St. Paul's Catacombs
The Maltese Islands are rich in Late Roman and Byzantine burial sites. St Paul’s Catacombs are a typical complex of interconnected, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 4th century AD. They are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Melite (today’s Mdina), since Roman law prohibited burials within the city.
St Paul’s Catacombs represent the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta and owes its name to the widely held myth that it was related to St Paul’s Grotto. These catacombs were cleared up and investigated in 1894 by Dr A. A. Caruana, the pioneer of Christian archaeology in Malta.
The Maltese catacombs, when compared with those of Rome, Sicily and North Africa, although much more modest in size have a wider variety and richness of tomb architecture.
The architecture of St Paul’s Catacombs is the result of an indigenous development which was barely influenced by overseas traditions. An imposing hall acts as the centre of St Paul’s Catacombs. Passages lead off from it in several directions into a bewildering series of tomb galleries. The few surviving murals, despite their fragmentary state, are of considerable interest since they constitute the only surviving evidence on the Islands of painting from the Late Roman and early medieval periods.
Among the most interesting features of St Paul’s Catacombs are the circular tables which are set in a low platform with sloping sides and appear to resemble a reclining, circular couch. Both table and couch are hewn out in one piece forming a single architectural unit within an apsed recess. They were probably used to host commemorative meals during the annual festival of the dead when the rites of burials were renewed.