area was filled in with a significant quantity of earth and rubble fill in order to raise it above the level of the River Tiber's annual flood. The location was then paved, from the late 8th or early 7th century BCE. With early ritual spaces and temples such as the Regia and Temple of Vesta, the Forum became the public focal point of the city, the location of its most important religious, political, commercial, and legal activities. Gradually over the centuries, shops were pushed to the extremities or elsewhere, and the architecture became more imposing and ceremonial in function.


    The first basilicas, used for public gatherings and especially law courts, appeared in the Forum from 184 BCE. Also in the 2nd century BCE, collonaded shops were added on three sides of the Forum. The principal thoroughfare was the via Sacra, a paved road which led from the Forum to the Palatine Hill. In 121 BCE the first triumphal arch was added, that of Fabius Maximus, proconsul in Transalpine Gaul. The 1st century BCE saw a great deal of construction activity, and the form of the Forum we see today largely dates from that era. Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE) built a larger Curia building, home of the extended Roman Senate, and paved the Forum with white travertine.

    Various new buildings appeared during the reigns of Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) and Augustus (r. 27 BCE - 14 CE). The latter, in particular, made extensive renovations to many existing structures and commemorated the place of Caesar's funeral pyre with a column, replaced in 29 BCE with the temple of Divus Iulius following Caesar's deification. Augustus' reign also saw the Forum repaved using marble and the cleaning out of the sewers beneath it. In 10 CE the Temple of Concordia Augusta, which was sometimes used for Senate meetings, was rebuilt, and the sum of this work was to create a shining new monumental Forum enclosed in marble colonnades which, with regular additions of temples, columns, statues and arches, advertised the power, wealth, and military successes of the Roman emperors.


    Throughout the Imperial Period various temples were set up to commemorate deified emperors, including Augustus, Vespasian (r. 69-79 CE), and Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161 CE) and his wife, the empress Annia Galeria Faustina. Domitian (r. 81-96 CE) added a statue of himself riding a horse in 91 CE. Triumphal arches to commemorate military victories were added, notably the Arch of Titus in c. 81 CE and that of Septimius Severus in 203 CE.

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    The Forum was devastated by fire in 283 CE which necessitated much rebuilding and restoration work, including a new Curia and a new monumental colonnade. The Forum eventually fell into decline, even if it was occasionally used for ceremonial purposes, following the move of the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330 CE. In the mid-6th century CE, the church of Santa Maria Antiqua was built in the Forum on the slopes of the Palatine Hill but was then buried in a landslide in 847 CE. One of the last additions, when the Forum had become no more than a marketplace, was the 13-metre high column of Phocas, the emperor of Byzantium and former centurion, in 608 CE.

    Many of the buildings were cannibalised for their stonework or burned for lime, especially in the 15th and 16th century CE. This seriously weakened those left standing and made them susceptible to collapse from earthquakes. The Arch of Titus was incorporated into fortifications built by the Frangipani family in medieval times and suffered as a consequence. The Arch of Septimius Severus was similarly made into a fortress with towers added to it and once there were shops inside its archways. Weathering and pollution have since significantly damaged many of the Forum's buildings and especially their decorative sculpture.




    First built sometime in the 7th century BCE and modified several times over the centuries, the original Regia was probably a trapezoidal building with a wing and attached courtyard. The name ('Royal Palace') suggests a use as a throne room for Rome's early kings but archaeological evidence of altars and sacrifices point to a religious function during the 6th century BCE. In imperial times it was used as offices and a place of meeting by some of Rome's most important religious officials such as the Vestal Virgins and Pontifex Maximus. Included in its precinct were two sacred bay trees and a shrine with the shields and spears of Mars, which generals were meant to rattle before they embarked on campaigns. The building was remodelled in 210 BCE, 148 BCE and 36 BCE but survived the fires of the 1st century CE. Today only the ground plan is discernible.


    The Comitium began in the late 7th century BCE as a simple triangular paved space for religious ceremonies but eventually acquired a stepped platform and ship's prows were affixed to the speaker's podium (rostra). From the 4th century BCE, the general shape of the Comitium took on the circular form familiar from Greek ekklesiasteria (public assembly forums). After being repaved at least seven times over time, the Comitium ceased to exist as a specific monument in the 1st century BCE when Julius Caesar eradicated it. There still remains today at the site a mysterious black stone, the Lapis Niger, which carries an inscription of what seems to be a set of regulations for a ritual. The late Republican Romans believed the stone marked the grave of Romulus, the legendary founder of the city.

