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The Generosa Catacombs
di Alessandra Pompili
Who were the martyrs of the Via Portuense: Simplicius, Faustinus, Viatrix and Rufinianus? Why do we remember them still today? To begin our journey in the past we can move from the following inscription, found on the (now empty) sarcophagus enclosed in a wall of the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore:
MARTYRES SIMPLICIVS ET FAVSTINVS [The martyrs S. And F.]
QVI PASSI SVNT IN FLVMEN TIBERE [who died in the river Tiber]
ET POSITI SVNT IN CIMITERIVM [and have been laid in the cemetery]
GENEROSES SUPER PHILIPPI [of Generosa on top of (the property of) Philippus]
Where is the place indicated by the inscription as Cimiterium Generoses super Philippi? If we use our imagination and wipe away the buildings, the road, the noises of our times....we will open our eyes on one of the green hills flanking the right bank of the Tiber. The Campana road (modern Via Portuense) ran between river and hills leading towards the salt-beds and the sea.
On the sixth mile of the Campana road is the location known as Sextum Philippi (from an otherwise unknown Philippus). We are in the year 303 A. C.: the persecution launched by the emperor Diocletian against the Christians is at its peak. The bodies of two young people, carried away by the flow of the Tiber, are mercifully caught by a sharp loop of the river just at the bottom of the hills. Two presbyters, Crispo and Giovanni, and a young woman (we do not know whether she was related to the boys through faith only, or through blood as well) carry the bodies up to the hill. They are placed in the area that, at a later stage, will be called Cimiterium Generosae - from the name of the woman who donated the land.
The bodies of Simplicius and Faustinus had been thrown in the Tiber after atrocious tortures that they suffered with the fortitude of Christ’s witnesses until the end.
We have knowledge of their death and of the very day – 29th of July – of their “birth in heaven” from various documents, acts of martyrs and liturgical codes. Their names, as said, were Simplicius and Faustinus. Their sister’s was Viatrix (Latin form of Beatrice). The latter name is especially telling for its derivation from via, way or road. In other words, she bore the name of a viator, one of those pilgrims who walk through this life towards the sky. She will die shortly afterwards as another martyr of Christ.
The deed of these youngsters was extraordinary: to give life, the most precious gift – of which nothing greater is to be found – to “the Love of Him, who gave his life for everybody”: Jesus Christ. They were witnesses of Love and martyrs of Christ.
Walking along the galleries that make up the cemetery, one becomes aware of the simple piety and faith of the christians from the early centuries. The cemetery is unadorned, yet its meaning is eloquent. Remains of men, women and children laid here to rest before the resurrection to the eternal life are still visible. There are no inscriptions apart from some simple symbols incised on the mortar sealing the burial niches (loculi).
THE CORONATIO MARTYRUM AND OTHER FRESCOES
The underground cemeterial area developed in the fourth century A. C. around the memory of the martyrs Simplicius, Faustinus and Viatrix. The heart of the cemetery was their burial location. Afterwards, perhaps in the sixth century, the splendid fresco of the Coronatio Martyrum was placed here.
This artwork has been preserved until today, although many details have gone missing. This is due to the repeated violations suffered by the cemetery. Some help in reconstructing the original appearance of the painting comes from the reproduction made by the water-colourist Giuseppe Gnoli on suggeston of Giovan Battista de' Rossi - the archaeologist who first found the catacomb.
The fresco represents the glory of the martyrs Viatrix, Simplicius, Faustinus and Rufinianus. They are placed in pairs at both sides of Christ. Christ wears a dark red robe and holds, in his left hand, a book with the law. With the right hand he is blessing “in the Greek style”: that is, with the pointing, the middle and the little fingers.
Simplicius, Faustinus and Viatrix have a white tunic, whilst Rufinianus is represented as a soldier. De Rossi wrote the following in relation to this last character, whose link with the Catacomb of Generosa remains obscure:
"Rufo the martyr, who is mentioned in the Acts of Saint Chrisogonus, was first vicar of the Emperor but then converted to christianity thanks to the same Chrisogonus.”
