Damasus' curation of the Catacombs of St Callixtus
: a consideration of heterotopia, martyrs, identity and authority

  • Carolyn Davison

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Damasus, bishop of Rome (366-384 AD), operated in an era of dynamic change with regards to what it meant to be a Christian and, in particular, a Roman Christian. With persecution becoming a distant memory and Christians moving up the ladder of societal respect, an amended collective memory befitting of their evolved status, under the authority of the bishop of Rome, was needed.

This thesis proposes that Damasus utilised the Catacombs of St Callixtus, arguably the most prominent subterranean burial complex in Rome, to promote his version of an evolved collective Christian identity, in an attempt to mould the identity of the Church and unify Christians under the leadership of the bishop of Rome. Further, this thesis argues that Damasus’ curation of the Catacombs of St Callixtus created an evolved and relevant heterotopia which supported his intent.

The material and phenomenological interventions by Damasus are explored, in light of Foucault’s definition of a heterotopia of compensation. These interventions include the blocking of galleries to direct the path of the pilgrim, the utilisation of light, and the installation of carefully composed epigrams.

Although the prevailing view in scholarship is that Damasus’ interventions were intended to position himself as the impresario of the martyrs (P. Brown, 1981), this thesis suggests that more subtle strands of intent should also be considered. These include tempering the martyr cult in Rome, a marking-out of the authority of the bishop, and the subtle movement of female martyrs, who had been no stranger to the protagonist role in martyrological literature, to, at most, a supporting role. Further, that Damasus’ safe-guarding of the Catacombs, and the promotion of unity in the Church at Rome through the Catacombs, allowed Damasus to actively contribute to the defence of the Nicene-faith throughout the Empire.
Date of AwardJul 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJames Davis (Supervisor) & Laura Pfuntner (Supervisor)


  • Damasus
  • Catacombs
  • Catacombs of St Callixtus
  • Callistus
  • heterotopia
  • elogia
  • martyrs
  • early Church
  • curation
  • phenomenology
  • Rome
  • bishop

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