    Temple of Vesta

    The circular Temple of Vesta, dedicated to the Roman goddess of the hearth, was first built in the 7th century BCE. By the late Republic the temple had been transformed into the form of a primitive house with columns around its perimeter, inside of which was a hearth and other sacred objects but no statue of the goddess. Legend has it the Palladium, a small wooden statue of Minerva, which was taken from Troy by Aeneas in Roman mythology, was kept here in an underground chamber. Today only the base and a short elevation of reconstructed travertine blocks survive.


    House of the Vestal Virgins

    The House of the Vestal Virgins or Atrium Vestae, located just behind the Temple of Vesta, was a project begun by Domitian and completed by Trajan c. 113 CE. The structure, with its distinctive three sides of two-tiered colonnades in green and red marble, was built upon the site of an earlier temple dating to the 2nd or 1st century BCE. The building was restored c. 150 CE and the enclosed gardens once had many statues, including figures of Head Vestals such as Flavia Publicia (247-257 CE).

    Temple of Saturn

    This temple was dedicated to Saturn, a somewhat mysterious god in the Roman pantheon who was perhaps a version of the Greek Kronos (Cronus). Saturn was especially worshipped in the Saturnalia festival held every 17th of December (from at least the 5th century BCE), a festive occasion when people gave gifts to one another, slaves had the freedoms enjoyed by ordinary citizens, and there was a general round of partying and merrymaking.

    The surviving version of the Temple of Saturn dates to sometime between 360 and 380 CE. The temple was built on the site of the original building dedicated c. 497 BCE by the dictator Titus Tatius, which itself had replaced the god's first shrine, the Ara Saturni. During the Republic, the temple also housed the public treasury (aerarium), a function it kept, albeit in a more limited capacity, in the Imperial Period.


    The temple stands on a pediment of travertine blocks while the eight remaining columns are of the Ionic order. The shafts of the columns are made from Egyptian granite, the two on the side from pink Aswan, and the six facade ones from grey Mons Claudianus. The Ionic capitals are, in fact, the only parts made specifically for the temple. Within the temple once stood a cult statue of Saturn.

    Temple of Castor & Pollux

    The Temple of Castor and Pollux (aka Dioscuri) was erected in the final decade of the 1st century BCE, replacing the earlier temple to the twin sons of Jupiter which had stood on the site since 484 BCE. Every 15th of July the temple was the focus of a cavalry parade - the transvectio - of 5,000 men led by two impersonators of the demigods who were thought to have guided the Romans to victory over the Latins at the Battle of Lake Regillus (499 or 496 BCE). The twins were seen afterwards watering their horses at the Juturna spring which was the very spot where their temple was built.

    Today only the large podium survives of the original temple and the inner concrete core of the podium and three columns of the 1st century BCE version, built by Augustus in 14 or 9 BCE after a devastating fire. Augustus also made the cult an official imperial one and initiated a new feast day for the pair on the 27th of January. The once massive structure measured 32 x 50 m and reached a height of almost 19 m. The facades had eight Corinthian columns whilst the sides each had eleven. The original front entrance was composed of twin staircases with a speaker's platform, changed in the 3rd century CE to a single staircase. The interior of the temple was quite complex and consisted of some 25 small chambers. The temple served as the office of weights and measures with an additional function as a bank.

    Temple of Divus Antoninus Pius & Faustina

    The temple dedicated to Emperor Antoninus Pius and Empress Faustina was built c. 140 CE. Six Corinthian columns of the facade still stand, along with two at each side, behind which lurks the 17th-century CE version of the church of Saint Lorenzo (first installed in the 6th or 7th century CE) in an incongruous mix of religions and architectural styles. First dedicated by Antoninus to his deified wife, 20 years later it would also be dedicated to the deified emperor. Inside were once colossal statues of the divine pair, fragments of which have been excavated from the temple grounds.

