The lovely Dutch town of Valkenburg aan de Geul, located in the south of the province of Limburg, has a very special museum. The address is Plenkertstraat 55. Museum Romeinse Katakomben (Roman Catacombs Museum) does not just have a name that is a little peculiar – it is spelled ‘katakomben’ instead of the linguistically correct ‘catacomben’ – it is basically a museum that has no equivalent anywhere. Here in Valkenburg, a piece of Rome was copied and reconstructed at the beginning of the twentieth century, i.e. a piece that can be found several metres below street level: the catacombs. People who like to wander through subterranean corridors, get a taste of the special atmosphere down there and admire beautiful frescoes by candlelight do not have to travel all the way to the Eternal City. This is all possible in the Netherlands as well.
Jan Diepen (1872-1930) was a scion from well-to-do family of textile manufacturers from the Dutch city of Tilburg. In part because of his poor health, he withdrew from the board of the family company in 1908 and relocated to Valkenburg, where the family owned a country residence called Villa Alpha. There Jan Diepen read about the Christian catacombs in Rome and pondered on copying parts of them in a local marlstone quarry. The idea for the Roman Catacombs Museum was born. With aid from the famous architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) – a friend of the family – the first part of the project was completed in July of 1910 and opened to the public. In 1912 the second part was opened, but further parts have never been realised, partly because of a lack of funds and because of Jan Diepen’s death at a relatively young age in 1930.
A quick glance at the map of the corridors on the website of the Roman Catacombs Museum gives a good indication of the scale of the project. After an in-depth study in Rome, the best parts of no less than fourteen Roman catacombs were copied and reconstructed in the marlstone quarry. The soft marlstone turned out to be just as suitable for digging rooms and tunnels as the Roman tufa. Not only the simple wall tombs (niches called loculi) were accurately copied, but also the large burial chambers (called cubicula) with their beautiful arched tombs (arcosolia). And that was not all. Diepen and Cuypers commissioned a team of painters to copy the frescoes from the Roman catacombs as well. The interesting thing about this project is that it is now possible to see parts of catacombs in Valkenburg that are no longer open to the public in Rome itself. Examples include the Catacombs of Praetextatus and those of Commodilla (see below).
What drove a man like Jan Diepen? Although he was certainly a devout Catholic and his project got a blessing from the Vatican, his primary interest seems to have been historical. Diepen was an avid reader of ancient history, and the study of early Christian places of burial was part of that. But the project had a political and religious dimension as well. It was only in 1848, after almost three centuries of Protestant domination, that Catholics in the Netherlands were given full freedom of religion and equal treatment (see this post). They immediately started a Catholic Renaissance and began to identify with the early Christians, who were persecuted because of their religion. The Catacombs project fitted perfectly within this vision. Unfortunately we do not know the costs of the project. However, it goes without saying that these must have been substantial.
A tour of the Catacombs
The subterranean corridors can only be visited with a guide. Wandering around freely is prohibited, and for the better. There are no lights down here, if you do not know the way you will certainly get lost and do not expect a signal for your cell phone either so many metres below the ground. The exact route of the tour probably depends on the guide, but a tour takes at least an hour and the guides are known to take their time to answer questions.
Among the well-known catacombs of which parts have been copied are those of Priscilla on the Via Salaria (north of Rome’s historic centre) and those of Saint Callixtus on the Via Appia (southeast of the centre). These catacombs need no introduction for those who know their history. One of the reasons why the Catacombs of Priscilla are famous is the presence of a fresco of a mother and child from the late second or early third century which has been identified as the oldest image of Mary with baby Jesus. The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus are named after the bishop of Rome – the title of ‘Pope’ for him would be an anachronism – who was martyred in the year 222. His catacombs are especially famous for containing the so-called Crypt of the Popes.
A tour cannot cover each and every part of the catacombs, and some parts are apparently inaccessible at the moment. Unfortunately, this also seems to be the case with the famous Cappella Greca, the original of which is part of the Catacombs of Priscilla too. Somewhere in the maze of corridors, there must be a copy of the famed statue that the Italian artist Stefano Maderno (1576-1636) sculpted of Saint Cecilia – a third century martyr – for the Holy Year of 1600. The original statue can, by the way, not be found in any catacomb, but in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, which is definitely worth a visit as well.