This is the reason - it is believed - why he is represented with the chlamys, the special insignia of the emperors' cut-throats. Perhaps, some suggest, he might have been the man behind the execution of the other martyrs venerated in the catacomb.
All four martyrs hold a crown emblazoned with pearls and gems. This is the symbol of the eternal life, according to the Sacred Scripture: “be faithful until the end and you will receive the crown [of victory]”.
Other artworks of the cemetery are the remains of the frescoes flanking an arcosolio tomb (tomb surmounted by an arch): they depict the Good Shepherd (a well-known metaphor for Christ) and a pastoral scene (three sheep, a lamb and, at the end, a door – perhaps that of the sheepfold – surrounded by trees and shrubs. The referent is again Jesus Christ, who is the door through which we will all have to pass).
Damasus was bishop of Rome from 366 to 384. It was thanks to this encouragement and keen interest hat several locations of martyrs' graves faced important improvements. This is why the memory of Pope Damasus remains inextricably linked with that of those who decided to become brave witnesses of Christ's love: the martyrs.
It has been ascertained that Damasus was a key-figure in the promotion of their cult. Those who had been forgotten, anxiously sought for and finally re-discovered were celebrated by monuments and inscriptions devised by the Pope himself. Under him, the catacombs turned from being memories of the past into alive testimonies of the early years of christianity, of which the martyrs’ sacrifice was the highest symbol.
Of many of the monuments promoted by Pope Damasus scanty remains survive. This is also the case of the basilica ad Martyres Simplicium, Faustinum, Viatricem and Rufinianum (“by the tomb of the martyrs Simplicius, Faustinus, Viatrix and Rufinianus”). The underground rooms of the cemeteries where the martyrs rested were not suitable to the Eucharistic ritual performed with the public: after paying homage to their tombs, the congregation had to move to another location. This was the Basilica Damasiana.
THE BASILICA DAMASIANA
The basilica built under Damasus’ impulse (hence Basilica Damasiana) to revive the memory of the martyrs of the Via Portuense was erected on top of the cemeterial galleries. When this building was first discovered it was labelled as an oratorium, on the false assumption that it was of small extension. The 1980s excavations revealed that the basilica was actually about 20 x 14 metres. A fragment of the architrave of the main door confirmed the chronological attribution to the age of Pope Damasus: the letters of the inscription are typical of Furius Dyonisus Philocalus, the epigraphist who worked in close association with the Pope.
Today, the basilica is almost unrecognisable due to the extensive destruction and precarious conditions of preservation. The hall was divided into three aisles by two row of columns, now completely disappeared. Nothing remains of the original decoration of the apse, emmbellished with mosaic and fresco paintings.
Another lost feature is the primitive entrance to the galleries, now accessible from the top of the hill, but originally on the right hand side of the altar.
One of the most important features that have gone lost, however, is the fenestella confessionis: a small window that, from the
wall just behind the altar, opened onto the crypt where the martyrs were buried. The faithful could therefore get a glimpse of the sacred location from the church itself. The importance of placing the building in direct connection with the tombs of the martyrs accounts for the earth-moving work that was necessary in order to reach this objective. Much of the effort in building the basilica could have been avoided by choosing a location higher up on the hill; but in so doing the vicinity with the martyrs would have been lost. The twofold concern of avoiding to move the bodies of the martyrs and of being as much as possible near to them during the Eucharistic prayer dictated the “uncomfortable” location of the church and the extra work that went into it.
It is thought that the basilica fell into obliviation from the seventh century onwards. Once the remains of the martyrs were removed from the catacomb – partly to feed the Church’s need for relics, partly to save the sacred bodies from the devastation of the barbarian invaders - there remained little reason to take care of the location and its spiritual treasures. The Basilica Damasiana and the Catacomb of Generosa were to wait until the nineteenth century to relive a new season of interest.
Grant us, o Lord Jesus, that living faith
which sustained the holy martyrs Simplicius, Faustinus,
Beatrice and Rufus and which constitutes their crown of glory;
may this faith illumine our way, sustain us in every trial
and make us pleasing to your holy name. Amen
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