    Portico Dei Consentes

    The Portico Dei Consenetes was a trapezoidal platform built on seven vaulted chambers and topped with a portico of 12 Corinthian columns in green marble. Dating to the reign of Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE), the structure was decorated with statues of the Harmonious Gods (a Roman version of the 12 Greek Olympian gods). The structure was repaired in 367 CE by the city prefect, one Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who was a rare pagan in the new Christian world of Rome.


    Arch of Titus

    The Arch of Titus was erected by Domitian in c. 81 CE to commemorate the victories of his father Vespasian and brother Titus in the Jewish War in Judaea (70-71 CE) when the great city of Jerusalem was sacked and the vast riches of its temple plundered. The arch is also a political and religious statement expressing the divinity of the late emperor Titus.

    Constructed using Pentelic and Luna marble, the arch's decorative relief panels show the triumph procession carrying booty from the Temple of Jerusalem and Titus riding a four-horse chariot (quadriga) and being crowned by a personification of Victory. The goddess Roma stands in front, holding the bridle of one of the horses. Originally, a huge bronze quadriga would have stood on top of the arch.

    Arch of Septimius Severus

    The Arch of Septimius Severus, erected in 203 CE, commemorates the Roman victories over the Parthians in the final decade of the 2nd century CE. The larger central archway was used for traffic, whilst the two outer arches were closed off by steps. The foundations are of travertine and the main structure of Proconnesian marble, a feature of which is its grey and white bands. The arch was richly decorated with sculpture which depicted scenes from the military campaigns in Parthia, the triumph procession, the seasons, various deities, and victories. On top of the structure, as indicated in coins of the period, there would once have been a six-horse chariot in gilded bronze on which rode a statue of Septimius Severus. The emperor was also originally flanked by his two sons on horseback, possibly rendered in silver.



    The Curia was the most commonly used building for meetings of the Roman Senate. The first building was the Curia Hostilia, used in the Early Kingdom, then the Curia Cornelia, built by Sulla, and finally, the Curia Julia, built by Caesar, finished by Augustus and used thereafter. The sessions were open to the public with a literal open-door policy that allowed ordinary people to sit outside and listen in if they wished. The Curia was restored by Domitian in 94 CE, and rebuilt, as mentioned, following the fire of 283 CE. The rectangular building measures 25.6 x 17.8 m, has a height of 31.6 m, and was built using brick with a concrete facing. The flooring has survived well and is an excellent example of opus sectile marble mosaic the doors, in contrast, are bronze replicas of the originals. The Curia was converted into the church of Saint Hadrian in 630 CE.

    Basilica of Maxentius & Constantine

    The New Basilica was begun by Maxentius and finished by Constantine c. 313 CE. It once measured around 96 x 65 metres. The interior was covered in marble panels, had a coloured marble flooring and soaring vaults. The building was the home of the Urban Prefects, the most important officials in the city, and the seat of the Senatorial court, the Secretarium Senatus. The western apse once contained a colossal statue of Constantine, the head, foot and other surviving remains of which are now on display in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Although the building was largely destroyed by the earthquake of 847 CE, several 25-metre high vaults are still intact and loom over the other ruins of the Forum.

    A bit of Roman history

    Bust of Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Wikipedia.

    During the year 64 AD when crazy maniac Nero was emperor of Rome a great fire occurred that destroyed a large area of the city.

    Many blamed the fire on Nero (who later built his Golden House over the destroyed area, hmmm, kind of suspicious, right?), who in turn blamed it on the Christians.

    According to ancient historians, Nero started persecuting Christians to diffuse attention off him.

    The Apostles Peter and Paul who were in Rome at the time, were executed in the circus (a very long race track with bleachers that could accommodate thousands of spectators, originally built by Calligula and used for horse races and shows) on the Vatican Hill.

    The obelisk brought from Egypt that we see today in the middle of Piazza San Pietro used to be at the center of the circus.

    It was moved to its current location in 1586 and remains here as a “witness” to Peter’s martyrdom.

    Obelisk at Piazza San Pietro at the Vatican in Rome.

    Peter famously requested to be crucified upside down, since he thought he didn’t deserve dying in the same manner as Jesus.

    Traditionally, it is believed that his body was buried just outside the circus, where a Roman cemetery stood.

    His grave is said to have been marked by a red stone, symbolic only to Christians. After Peter’s death, Christians began to gather at this place to venerate the Apostle.