Catacombs of Domitilla
The Catacombs of Domitilla are perhaps not as famous as those of Priscilla or those of Saint Callixtus. They can be found a little to the south of the Via Appia in the Via delle Sette Chiese. Of these catacombs, Jan Diepen had a large burial chamber or cubiculum copied for his own catacombs. The original belonged to the Ampliati family; the name is clearly mentioned above the arcosolium. The chamber in Rome was only discovered in 1881 and the name Ampliatus is interesting: in Romans 16:8, Saint Paul the Apostle mentions a friend of this name. Nevertheless, it is difficult, if not impossible, to link this Ampliatus to the Ampliatus of the cubiculum. The original chamber was presumably dug between 200 and 250. ‘Ampliatus’ means something along the lines of ‘enlarged’ or ‘ennobled’, and the Ampliatus of the burial chamber may have been a freedman. It is far from certain that the chamber was a Christian place of burial from the start. The catacombs were also used for pagan burials, and the brilliantly executed frescoes that we can admire in Valkenburg do not allow the conclusion that the chamber was exclusively Christian.
In the Valkenburg catacombs, we can find a copy of the tomb of a woman named Aurelia Bonifatia. The tomb – i.e. the original tomb in Rome – was commissioned by her husband Aurelius Ampliatus and the couple’s son Gordianus. Remarkably, the tomb mentions the exact age at which Aurelia died: 25 years, 2 months, 4 days and 6 hours. Infant mortality was high in Antiquity and mothers often died in childbirth (a well-known example would be Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia in 54 BCE). It is possible that this was also the case with Aurelia, but we cannot rule out that she died of disease. The epitaph furthermore states that she was an unforgettable wife and veritably chaste to boot. Aurelius must have genuinely loved her. We may therefore dismiss the theory that he kept track of her exact age because he was counting the seconds until she was finally dead.
Jan Diepen had his painters copy the textual mistakes in the epitaph as well. The text claims that the tomb was commissioned by Ampliatus and his son Gordianus. That would be CVM GORDIANO FILIO in Latin, but the person who executed the epitaph originally wrote CM instead of CVM. He later corrected his mistake by adding an extra dash – \ – and converting CM into C\M.
The so-called Bakers Crypt, which is located a little bit further down the corridor, is also part of the Catacombs of Domitilla. The motifs that we find on the walls here are much more overtly Christian. Among the wall paintings are frescoes of Moses striking a rock with his staff and of Jonah and the big fish. This cubiculum was leased by a bakers guild. The bakers had plenty of money to spend and were therefore able to commission this lavishly decorated burial chamber, the original of which dates from the mid-fourth century. On the walls we may – with some difficulty – also discern ships that were used to transport grain to the city.
The most impressive part of the room is the large fresco that seems to depict Jesus the Teacher amid the twelve Apostles. However, an alternative interpretation is that these are in fact the members of the bakers guild. One argument in favour of this theory is that none of the apostles look much like Peter or Paul, figures that are usually easily recognisable in early Christian art (Peter: white hair and a white beard; Paul: black beard and a high forehead). But I must say the fresco reminded me a lot of a mosaic in a chapel in the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. The composition of the fresco and the mosaic are almost identical. We may note that even the container with the scrolls is present in both works.
Catacombs of Praetextatus
While the Catacombs of Domitilla can still be visited, those of Praetextatus – a little to the southeast of those of Saint Callixtus – are closed to the public. An important part of these catacombs, which has been copied in Valkenburg, is the Cubiculum of the Four Seasons. Here we find three arcosolia, and if we look up to admire the ceiling, we see a lucinarium or light shaft as well. A lucinarium was constructed to provide a dark and musty room with some light and fresh air. It was basically a service to the people who visited the burial chamber. Such a shaft was obviously not dug for each and every room; only rooms that were frequently visited because of their particular importance were provided with one, i.e. the rooms where saints had been laid to rest. In the case of the Cubiculum of the Four Seasons the saint involved was one Januarius, a fairly obscure martyr from the second century. Before entering the cubiculum, visitors can see a copy of an inscription made by Pope Damasus (366-384), which reads:
BEATO MARTYRI IANUARIO, DAMASUS EPISCOP[US] FECIT
The brevity of the text indicates that even the good Pope knew very little about this Januarius, other than that he had been a blessed martyr. It is possible that a sarcophagus once stood in the centre of the original burial chamber (or so our guide told us), but unfortunately we cannot be certain of this. The light shaft in the Valkenburg chamber is, by the way, fake. It was impossible for Diepen and Cuypers to have a real shaft dug, but it has to be said that their imitation shaft looks rather convincing.
