ROME – A small group of activists and academics embarked on a mission this week to dig deep into early Christian art, in search of answers on the original role of women in the Catholic Church, only two months after Pope Francis called for further study and historical data concerning the ordination of female deacons.

“Ancient Christian art proves that women took on a much greater role in the ministries and the liturgy than originally thought,” said Ally Kateusz, Research Associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, during her presentation at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome July 2.

“Yes, Christian women were present at church altars and the altars had crosses on them,” she added.

Kateusz makes the case in her talk in Rome and in her book, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, that despite the lack of extended documentation on female ordination in Catholicism, an unprejudiced look at the artistic representations from the past can speak a thousand words.

The academic believes to have found art dating as far back as the 5th century showing women at the altar originating from the cities that are the beating hearts of Christianity. From Jerusalem to Constantinople (today Istanbul in Turkey) and finally Rome, Kateusz leads a journey to discover images buried by the dust of time and sometimes intentionally hidden.

The historic and artistic evidence gathered during these summer explorations are a far cry from settling the century old debate on the female diaconate, but – perhaps more interestingly – they highlight an attitude of occultation and bootstrapping by Catholic prelates and intellectuals who must have been aware of the power that art has to inspire and communicate ideas.

Kateusz believes that her research provides an answer to Pope Francis’s comment aboard the papal plane returning from Macedonia on May 7 that the commission he created in 2016 to research the female diaconate is “studying how to move forward” after its report proved inconclusive.

As an example to provide the lacking historical data, Kateusz showed the image of an Ivory reliquary box found in Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome dating to circa AD 430.

The artifact shows what appears to be a choir of men and women on each side of the altar, hands raised in praise. Between them is depicted a replica of the canopy of Old St. Peter’s Basilica with what Kateusz believes to be a gender parallel liturgy, where both a man and a woman can be seen raising cups above the altars.

“The Vatican excavators took almost 10 years to write their final report, yet never mentioned in it that earlier scholars had identified a woman at this altar,” she said in a July 3 interview with Crux.

Differing opinions have described the scene as that of a wedding or even hypothesized that the altar may have been portable, thereby allowing for the removal of the woman from the sacred space of the church.

Dating further back to the 500s, an ivory pyx used to carry the consecrated host is the oldest artifact portraying an only female cast dressed in liturgical garb surrounding the altar of a church, Kateusz said.

It shows women surrounding the altar in what the academic believes to be the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, two of them carrying incense and three with their arms raised, which in Orthodox art is usually interpreted as a liturgical gesture.

Hanging from each woman’s waist is a narrow strip of cloth, sometimes fringed or with delicate stripes at the end, that will later be known as a maniple in the West or orarion in the East. It’s a white handkerchief usually hanging at the girdle of a priest and used for the Eucharist.

There are numerous other examples that Kateusz presented as visual proof that women at some time in the past have performed a much more relevant role in the holy of holies than they do today, but she saved the best for last when she led the small group into the baptistry of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome July 3.

In a chapel at the far-left corner of the baptistry a massive altar covers the far end of the wall, with an exquisite image above of Mary carrying the child Jesus in the typically affectionate and motherly gesture that many are accustomed to seeing in the Mother of God.

A second look might lead your eye toward the heavens, where the picture of Christ emanates from the gold-pleated mosaics in the apse behind the altar. Most would leave after that, their attention already being captured by the artistic treasures of this Catholic temple.

Or perhaps they would choose to peek behind the altar, as Kateusz encouraged the group to do. Then they would find a very different Mary to greet them. Clad in black and arms raised, surrounded by the fathers and leaders of the Church, she stands smack in the middle of the byzantine-style mosaic from AD 650.


Altar apse mosaic, ca. 650 representing what art historian Ally Kateusz believes to be the Virgin Mary as bishop. San Venantius Chapel, Lateran Baptistery. (Credit: Out-of-copyright image: Giovanni Battista de Rossi, Musaici cristiani e saggi dei pavimenti delle chiese di Roma anteriori al secolo XV.)

Her clothing is particularly interesting due to what seems to be a pallium, a long piece of cloth originally only worn by pontiffs and metropolitan archbishops, hanging from her dark robe with scarlet shoes peeking out underneath. In this striking image, Kateusz sees Mary as a bishop among bishops and preferred intermediator between the universal Church and Jesus. The red tiles that drew a cross over the episcopal garment have been eliminated and exchanged for white ones, but pictures from an 1899 book by art historian Giovanni Battista De Rossi depict the mosaic in its former glory.

Images of Mary as priest in the past were not uncommon, to the extent that a Holy Office decree forbade its representation in 1916 fearing that they might be going too far. Touch-ups and massive altars haven’t been enough to hide the image, but don’t expect to find a postcard of it in the nearby giftshop. “In some cases, the burden of proof is insurmountable for some people,” Kateusz said, adding that men represented in art are quickly identified as clergy even without the correct iconography.

“The way I look at art is: If it were a man in this position, how would you describe him?” she said.

The image of Mary and the others presented by the American scholar are not enough to answer the theological issues surrounding the debate of female ordination, but are sufficient to spark a discussion.

The findings of the report on the female diaconate remain unknown, hidden, at least to date, like these images. Advocates of such a step seem to be asking why, if the “doors are closed” on the priesthood as Pope Francis said in 2016, quoting his predecessor Saint John Paul II, is the Church afraid of looking through a window?

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave


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