    Some years later, a temple-entrance-shaped shrine (known as the “trophy”) was built.

    Gaius Trophy at the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter’s Basilica. Photo: Fabbrica of Saint Peter’s.

    A letter sent in 120 AD by a priest by the name of Gaius is the first written record that states that Peter’s remains were indeed in the Necropolis next to the circus.

    In 319 AD, after converting to Christianism, emperor Constantine I erected the first Saint Peter’s Basilica, on top of Saint Peter’s original burial site, considering the holiness of this place.

    Reconstruction of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. Photo:

    In the 16 th century Old Saint Peter’s Basilica was dismantled to make way for the construction of the current church.

    In 1939 Pope Pius XI sponsored the archaeological excavations allegedly because he wanted to be buried as close as possible to Peter the Apostle. This is how the Vatican Necropolis was revealed.

    Ancient Aphrodite Figures Hint at Pagan Resistance

    Three figurines of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, have been found buried underground in the remains of a shop in a Roman city built in the second century B.C.

    The hidden figures hint at the reluctance of some denizens of the Roman Empire to give up their pagan beliefs despite the spread of Christianity.

    The ancient treasure, buried for more than 1,500 years, was uncovered during the tenth season of excavations that are being carried out by researchers of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

    The hidden statues were discovered when the researchers exposed a shop in the southeastern corner of the forum district of Sussita, which is the central area of the mountaintop Roman city that existed through the Roman and Byzantine periods and destroyed in the great earthquake of 749 A.D. Sussita, also known as Hippos, is located in Israel and sits on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The city was originally built by Greek colonists, but later came under Roman rule.

    The researchers say it was clear the followers had wished to hide the figurines, as they were found complete.

    "It is possible that during the fourth century A.D., when Christianity was gradually becoming the governing religion in the Roman Empire, there were still a number of inhabitants in Sussita who remained loyal to the goddess of love and therefore wished to hide and preserve these items," said Arthur Segal, one of the excavation's leaders.

    The clay pieces are 9 inches (23 cm) tall and represent the common model of the goddess of love known to the experts as Venus pudica, "the modest Venus." This name was given to the form due to its upright stature and the figure's covering her private parts with the palm of her hand. (Venus is the Roman name for the goddess of love. The term 'aphrodisiac' comes from the Greek name of the goddess.)

    Other finds

    Another fascinating finding was an odeion &ndash a small, roofed theater-like structure, the first of its kind to be exposed in Israel. Structures such as these were quite common in the Roman era and were intended for poetry-reading performances and musical recitals, the researchers said.

    The excavation is still in its early stages, but the researchers have already been able to expose the entire perimeter of the odeion, which forms a rectangular area, at one end of which is a semi-circle. According to the researchers, the construction is of high quality and it seems that it can be dated back to the first century B.C. or A.D.

    Also found in the excavations was a basilica, a roofed structure that would have been used as a substitute location for public gatherings in rainy weather. This is the second basilica to be exposed in Israel, the first being the Roman basilica of Samaria.

    One of the basilica's columns has even been restored. "Just the look of the restored columns is enough to get an impression of the beauty and tremendousness of Roman architecture during that period," Segal said.

    Ancient daily life

    Archaeologists also exposed a living quarter, likely dating back to the fourth century. The finding gives a rare glimpse into the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of Sussita during the last three centuries of the city's existence.

    The excavation also shows that there were similarities between pagan and Jewish cities of the time.

    At the close of the tenth season of excavations, we have revealed a abundance of public structures in the city, most likely associated with the reign of Herod in the first century B.C. Until now we have assumed that the wave of construction that took place during Herod's reign was primarily in Jewish cities, but the findings at Sussita are evidence of the king's influence on pagan cities under his rule too," the researchers concluded.

    The project was supported in part by the Israel Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority.

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    Exploring the history of catacombs

    Beneath the city streets that travellers walk on each day, dark labyrinths of underground tunnels transport travellers to a time when millions of people were buried underground.

    Beneath the city streets that travellers walk on each day, dark labyrinths of underground catacombs are passageways to the past, to a time when the ghostly tunnels served as burial grounds for millions of people.

