(A word which gives in the plural luminaria and has hence been incorrectly written in the singular luminarium )
Luminare 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 archæological 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
(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 of Callistus was discovered an inscription in these terms: —Fortunius et Matrona se vivis fecerunt bisomum ad luminare
(Fortunius and Matrona constructed this double tomb for themselves in their lifetime beside the lightshaft). 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 favourite 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., 2 June, 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 honoured 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 orifices 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. Chrysanthus and Darius (De Glor. Mart., 37) seems clearly to illustrate some such arrangement.
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online