Beautiful Frescoes Renew Ugly Debate Over Role Of Women In The Catholic Church

Women In Newly Revealed Frescoes: Priestesses Or Not?

Do these frescoes in a newly opened section of Roman catacombs depict Christian women as priestesses? Despite Vatican insistence many feel that they do.

Vatican unveils newly restored frescoes in an ancient catacomb.

The catacombs of Priscilla lie under the northern section of Rome. They are a popular site for both the faithful and those fascinated with history. The catacombs are decorated with many frescoes — the earliest known depiction (c. 235 CE) of a Madonna and Child is there. The Vatican has opened an area where newly restored frescoes are creating division among Catholics. The picture above, according to those who support ordination for women, is a priestess. Not a Pagan one, but a Christian priestess. The Vatican, naturally enough, denies this. They say the woman is just praying like everyone else. Not so fast there, Vatican.

Priestesses in the early Christian Church? Oh, yes!

Though the hierarchy of the Vatican denies it, scholars are convinced that women served as clergy in the early period of the Church — even male scholars. Giorgio Otranto, director of the Institute of Classical and Christian Studies, has delved into the topic for many years. Otranto points to the influence of the Gnostic and Montanist sects of Christianity for proof of a female priesthood. Both of these sects saw the godhead as androgynous: both male and female. They referred to the creation story on the first chapter of Genesis. The orthodox church used the second chapter, the one that speaks of a male god. It was this view that dominated after the 3rd century and is still prevalent in Christianity.

Montanism, in particular, accepted women as equal to men. The founder, Montanus, called himself a prophet, and had two prophetesses at his side: Maximilla and Priscilla (another one, not the one the catacombs are named for). Montanism featured not only women as prophets but as ministers, too. Women held high office and officiated at rites such as the Eucharist and baptism.

The Gnostics, much like the Pagans, saw the masculine and feminine as complimentary and believed that the Divine had a dual nature. They would call upon the Mother, seeing silence, grace and wisdom as feminine aspects of god. Women served the Eucharist and would speak as prophets. These frescoes seem to portray women in these roles.

Supporters of the ordination of women feel vindicated.

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests considers the images in the frescoes as proof of the ordination of women in the early Church. They maintain that this, one of the newly restored frescoes…

Vatican unveils newly restored frescoes in an ancient catacomb

… shows a group of women celebrating the Eucharist. The official guide-book for the catacombs agrees that this is a Eucharistic meal but the Vatican’s spokesman says it is a funeral meal. The hairstyle, dress and — not to put too fine a point on it — breasts indicate that these are women. Unless there was some cross-dressing going on, something disciples of Bacchus did, but not Christians. The woman at the far left and the one in the center have their arms stretched out in the gesture of consecration.

In the early days of the Church, meetings were held in private homes. Most of the women in these households were missionaries and teachers. A perusal of Romans 16:3-5, Acts 18:18; 2 Tim 4:19; 1 and Cor 16:19 supports this. The woman in the picture at the top of this story is quite obviously wearing priestly vestments: a dalmaticamice and an alb. Another of the frescoes in the catacombs depicts a bishop ordaining a woman who is similarly dressed.

Time to join the 21st century, Vatican.

There is little doubt that women were instrumental in spreading the new religion of Christianity. They opened their homes to it, taught it and administered the rites of it. But the male-dominated sect won the day back in the 5th century and have held tightly to power ever since. There are many women who have been ordained in the Anglican Church and the Church of England has just voted to allow female bishops. Protestant sects, too, have accepted women as clergy. My aunt was a pastor in the Pentecostal Church and, boy, she could best many a male pastor when it came to preaching!. Jesus never said anything about not allowing women to minister or teach. Paul is the one who set down those prohibitions. Isn’t it about time the Catholic Church caught up with the rest of Christianity? These frescoes are a perfect opening to do so. I hope Pope Francis will consider them a sign.