About Face: Portraits from the Catacombs

Series Description

“All interest in disease and death is only another expression of interest in life.”

Thomas Mann


The catacombs at the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo are one of the most popular tourist attractions in that Sicilian city. Interments began in 1599, and bodies of more than eight thousand persons were deposited there until the practice was discontinued in the early twentieth century. Bodies were preserved by various mummification and embalming techniques; obviously these were less than perfect.

Interment in the catacombs was an honor and was granted in recognition of a virtuous life and for contributions to the community. The garments worn by the deceased provide clues as to who these people were. Bodies of laypersons are generally clothed in the garb of their profession. One resident, for example, wears an 1820s military uniform. A rope around the neck is a symbol of penance worn by monks.

Viewing photographs of these bodies can be discomforting. But attitudes toward death vary over time; in our culture we turn away from death and dismiss it though the use of euphemisms and the like. When premature mortality, especially among children, was more common, acknowledgment of death was more forthright. Note, for example, the popularity of postmortem photographs in nineteenth-century America. In Palermo it was customary for people to visit the catacombs to spend time with the remains of their family members ­­- to pray, to dust off and attend to the body, possibly to give the loved one a fresh change of clothes.

The catacombs and the bodies preserved therein are not merely macabre curiosities. They are an expression of faith and a celebration of life. In that spirit I offer these images as homage to those who have gone before us and as an affirmation of the continuity of human life and civilization.

Note: These images are purposefully small, 4 inches by 4 inches.