    The catacombs of Rome, which date back to the 1 st Century and were among the first ever built, were constructed as underground tombs, first by Jewish communities and then by Christian communities. There are only six known Jewish catacombs and around 40 or more Christian catacombs.

    In Ancient Rome, it was not permitted for bodies to be buried within the city walls. So while pagans cremated their dead, Christians, who were not legally allowed to practice their religion, turned to underground cemeteries, built beneath land owned by the city’s few rich Christian families. The Jewish population was already implementing this practice when Christians began doing so around the 2 nd Century.

    The use of catacombs in Rome expanded during the 2nd and 3 rd Centuries, as the illegal religion of Christianity grew in popularity. Some areas of the tunnels even became shrines for martyrs buried there. But after Christianity was legalized in 313 AD, funerals moved above ground, and by the 5 th Century, the use of catacombs as grave sites dwindled, though they were still revered as sacred sites where pilgrims would come to worship.

    The Rome catacombs then fell victim to pillaging by Germanic invaders around the early 9th Century. As a result, relics of Christian martyrs and saints were moved from the catacombs to churches in the city centre. Eventually, the underground burial tunnels were abandoned altogether – only to be rediscovered via excavations in the 1600s.

    Today, travellers from all over the world visit Rome to explore its 600km network of catacombs, spread out over five storeys underground near the Park of the Tombs of Via Latina. Dedicated to Christian saints, they are adorned with some of the earliest Christian artwork in the world, dating back to the 2 nd Century, featuring paintings on the tunnel walls that depict ancient life. Sacred catacombs open to the public include the Catacombs of Priscilla (Via Salaria, 430), the Catacombs of St Callixtus (Via Appia Antica, 110-126) and the Catacombs of St Agnes (Via Nomentana, 349). The Vatican provides details on how to visit these and other holy burial sites. A few Jewish catacombs, including the catacombs on the Vigna Randanini and those in the Villa Torlonia, are also open to the public -- though some by appointment.

    Centuries later in Paris, catacombs emerged as a creative and discreet solution to a dire public health problem. In the late 1700s, mass graves in the Les Halles district, such as those in the now closed Saints Innocents Cemetery, were overcrowded with improperly disposed of bodies , creating unsanitary conditions that led to the spread of disease. Saint Innocents was shut down, and in 1786 the Paris police moved all the remains buried in the cemetery to an underground network of ancient limestone quarries – the now infamous Catacombs of Paris, located south of the former city gate near Place Denfert-Rochereau.

    The eerie tunnels -- a significant portion of which is open to the public as a museum -- took on other uses over the course of history. During World War II, for instance, some sections became hideouts for French Resistance fighters, while other areas were converted by German soldiers into bunkers. Today, Paris’s nearly 300km of catacombs lie 30m under the ground’s surface and still house the remains of around six million people.

    The world’s longest network of underground tunnels, extending more than 2,400km, can be found in Odessa, Ukraine, where the catacombs were formed around the 1830s as a result of limestone mining. As in Paris, the tunnels were used as bunkers and hideouts by soldiers during World War II, and a portion of the catacombs is open to the public via the Museum of Partisan Glory.

    The catacombs of Malta are designated as a World Heritage Site for their role in Paleochristian history. Carved from the rock underneath the city of Rabat, likely beginning around the 3 rd Century, the tunnels show how rural family burials took place among Christian, Jewish and Pagan communities. The complex network of passageways provided graves for 1,000 people and extended over about 5,700sqkm. Heritage Malta provides information on visiting St Paul’s Catacombs located near St Paul’s Church and Grotto.

    In Alexandria, Egypt, the Catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa were originally built for just one rich family around the 2 nd Century, but eventually housed more 300 mummies. Open to the public, the three-story tomb about 30m under the ground, features elaborate carvings illustrating scenes from Egyptian mythology, including one relief depicting the jackal-headed god, Anubis.

    Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

    LIFE at the Vatican: Unearthing History Beneath St. Peter’s

    Pope Pius XI, whose desire to be buried below St. Peter’s nave led to the historic excavations, lay in his stone sarcophagus in renovated upper grottoes.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Written By: Ben Cosgrove

    The walled, pint-sized city-state known as the Vatican physically takes up around 100 acres in the center of Rome, but occupies a measureless space in the lives of more than a billion practicing Catholics around the globe. Here, looks back to a time when the church was actively unearthing its own secrets . . . literally.

