Who could have had the unfortunate idea of putting up the crude sign on a building, the nature and character of which are so clearly evident, with the double inscription that we reproduce at the head of this article?
The architect must be innocent of the fact. His work is too self-explanatory for him to have thought it necessary to attach this ridiculous sign.
Was there a fear that some visitors might be mistaken for one of those cellars on the banks of the Loire, carved halfway up the hillside, and generally known as "vide-bouteilles"?
Here, confusion was not possible. The work exhibited could therefore do without a label; it reproduces with too much striking truth the dreary and gloomy aspect of a funerary hypogeum for anyone to be mistaken.
Doesn't it indeed look like a portion detached from the Catacombs, transported, violently and in a single block, from the Roman countryside to our Champ de Mars?
The rock from which this crypt seems to have been carved, shows by the arrangement of its layers the very nature of its limestone mass; sections of rock, unevenly eaten away by time and humidity, represent the funereal façade, and two narrow and low doors, but quite different in shape, represent very accurately the entrances that give access to the dark city of the dead.
It is a real work of exhumation, executed by the architect, not only with the taste and feeling of an artist, but above all with the conscience of an antiquarian.
All those who penetrate these narrow ways, under this crushed vault, will doubtless wonder, if they remember the episode with which the abbé Delille adorned one of his poems, how his young lover of the arts, after having taken fifty steps in these dark corridors, which all follow one another and resemble one another, did not immediately turn back, instead of exposing himself to lose his thread, and to burn his fingers awkwardly in the dying fire of his torch.
It is easy to understand how one can lose one's way in places whose aspects change at every moment, when one's curiosity is kept alive and excited by the variety of sites, by accidents of terrain or light, and finally by the charm of the unexpected; But that one should venture dizzily, at the risk of getting lost, into a maze of paths strangled between two walls of damp rock, into corridors which lengthen and intersect in a uniform direction and succeed one another from interval to interval, in order to reproduce themselves on a constantly symmetrical plan, is certainly what is difficult to understand.
Delille's catacombs are therefore no more than a description of pure fantasy, such as the less fanciful poets have so often allowed themselves; they do not resemble in any way the real catacombs which have been very happily and very faithfully restored to us, and which will henceforth be known to the countless visitors to the Universal Exhibition.
We have before our eyes, like a sample cut from the cloth, a fraction of one of the floors of these underground passages in the shade of which the first Christians took refuge to escape persecution and martyrdom.
But who dug these immense crypts which, according to some, extend from Rome to Ostia, and which we have only been able to explore and study in a stretch of five kilometres?
Is it the Christians?
Although some archaeologists claim and affirm it, it is impossible to admit such a fact.
The excavations required to carry out this gigantic underground work could not have been carried out without the extraction of immense rubble whose deposits would have promptly attracted the attention of the emperors' police, and such a work would certainly have been interrupted almost as soon as it was undertaken.
What is probable and even obvious is that the Christians, constantly in search of a safe refuge, in a time when they were hunted down like wild beasts, ended up discovering ancient quarries from which the Romans had once drawn the materials that had served for their first constructions, and that these quarries, long since abandoned and more or less forgotten, offered them an asylum where they were able to escape the pursuit of their tormentors for some time.
But what is beyond doubt is that the excavations made in the sides of the rock, or to put it better, the innumerable cells dug horizontally on either side of these underground passages, are the work of the Christians.
As this work required the extraction of only a very small part of the rock, it was easy to spread the spoil on the floor of the catacombs and to dispose of it without having to transport it outside.
So much Christian blood had already been shed, and the new religion had been confessed by so many glorious martyrs, that it was thought useless to deliver, by an imprudence, new victims to the blind rage of the persecutors.
Paganism had by then fallen into general contempt; no one believed in Olympus or its gods any more; but since this convenient religion authorized all the excesses and disorders which the new cult defended and condemned, it was in everyone's interest to maintain it.
The persecutions were therefore the effect of a social reaction, of an attempt at religious restoration, and they were in Rome what they are everywhere in times of reaction and in tormented periods of impossible restoration: violent, cruel and implacable.
Anyone suspected of being in communion with the Christians was immediately denounced. To escape the executioners, there was only one refuge, the catacombs; and as all the followers knew the exits, the dark sinuosities and the inner dispositions, it was easy for them to escape the most active and relentless pursuits.
When the pagans could not satisfy their hatred, and when the de-igned victim escaped them, they took their revenge by insult; they threw the most contemptuous epithets at the Christians; they called them tenebrosa et lucifugax, -: dark people who flee from the light, - without suspecting that soon from the depths of the darkness in which the Christians sheltered their faith, a church was going to emerge which was to illuminate the world.
The catacombs could only seem a dreadful asylum to those whose hearts were closed to the doctrines of Christian spiritualism; one had to believe, and be animated by the ardent hope of a glorious immortality, to consent to live there, for St. Jerome, who visited these hypogeums at a time when the Church was already recognised and respected, and when for a long time the piety of the faithful had decorated the [dark avenues] of them, depicts to us thus the horror of it:
"I have often visited," he says, "those subterranean cavities whose walls, on the right and left, are filled with buried bodies: everything is so dark that it seems, as we descend into them, that this prophecy is fulfilled: They descend alive into sepulchres. The horror of this darkness is rarely moderated by the light of heaven, which from below "seems to communicate itself rather through a small crevice than through a subterranean opening from which one can only approach" step by step. One is surrounded in these caverns by a dark night and one could apply to them these words of Virgil: "By-" all the horror and the silence cast terror in the souls. "
Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent.
Is it not then an exact reduction of the catacombs seen by Saint Jerome that the architect has placed before our eyes?
However, while sincerely praising the architect's work, we must express one regret, namely that space and time may have been lacking, and that it was not possible for him to add to his construction some accessories that would have made the resemblance of the copy to the model even more perfect.
We certainly do not reproach him for having left bare, without inscriptions and symbolic figures, the frames which mark the place and the entrance of the tombs: most of the inscriptions and all the paintings being posterior to the centuries of persecutions, he did well not to apply to his walls either the ship, image of the Church, or the anchor, image of Christian hope, or the fish, which, by designating Jesus Christ, also symbolised the souls drawn out of the sea of perdition.
What we deeply regret is that he did not add to his construction a large square room, such as those found from distance in the catacombs, and which would have served Christians as oratories and places of meeting and assembly; Finally, it is that in this Champ de Mars, so deeply collapsed in all its parts, he did not find a way of creating a basement, and did not show us, by means of an easily executed substruction, how the catacombs are arranged and linked together.
The work would then certainly have been more complete. But as it is, let us say it, it has a character that distinguishes it from all the constructions that surround it. There are none that are the object of more serious attention, where one enters with more curiosity and contemplation, and which must leave a more lasting memory in the minds of visitors.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée