Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs: The Richest Collection of Sepulchral Monuments of the Roman Provinces
The Romans left an indelible mark on the societies they conquered. In many of their former provinces there are splendid remains of Roman civilization and culture which includes early Christian monuments. One of the most remarkable in Europe is the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs, Hungary. Here visitors can really capture a sense of the past and be amazed at the architectural and artistic brilliance of an early Christian community.
Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs is a Visual Feast
The necropolis is a complex consisting of early Christian burials and places of worships. It has a large variety of burial structures; among these are brick tombs, stone burial structures, sarcophagi, and crypts. There are also several chapels and a mausoleum. The cemetery is an extensive complex and it has an estimated 500 burials. This necropolis is composed of two stories all located underground.
The first floor of the complex, which is reinforced by buttresses, is a mausoleum that acted as a memorial chapel. Once the building would have been covered by arches and there is a fine example of a 3 rd century marble sarcophagus on its southern wall. In the church, stairs lead down to the burial area and the necropolis proper. There are other chapels in the site that also have tombs and crypts beneath them.
Theatrical Mask on a Sarcophagus at Pécs (Casaba P / CC BY 4.0 )
There are many interesting burial monuments within the necropolis. Among these are the so-called Jug Tomb, named after the jug and a cup engraved on one of its sides, which was a reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion. There are other stone coffins and sarcophagi decorated with many images, geometric patterns, and even figures of angels in the burial area. One of the finest structures in the complex is the large tomb almost a hall, known as the Peter & Paul Tomb. It is important to remember that some tombs were not just places of burial, but memorial chapels where the relatives of the dead would gather and pray for the soul of the deceased.
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Remains of a mural at Pécs (Mehlich, J / CC BY 3.0 )
The necropolis has many other fine examples of early Romano-Christian art. The remains of murals and frescoes can still be seen on tomb and chapel walls and illustrate both biblical scenes, such as Adam and Eve and Daniel in the lion’s den, as well as Christian iconography. The geometric patterns are even found on the murals. Many of the wall paintings are badly damaged, but they are still very impressive. The artistic styles preserved in the necropolis of Pécs are similar to mainstream Roman artistic styles from the era.
Pécs Was 2nd Century Roman Colony
Pécs was originally known as Sopianae and was founded by the Romans as a colony in the 2 nd century AD. It soon became a flourishing provincial center. From the 4 th century the growing Christian community began to build chapels and churches and because they were sacred sites, members of the elite wanted to be buried in them. This led to the practice of burying the deceased under the ground and over time this led to the development of the necropolis. The scale of the cemetery indicates that the Christian community flourished here for many centuries. It seems that even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the coming of the Germanic barbarians, the Christians continued to add to the necropolis and used Roman artistic styles to decorate tombs. Sopianae became an important ecclesiastical center under first the Franks and later the Hungarian Kingdom.
Sarcophagus and mural ( Pecold /Fotolia)
The necropolis has been excavated since the 18 th century. Unlike many other archaeological sites, those who excavated it were very careful and preserved much of what they found. This allowed later generations to restore the chapels and the tombs and artifacts have been returned to their original locations. In the modern era, the site was fully excavated, and the monuments were conserved. The necropolis has been the subject of several restoration projects since the 1960s. The Christian burial ground and its buildings is now a listed historic monument and also a designated archaeological site while the necropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Location of the Early Christian Necropolis Pécs
Pécs is a large city located in the south-west of Hungary. The two stories of the necropolis are located under a public square in the heart of the city and only a brief way from the city’s Catholic Cathedral. An admission fee is required to view the painted chapels. There is plenty of accommodation in the vicinity.
Top image: Early Christian Mausoleum in the necropolis of Pécs Source: (Mehlich, J / CC BY 3.0 )
By Ed Whelan
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