Unsurprisingly, the frescoes in this chamber revolve round the theme of the four seasons. Olives represent the winter season, as they are usually harvested in December. Flowers represent spring, grain and the grain harvest represent summer. Finally, grapes and the grape harvest represent autumn. A damaged fresco shows Christ as the Good Shepherd. If an original fresco in Rome was damaged – which was the case here – then Jan Diepen had the damage copied as well for his own Catacombs. It was his philosophy to make the copies look as authentic as possible.
Catacombs of Commodilla
We also find this philosophy in the copied sections of the Catacombs of Commodilla. The frescoes here have been reproduced in a damaged state as well. I must admit that I had never even heard of these catacombs. They are located slightly east of the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, and only if you are willing to delve deep into your pockets you may still be able to visit them: these catacombs have long been closed to the common public. That is why we are fortunate to have the Catacombs of Valkenburg, where we can still admire a few frescoes from the Crypt of Saints Felix and Adauctus. Once again, these are two fairly obscure martyrs and it was again Pope Damasus who wrote their epitaph. His successor Siricius (384-399) completed the crypt.
It is evident that the frescoes that we see in the crypt are not from Siricius’ pontificate, but from a later period. They are not Late Roman in style, but rather Byzantine. A good example would be the fresco of Saint Luke the Evangelist carrying a small pouch with a set of doctor’s utensils (Luke was said to have been a Greek physician from Antiocheia). The original fresco was made during the reign of the emperor Constantine IV (668-685). Another example is the fresco of the aforementioned martyrs Felix and Adauctus on either side of a Madonna and Child on a throne. The Madonna is depicted as a Byzantine empress. On the left, we see Adauctus introducing a woman, who is also dressed in the Byzantine style, to the Madonna and Child. The text below the image indicates that the woman’s name was Turtura – ‘turtle dove’ – and that the fresco was commissioned by her son. Tutura died when she was about 60 years old and lived the last 36 years of her life as a widow.
The original fresco seems to have been made in the early sixth century, perhaps in about 530. By that time it has already become slightly unusual to bury people in the catacombs. From the end of the fourth century onward, when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians increasingly began to prefer being buried in churches, and contrary to the catacombs, these churches were actually located in the city itself (the Roman churches fuori le Mura are the exceptions). Until the ninth century, the catacombs remained important places of pilgrimage for Christian worshippers. As a service to pilgrims, crypts of saints were provided with lucinaria, as has already been described above. The copied crypt of Felix and Adauctus also has a lucinarium – obviously fake, which is evident from the fact that bats sat on it. Over the course of the ninth century, travelling in the countryside became more and more unsafe. Pilgrims were constantly at risk of being robbed by bandits. Several Popes therefore decided to collect the remains of hundreds of martyrs from the catacombs and take them to churches within the walls of the city. This is exactly what happened to the body of the aforementioned Saint Cecilia.
As a result, the catacombs fell into oblivion. A man who played an important role in the rediscovery of subterranean Rome was the Maltese scholar Antonio Bosio (ca. 1575-1629). His behaviour was, however, questionable at times. Bosio for instance wrote his name on the large fresco in the cubiculum of the bakers which was discussed above. This graffiti has only been discovered recently after the original fresco had been thoroughly cleaned (see this picture), so you will not be able to see it in the Valkenburg catacombs. Bosio’s act of vandalism – for that is what it is – somehow fits well into the history of the Roman catacombs. The fossores (gravediggers) who dug the graves in the soft tufa had a rather dubious reputation. Bodies that did not fit into the niches were simply pushed in using brute force (archaeologists have been able to establish that some skeletons showed signs of post-mortal fractures). The loculi were covered with a slab, but in spite of this, the smell in the catacombs must have been horrible. Jan Diepen did not go so far as to actually have people buried in his Valkenburg catacombs. We may be grateful to him for that.
- Article Geheugen van Tilburg about Jan Diepen (in Dutch);
- Article Trouw about Jan Diepen (in Dutch);
- Catacombs of Domitilla;
- Catacombs of Praetextatus;
- Catacombs of Commodilla.
 This has been disputed. A different interpretation is that the image simply depicts a pagan Roman mother with her baby. However, the presence of a star and a figure who can be identified as the Biblical prophet Balaam makes the interpretation of a Madonna and Child somewhat plausible. One problem remains however, and that is that the veneration of Mary as the theotokos did not start in earnest until after the Council of Ephesus of 431.
 In the New King James version: “Greet Amplias, my beloved in the Lord.” Amplias is Ampliatus in the Vulgate.