Female Priests in Ancient Art
Women have made an incredible contribution to the history of the church, however many of the stories of women have not been recorded or their impact has been lost to history. We have bits and pieces of some stories, and occasionally new evidence and insights will surface bringing excitement about women’s roles in the early church.
One place this has happened has been in the Catacombs of Priscilla, with a fresco in entitled the “Fractio Panis” from the 3rd century.
This piece is located in the Greek Chapel portion of the crypt and it depicts 7 figures breaking bread together at a table. For nearly 100 years scholars believed it was of 6 men and a woman, however as scholars studied it further, new insights emerged leading to the conclusion that ALL the figures are actually women, and a woman is fulfilling the role of priest, serving the Eucharist.
What does it mean if women were depicted as priests this early on in Christian history?
The debate continues on as the Catholic Church, aware of the controversy, has chosen not accept these could be women, and many in the western church have ignored this evidence completely.
The Catacombs of Priscilla:
The catacombs were discovered under the ancient estate of Senator Pruden of the Cornelian Family, one of Priscilla’s relatives and one of Peter’s earliest converts in Rome. The estate and catacomb are named for one of Priscilla’s family members of the same name.
Priscilla and Aquila’s home was also on Pruden’s estate, underneath what is now called the Church of St. Prisca. The couple were buried there among thousands of other early church leaders, martyrs and early Popes, although all have now been ransacked. The catacombs extend more than 7 miles underground and hold some of the oldest and rarest Christian art, including the oldest known painting of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus.
Read more about Priscilla's life and ministry here.
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- Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, “Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries”. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017) pg. 67.
- Ruth Hoppin, “Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” (Fort Bragg, Calif. Lost Coast Press, 2000), pg. 89.
- Ibid., pg. 90.
- Ibid., pg. 97.
- Nicola Denzey, “The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women”. (Boston, Mass. Beacon Press, 2007), pg. 90.