Maltese Catacombs were never meant to be hiding places during persecutions
or as living quarters. They were underground cemeteries dug in the
globigerina limestone, consisting of long narrow corridors with
tombs on each side and vaults. Some of the tombs are even decorated
with reliefs and frescoes. These extend to 4100 square metres and
date to the 2nd and 3rd century AD. In St Agatha's, there are over
500 graves of several types, the majority of children. There are
sections for pagans and Jews, as well as for Christians.
of the tombs were used for the internment of two people. Sometimes
a double tomb has a thin wall separating one from the other. At
times they are put side by side, and not only two, but even three,
four or five persons were buried in the same grave.
almost all graves there is found the head rest, a sort of rock pillow.
In each grave there is a semicircular cavity where the head of the
deceased person is rested in its position. These cavities denote
how many people were buried in each grave.
interesting feature in the Maltese Catacombs is the Agape Table,
probably used as a table for the final farewell repast. This is
a round table hewn out of the live rock about 60cm or more above
ground level. These tables slope gently downwards towards the circumference
of the chamber. At the upper part they form the round table, flat
and encircled with a rim about 6cm wide and 3cm high. Generally
these tables are about 75cm in diameter. On the front part, a small
section of the rim is opened. Probably this served to clean and
wash the table when the meal was over.
different types of tombs are another feature that distinguishes
the Maltese Catacombs. The most important of all is the "saddle-back
canopied table grave". The upper part of the tomb, that is
the cover, is like a saddle-back of a horse, which was either cut
from the same rock or was placed when the internment took place.
The canopy above is supported by four short pillars ending in arches
on the four sides. At the back of each pillar, on the internal side
of the tomb, there are horn like pillars as a decoration.
type of grave is the "canopied table grave" in Italian
known as tomba a baldacchino. These are also cut in the rock having
four pillars to support the ceiling above, while forming arches
on each side of the tomb. These make a sort of canopy above the
grave, while when the funeral was over and the grave sealed with
stone slabs, it seemed to form a table, hence its name.
arcosolium is so called on account that at the entrance of the tomb,
it has an arch and a sill (L. solium). Such graves are cut within
the side walls. The back of the arch is a sort of half a dome. The
entrance to these graves is through a square opening about 45 cm
each side, while the grave is hidden by the wall.
graves are very similar to the arcosolium, except that the back
is flat within the vault. The entrance is also similar to the previous
one. Loculi are side graves hewn in the side walls. Most of these
were meant for children and babies. At times many of these are found
near each other and very near to a parent tomb, denoting that they
belong to the same family.
frequently, one can notice many small niches cut in the side walls.
These were used to hold an oil lamp to light the whereabouts. Many
niches still bear soot marks.
of the tombs at St. Agatha's Catacombs are decorated with mural
paintings. On the wall near the head of one of theses tombs, there
is a Greek inscription, which was deciphered by Rev. A. Ferrua SJ.
It states: "Before the Calends of September, Leonias was buried
here." This inscription has suffered through negligence throughout
the years and it is difficult to read.
other tomb, which is a table grave, is decorated with frescoes that
were hidden under a layer of 6cm of mortar. A coloured frieze goes
round the edges while a pelican in red ochre is seen on each side.
On the inner sides, there are floral wreathes consisting of pink
roses, green leaves and three roses in the centre of the wreath.
It seems that on the back of the grave there are more frescoes which
still lie hidden by more mortar. These frescoes were discovered
and cleaned by Fr. V. Camilleri (M.S.S.P.) in the year 1978. About
10 years ago, two inscriptions were also discovered. The first one
was in Greek and the other inscription was in Greek and Latin. These
date back to the 4th and 5th Centur AD.
of the chambers in these catacombs seem to be the Sancta Sanctorum,
of this Christian catacombs. It has a radius of 275cm and is decorated
with a pillar on each side. There is a capital on top of the pillars
which are joined with a frieze which goes all round the chamber.
On one side there is an arch which is the altar of this primitive
chapel. It is decorated with a 3rd century fresco representing a
scallop shell painted in various colours: red, ochre, dark green,
yellow and pale yellow. The front lintel is painted in dark red
and dark brown. It symbolizes the source of life, that is God. In
the middle there is a cross with the Greek letter R (rho) with a
horizontal line passing through its middle, an artistic variation
of the Greek letter C (chi), and this symbol signifies Christ. On
the ends of the horizontal line, there are the A and W (alpha and
omega) which signify that Christ is the beginning and the end of
life (cfr: Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Apart from the flowers, on both
sides of the fresco, there is a dove with leaves or flowers in its
claws. This is the best fresco that exists in the Catacombs and
it is of the earliest age of our Christian era. This fresco was
restored in the year 2000.
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