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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Name applied to the shafts with which we find the roof of the passages and chambers of the Catacombs occasionally pierced for the admission of light and air

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Errata* for Luminare:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Luminare (a word which gives in the plural luminaria and has hence been incorrectly written in the singular luminarium) is the name applied to the shafts with which we find the roof of the passages and chambers of the Catacombs occasionally pierced for the admission of light and air. These chimney-like openings have in many cases a considerable thickness of soil to traverse before they reach the surface of the ground. They generally broaden out below, but contract towards the summit, being sometimes circular but more frequently square in section. As a rule they reach down to the second or lower story of the catacomb, passing through the first. Sometimes they are so contrived as to give light to two or even more chambers at once, or to a chamber and gallery together.

Of the existence of these light-shafts we have historical as well as archaeological evidence. For example, St. Jerome, in a well-known passage, writes of his experience in Rome when he was a boy, about A.D. 360."I used", he says, "every Sunday, in company with other boys of my own age and tastes, to visit the tombs of the Apostles and martyrs and to go into the crypts excavated there in the bowels of the earth. The walls on either side as you enter are full of the bodies of the dead, and the whole place is so dark as to recall the words of the prophet, `let them go down alive into Hades'. Here and there a little light admitted from above suffices to give a momentary relief to the horror of darkness" (In Ezech., lx). This "little light" undoubtedly was admitted through the luminaria. Again, less than half a century later we have the testimony of the poet Prudentius, whose language is more explicit."Not far from the city walls", he informs us, "among the well-trimmed orchards there lies a crypt buried in darksome pits. Into its secret recesses a steep path with winding stairs directs one, even though the turnings shut out the light. The light of day, indeed, comes in through the doorway, and illuminates the threshold of the portico; and when, as you advance further, the darkness as of night seems to get more and more obscure throughout the mazes of the cavern, there occur at intervals apertures cut in the roof which convey the bright radiance of the sun down into the cave. Although the recesses, winding at random this way and that, form narrow chambers with darksome galleries, yet a considerable quantity of light finds its way through the pierced vaulting down into the hollow bowels of the mountain. And thus throughout the subterranean crypt it is possible to perceive the brightness and enjoy the light of the absent sun" (Prudentius, Peristeph., xi). Although the word luminare itself is not employed by either of these writers, it is not a term of modern coinage. In the Cemetery of St. Callistus we have a rather famous inscription set up by the Deacon Severus which begins thus:

Cubiculum duplex cum arcosoliis et luminare Jussu papw sui Marcellini diaconus iste Severus fecit mansionen in pace quietam...

(The Deacon Severus made this double cubiculum, with its arcosolia and luminare by order of his Pope Marcellinus as a quiet abode in peace for himself and his family.) Pope Marcellinus lived from A.D. 296 to 308, and we may be fairly sure that the date of this construction preceded the Diocletian persecution of 303. Again in the crypt of St. Eusebius in the same Cemetery ott Callistus was discovered an inscription in these terms: Fortunius et Matrona se vivis fecerunt bisomum ad luminare

(Fortunius and Maiarona constructed this double tomb for themselves in their lifetime beside the light-shaft). This is how De Rossi (Roma Sotterranea, II, 162; III, 109) reads the lettering on the broken slab, and, though several of the other words are wanting and are supplied by him conjecturally, the last, viz., luminare, is perfectly unmistakable.

The majority of the luminaria as we find them existing in the Catacombs today were constructed after the age of persecution was over, during the course of the fourth and early fifth century, when the tide of devotion still set strongly towards the Catacombs as the favorite burying-places of the Christian population of the city, but there were also other luminaria of earlier date. Occasionally the Acts of the Martyrs speak of poor victims being thrown down these apertures and stoned by the pagans. (See Acts of Marcellinus and Petrus in A. SS., June 2, n. 10.) At the later period the existence of a large and well-constructed light-shaft constitutes a tolerably safe presumption that the chamber into which it opened contained the last resting-place of martyrs specially honored by popular devotion. The fact that these tombs attracted a concourse of people made it desirable, when the need for secrecy had passed away, that more provision should be made for lighting the chamber. A large shaft was accordingly constructed communicating with the outer air, and a certain amount of decoration in the way of frescoes was often applied to it internally. On the other hand these erifices upon the surface of the ground, unless they were protected by a parapet and constantly looked after, became the channels by which soil and rubbish of all kinds were washed into the chambers below. In some cases this accumulation of earth and sand has protected and hidden that portion of the catacomb which is vertically underneath and thus rescued many precious memorials from the ill-considered attentions, or outrages, of earlier explorers. De Rossi (Rom. Sott., III, 423) has left an interesting account of his patient opening-up of the luminare which was the only means of access to the original burial-chamber of St. Cecilia. Often, again, when churches were built over portions of the Catacombs, as in the time of Pope Damasus or earlier, it would seem that a sort of luminare or fenestra was made, through which it was possible for the devout worshippers in the church above to look down into the crypt where the martyr was buried. A story told by St. Gregory of Tours about the crypt of Sts. Chrysanthtis and Darius (De Glor. Mart., 37) seems clearly to illustrate some such arrangement.

(The Crypt of St. Cecilia, with its large luminare, will be found figured among the illustrations in the article Roman Catacombs.)


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