    In 1950, LIFE reported on a years-long effort undertaken beneath the staggeringly ornate public realms of the Vatican, as teams of workers meticulously excavated the myriad tombs and other long-sealed, centuries-old chambers far underground. Nat Farbman’s color and black and white images in this gallery most of which never ran in LIFE, were touted on the cover of the March 27, 1950, issue of the magazine as “exclusive pictures” for the story titled “The Search for the Bones of St. Peter.”

    Deep in the earth below the great basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome [LIFE wrote] the clink of pickaxes and the scrape of shovels in the hands of workmen have been echoing dimly for 10 years. In the utmost secrecy, they have penetrated into a pagan cemetery buried for 16 centuries. Architects feared they might disturb the foundations on which rests the world’s largest church. But the workmen, with careful hands, pushed forward finally to the area where, according to a basic tenet of the Catholic Church, the bones of St. Peter were buried about A.D. 66.

    The Church has always held that Peter was buried in a pagan cemetery on Vatican Hill. Now, for the first time, there is archaeological evidence to support this: the newly discovered tombs, which LIFE shows [in these exclusive pictures].

    The greatest secret of all—whether the relics of the Chief Apostle himself were actually found —s one which the Vatican reserves for itself, although there have been rumors that the discovery of the relics will be announced at an appropriate time during the Holy Year.

    In the end, LIFE’s editors expressed their appreciation for “the privilege of guiding LIFE’s readers through these chambers where in the dust of antiquity can be traced the humble yet transcendent beginnings of the Christian faith.”

    NOTE: In December 1950 Pope Pius XII announced that bones discovered during the excavation could not conclusively be said to be Peter’s. Two decades later, in 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that other bones unearthed beneath the basilica—discovered in a marble-lined repository, covered with a gold and purple cloth and belonging to a man around 5′ 6″ tall who had likely died between the ages of 65 and 70—were, in the judgment of “the talented and prudent people” in charge of the dig, indeed St. Peter’s.

    To this day, that claim has as many doubters as adherents.

    Liz Ronk edited this gallery for Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

    In a clutter of bones and artifacts the foreman of a team of Vatican workmen examined an ancient archway, St. Peter’s, Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The interior of St. Peter’s basilica, with markers indicating the location of the excavation beneath the floor, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The tomb of the Caetennii (17 x 18 feet) was one of the richest and most lavishly decorated of all those excavated beneath St. Peter’s.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The Tomb of the Egizio featured elaborate sarcophagi sculpted with scenes of Bacchic rites. While most of the findings here were purely pagan, there were also Christian designs—for example, of a palm leaf and a dove.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Scene during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The hunt of the Amazons was portrayed on a polychrome mosaic decorating the facade of the tomb of the Marci.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Scene during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    A workman cleaned an inscription during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Pope Pius XI, whose desire to be buried below St. Peter’s nave led to the historic excavations, lay in his stone sarcophagus in renovated upper grottoes.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The oldest burial chamber found during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Scene during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Workmen examined underneath the floor of the Basilico.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Workers gauged damage from water seepage during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Workmen gauged damage from water seepage during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The oldest burial chamber found during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    A double row of burial chambers beneath St. Peter’s, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    An inscription revealed during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    An early Christian mosaic, possibly the earliest known, decorated the ceiling and walls of a mausoleum close to area where St. Peter is supposed to have been buried, Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Rich polychrome stucco work in the southwest corner of the Tomb of the Caetennii showed how resplendently it was decorated.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Classic sculpture adorned the Marci sarcophagus of Q. Marcius Hermes and his wife.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Scene during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The foreman of work crew posed during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    The tomb of Pope Boniface VIII, beneath the Vatican, photographed in 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Scene during the excavation beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, 1950.

    Nat Farbman The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

    Underground Pagan Basilica with Dark History Revealed to the Public for the First Time - History

    The Pietà is regarded as one of the greatest works of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. This impressive sculpture is currently placed in Vatican City, at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà is among the initial works of art of the similar theme made by the artist. Cardinal Jean de Billheres commissioned the statue, and this nobleman was a previous representative in Rome. The statue, which was in Carrara marble, was created to the funeral monument of the cardinal, yet it was relocated at St. Peter’s Basilica during the 18th century. It was also the only artwork by Michelangelo that was signed by the artist himself.

