Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Catacombs of San Gennaro

The Naples Underground Tour:  It took several visits before I finally could get inside these catacombs.  Closed after twelve noon and closed on Mondays, I trekked down with my family on a Sunday morning to see this old underground where the remains of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro, once lay.

We are taken from the entrance down many stairs and into a hollow cavern made of tufo -- the stone ubiquitous throughout the parallel city.  The catacombs date back to paleo-Christian times and archeologists think the area, about the size of a large church, are actually the remains of several cemeteries and Basilicas built on top of one another throughout the ages.  

The first area is a fifth century cemetery.  Here, poor people paid for their loved ones to rest inside rectangular bunks on the outside walls.  The wealthy paid for their families to be buried within alcoves where lavish frescoes decorated their tombs.

The frescos, although faded, still have a sort of majesty.  One depicts a young princess girl who died before her parents, the faces of both parents shown beside her in grief.  A crown over the girl's head signifies her ascent into heaven.  In an adjacent alcove, a fresco depicts San Gennaro and St. Peter at the gates of paradise (shown below).

Walking further into the belly of the catacomb, we come to what used to be a large Basilica, called Maggiore.  We pass a hollow half-dome that displays a cross and Greek lettering that says:  "Christ has won."  This probably was the baptismal font of the Basilica.

Yet another Basilica, called the Bishop's Church, banks toward the left of the catacomb.  The church is so named because frescoes -- now gone -- used to depict a series of Bishops.  Here, a hole two stories down once held the tomb of San Gennaro.  In the 800's, his body was taken to Benevento and then was returned to Il Duomo in downtown Naples where you can still visit his crypt today.

Beyond the Bishop's Church, yet another Basilica dates back to the second century.  Here, ceiling frescoes have Greek and late Roman motifs of cats and other symbols alongside Christian symbols, such as three women holding rocks to symbolize the foundation of the Church.  Most impressive of all is a massive ceiling fresco of a Byzantine Christ.

Throughout the ages these catacombs were used as a place of study, then as a hospital by the Benedictines during the time of the cholera epedemic of the 16th century, and finally as an air raid shelter during World War II. 

For those who love Church history, there's much more I've left out, so you'll have to visit yourself to enjoy more of the rich nuggets that the guide relates concerning these catacombs. 

Getting There:  Along the slope leading up to Capodimonte, you know you're there when you see the Madre del Buon Consiligo, the Church that is often in panoramic pictures of Naples.  The Catacombs are located directly behind it.  If you buy a ticket to see the San Gennaro Catacombs, you can use the ticket to visit the San Guadioso Catacombs also.


KC said...

Wow! Thanks for posting this. I'm ashamed to admit I had no idea that there were such extensive catacombs in Naples...but really, now that I think about it, why wouldn't there be! I'm especially anxious to see those basilicas, as I am very interested in early Christian architecture.

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

I've been a huge fan of catacombs since I saw the ones in Palermo...thanks for sharing this!

Barbara said...

Hi Michelle! Thanks for the tip on catacombs in Palermo! When I take my trip up north, I will be on the watch for more. They are fascinating.

Hi KC! I love your interest in Christian architecture that you also present on your blog!! In these catacombs, I'm not sure how much architecture you'd be able to enjoy because not much remains of the actual building structures. The frescoes are what make it impressive... although you might understand more of it than me if you saw them.

Interestingly, there are more than 700 cavities beneath Naples, most of them unexplored. While lots of articles have been written about Mt. Vesuvius potentially erupting, the dangers of these cavities have been barely touched upon. Basically, any bad rains or rumble could have the entire city caving in on itself. Hence, the Neapolitans are often considered the most 'Zen' of peoples, as they live for the today because they can't wait for a natural disaster that you can do nothing about.