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Arched niche of a tomb with early Christian paintings of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, in —Pont. Comm. di Arch. Sacra/M. Grimoldi
Subterranean cemetery of galleries with recesses for tombs. The term was probably first applied to the cemetery under St. Sebastian's Basilica that was a temporary resting place for the bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul in the late 3rd century AD, but it came to refer to all the subterranean cemeteries around Rome. In addition to serving as burial sites, catacombs in early Christian Rome were the sites of funeral feasts celebrated in family vaults on the day of burial and on anniversaries. They were used as hiding places during times of persecution; Pope Sixtus II was supposedly captured and killed (AD 258) while hiding in the St. Sebastian's catacomb during Valerian's persecution. Catacombs are also found in Sicily and other parts of Italy, in Egypt, and in Lebanon.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on catacomb, visit Britannica.com.