    Description of the Sculpture

    This exquisite work of art by Michelangelo features the body of Jesus placed on the lap of the Virgin Mary after the savior’s crucifixion. Its theme was based on Northern origin that was widely applied in France, yet not so popular in Italy. The artist’s interpretation of the sculpture is unique and rather extraordinary to the precedents. Moreover, this masterpiece is a magnificent work because it balances the ideal of the Renaissance Era with classical beauty evident in naturalism.

    The structure of the Pietà is quite pyramidal with the vertex coinciding with the Virgin’s head. Then, the figure widens in a progressive manner, down towards the drapery and ends of Mary’s dress, and up to the rock of Golgotha, which was the base of the sculpture. The characters also appear to be out of proportion because of the challenges in depicting a man’s body being cradled in a woman’s lap. With Mary’s monumental drapery, much of her body is hidden, and the evident relationship between these two characters seemed natural.

    The face of Jesus in this sculpture does not show any signs of his suffering. It was the artist’s intention to create an image that shows the serene face and vision of abandonment in Jesus. Hence, the sculpture presented a deep communion between the man and Almighty God through Christ’s sanctification.

    Interpretations of the Masterpiece

    In this sculpture, the Virgin Mary is presented as a young woman, which is rather different form the other versions. For instance, her youth is a symbol of her purity, although some people believe that it is quite strange how she can appear young despite her age and physical maturity.

    Other scholars argue that the viewer of this statue is indeed looking at the serene image of Mary as she holds the child Jesus. Furthermore, the youthful appearance and features of Mary is coupled with the delicate position of her arms that could suggest the fact that she is cradling her child while the viewer sees the future of Christ in this image.

    The entire process of completing the sculpture took only over a year. At present, the statue is situated at the Santa Petronilla Chapel, which was a Roman mausoleum located near St. Peter’s Basilica’s south transept. Eventually, the chapel was demolished when the basilica was rebuilt. According to historians, most visitors at the chapel assumed that the statue was the work of another artist in spite of the fact that Michelangelo’s signature was seen on the sculpture. This signature seems to copy the ones used by Polykleitos and Apelles, who were famous artists in Ancient Greece. However, such anecdotes about the statue caused Michelangelo to regret his decision of signing the artwork. Hence, he vowed never again to sign any of his masterpieces.

    During the following years, the Pietà by Michelangelo sustained severe damages. In fact, the four of Mary’s fingers on her left hand were broken when the statue was relocated to the basilica. However, Giuseppe Lirioni restored this famous artwork. Some scholars, on the other hand, commented that the restorer seemed to have made the gesture quite rhetorical.

    After the statue was restored to its remarkable appearance, it was once again damaged on the Pentecost Sunday of 1972. It was during this time when Laszlo Toth, who was a mentally-ill geologist, stormed into the chapel, and forcefully attacked the artwork with his hammer. As he carried out this frightful act, he kept shouting and claiming that he was Jesus Christ. Several onlookers took most of the statue’s pieces that flew off due to this dreadful act. Some of the pieces were eventually returned, although others needed to be reconstructed because of severe damages.

    3 responses to “Pietà”

    I remember the statue at the World’s Fair in NY in the 󈨀’s. It left such an impression on me that I would look at my little replica of Pieta on my bureau and feel what Mary felt as she held her son Jesus after he died on the cross. It was that wonderful piece of majestic sculpture that made me love my Christianity more than ever and want to do for Jesus. My faith grew more each day from then on.

    The meaning of pity is represented in the statue, and is a visual representation of the meaning of pity. The human emotion, sorrow, loving and tend” Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of Comfort.” 2 Corinthians 1:3 In this we see a ray of light of the mercies of God.

    Vatican Catacombs – Why go on a Vatican tour?

    Not surprisingly, the Vatican has its own underground catacombs called the Vatican Necropolis. They were revealed during archaeological excavations which took place between 1940 and 1949.

    The Vatican Necropolis or scavi, as the excavations are known in Italian, weren’t part of the original catacombs of Rome. They were rather an open-air cemetery containing tombs and mausolea. A request by Pope Pius to be buried close to Peter the Apostle led to their discovery.

