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Restorers unveil frescoed chambers in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla


  • Jonah is spit out of the whale in this fresco seen during the unveiling of two newly restored burial chambers in the Christian catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome May 30. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)
  • Bernardino Bartocci, president of Rome's bread makers' association, is pictured during the unveiling of two newly restored burial chambers in the Christian catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome May 30. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)
  • Fragments from the Catacombs of St. Domitilla are seen in a new museum at the catacombs in Rome May 30. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)
  • Fragments from the Catacombs of St. Domitilla are seen in a new museum at the catacombs in Rome May 30. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)
  • A fresco showing Noah releasing doves, lower right, and other scenes representing salvation are seen during the unveiling of two newly restored burial chambers in the Christian catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome May 30. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)
  • Frescoes of birds are seen during the unveiling of two newly restored burial chambers in the Christian catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome May 30. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest Christian cemetery. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

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ROME (CNS) -- Under a mown hayfield, whose dried-out stalks crunch underfoot, lies the four-level labyrinth of the early Christian Catacombs of St. Domitilla.

Ten miles of tunnels, carved out of soft volcanic tuff rock, snake and fork out in a dizzying number of different directions. Luckily, capsule bulbs of lights strung sparsely overhead work like Hansel and Gretel's trail of breadcrumbs leading to the sought-after destination: two newly restored burial chambers not yet open to the public.

The sprawling catacomb complex has about 70 burial chambers, or cubicula, but only 10 have been restored, said Barbara Mazzei, who oversaw the restoration of the chambers' frescoes.

She led a group of reporters to see the finished results May 30. They were unveiled by the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, which oversees the upkeep and preservation of more than 100 early Christian catacombs scattered all over Italy.

The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world's oldest existing Christian cemetery and are among the largest in Italy with a total of some 150,000 burial spots.

The majority are small niches carved into the tunnel walls for poorer Christians; the niches were sealed with a slab of marble or walled up with brick. The round and sumptuously decorated cubicula rooms were built by wealthier families and trade cooperatives, whose members pooled their money for a more dignified resting place.

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