Does Fresco in Ancient Roman Catacombs Show Woman Priest?

Fractio Panis, the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome. Photo: via wikipedia.
Fractio Panis, the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome. Photo: via wikipedia.

At the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla, Rome’s oldest Christian cemetery, ancient art may indicate that woman were once priests, reports the BBC.

Scholars have long been in disagreement over the meaning of one fresco, the Fractio Panis, which appears to depict a Eucharistic meal, with seven seated figures at a table, one breaking bread. The traditional reading of the work assumes that “if that figure is breaking bread, then he has to be male, because women wouldn’t break bread and be leading the Eucharist,” Nicola Denzey Lewis, a professor of religious studies at Rhode Island’s Brown University, told the BBC.

Denzey Lewis claims that someone has removed some of the paint from the face of the figure breaking bread to make it look darker, suggesting the presence of a beard. Many modern academics share her belief that the figures are wearing female garb, particularly the veiled individual in the middle, but Denzey Lewis isn’t convinced the scene depicts a celebration of Mass, as game-changing as that would be for the history of the Catholic church.

“It was only called a Eucharist because the 19th-century Catholic clergyman who discovered it, when he saw a meal, that’s where his mind went,” Denzey Lewis explained. “I think it’s a woman in charge, absolutely. But I don’t see evidence in that scene for women priests.” Alternately, the women could be holding a funereal banquet, a religious ritual for both pagans and early Christians.

Regardless of whether it depicts a woman priest, the fresco appears to show a woman taking an active, leading role in a religious ceremony in the early years of the church. “I don’t think anyone can seriously question whether there were women deacons until the fourth Century, at least,” Robin Jensen, a Christian art history professor at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University told the BBC.

The catacombs are also believed by many to have a third-century fresco of the Virgin Mary, thought to be the only image of the saint pre-dating the 431 Council of Ephesus, which officially recognized Mary as the mother of God. Other significant early Christian archaeological finds include Jesus’s Ancient Stomping Grounds Discovered at Galilean Hotel and Lost Gospel Attributed to Jesus’s Mother Discovered at Harvard.


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