    To preserve this exceptional historical and archaeological site and because of the limited space around the Apostle Peter’s tomb, only a limited number of visitors are allowed on the Vatican Necropolis tour.

    Do you want to be one of the lucky ones to discover hidden world beneath St Peter’s Basilica? Book your no wait, dedicated access tour of the Vatican Necropolis and the basilica right below:

    A visit to San Clemente, where Christianity's roots are centuries deep

    ROME -- On the eve of William H. Keeler's elevation to the College of Cardinals, he and members of his flock paid homage to the last cardinal from Baltimore with a visit yesterday to an ancient basilica built on three layers of Christian history.

    At the Church of San Clemente, a startling combination of grandeur and simplicity dating back to the First Century, there were emotional reminders of the late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan and his gentle rule of the first Catholic diocese of the United States.

    A group of priests and lay people from Maryland and Pennsylvania who accompanied Cardinal-designate Keeler to Rome attended a morning Mass at San Clemente, which was Cardinal Shehan's "titular church," his honorary parish here.

    The Shehan coat of arms with his motto, "Omnia in caritate" (Everything in Charity), adorns the marble floor of the church's sacristy, the renovation of which the Baltimore prelate financed shortly after he became a cardinal in 1965. Cardinal Shehan died in 1984.

    Reading during the Mass from the basilica's lofty marble pulpit, Mary Elizabeth Sweeney, Cardinal Shehan's secretary for many years, told the congregation, "The dead were judged according to what they had done in their lives."

    It was a passage from the Book of Revelation that evoked fond memories. Miss Sweeney recalled that she had been with him when he took possession of his titular church and was with him here again in 1977.

    After the Mass, holding back tears, she spoke of his quiet ways and said, "When I came back here, it hit me. We became such good friends."

    Cardinal Shehan's memorial in the sacristy, where Archbishop Keeler vested himself for his last Mass before today's Consistory, marked the passage of another generation in a church that has been a house of worship for 2,000 years.

    In the First Century, it was the home of St. Clement, one of the Roman Catholic Church's earliest pontiffs. And even before that it was a temple for pagan rites.

    Decades of archaeological digging 90 feet below the present street level have revealed haunting traces of a pre-Christian society.

    Damp, dark and narrow passageways that were streets and alleys of Rome in the First Century lead to chambers used in Nero's time for the minting of coins, the storage of grain and the worship to the god Mithras. The Mithraic religion was brought to the Eternal City from Persia by Roman soldiers.

    After yesterday's Mass, the Rev. Seamus Tuohy, the Irish Dominican priest who is the rector at San Clemente, led some of the Baltimore visitors on a subterranean tour down through time to the dawn of Christianity.

    "We are standing on what was the street level in the First Century," Father Tuohy said outside a chamber with a low ceiling above a white Mithraic altar. "Mithraic was a very popular cult, known for having very high moral standards and an ethical code. . . . Later, Christians gained use of the buildings on this level."

    And as time passed, the rooms were filled with soil and rubble and new structures rose atop them. By the Fourth Century, a Christian house of worship was on the site. Eventually, that church became the foundation of the present basilica.

    In this vast underground are tombs containing relics of major saints -- Clement, a martyr and pope who was the third successor of St. Peter, and Cyril, known as the "Apostle of the Slavs." Their burials took place more than 1,000 years ago.

    In the ancient underground are catacombs, marble vaults, herringbone brick floors and massive walls used to support the upper edifice.

    The excavation at San Clemente continues. Numerous frescoes have been discovered. Sixth Century marble pavement, believed to be a processional route in the early church, was recently unearthed. And within the last two weeks, Father Tuohy said, workers discovered a large, marble baptistery, also from the Sixth Century.

    The modest exterior of the basilica, rebuilt 800 to 900 years ago, hides treasures within -- glistening mosaics, frescoes, statuary and an ornately carved, gilded ceiling.

    The marble pulpit is high enough to have made Archbishop Keeler joke that priests might need oxygen to use it.

    After Father Tuohy opened the tall doors of the church, soft sunlight cascaded into the basilica from a splendid, 12th Century courtyard.

    And on this clear, warm day of pilgrimage and homage, Italian school children gathered to sing a hymn. Their teacher encouraged them, and their little voices filled the church.