Geoffrey Kirk unravels a feminist fantasy

ONE OF THE MOST bizarre features of the debate about the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England was the claim made by proponents to have found iconographical evidence of women priests in the early Church.

In a programme broadcast on Sunday November 8 1992, [Everyman: The Hidden Tradition] it was claimed that a fresco in the Capella Graeca of the Catacomb of Priscilla and a mosaic in the Chapel of S. Zeno in the Church of S Praxedis (both in Rome) are, respectively, representations of seven women concelebrating the eucharist and of a woman bishop, the mother of Pope Pascal I

Writing of the programme in a book dedicated to its producer, Angela Tilby, her friend Lavinia Byrne speaks of the power of the visual evidence – a male celebrant – which has been persistently set before Christian congregations for time out of mind. No wonder they think they know what a priest should look like! Byrne adds: ‘Only in darkened catacombs, or, ambiguously, in mosaics, are there images which tell a different story’ (Woman at the Altar, Mowbray, 1994, p 50).


Ambiguously, indeed. For, though those images surface as ‘evidence’ in a number of unexpected places, including a pamphlet by the veteran Scottish Presbyterian theologian T. F. Torrance (The Ministry of Women, Edinburgh, The Handsel Press, 1992 ), all the references can be traced back to a single source – Joan Morris’s slender volume of 1973 [Against Nature and God]. (Morris, a venerable Catholic feminist who died in 1985, was – not entirely co-incidentally – the first modern populariser of the story of her namesake, Pope Joan’.)

None of these references, however, (including their fons et origo) even attempts to give a serious academic account of the evidence. Torrance, for example, seems to think (as does Morris) that the Catacomb of Priscilla has some connection with the wife of Aquila [Acts 18; 1-3, 18-19; Rom 16; 3-5; 1 Cor 16:19. 2 Tim 4;19]. Torrance even maintains that the fresco includes representations of Priscilla and her husband.

Such is, of course, very far from probable. The catacomb dates from the end of the second century, and was excavated below a villa of the gens Acilia, fragments of which survive. It is not known when it received its present name, but a corruption of the original name of the property cannot be ruled out. The Capella Graeca is so-called on account of the Greek inscriptions over one of its niches, with dedications by a certain Obrinus (of whom nothing else is known) to his cousin and companion Palladius and to his wife, Nestoriana. The fresco is dated by most authorities to the late third century.

So what are these pictures, and why have they stirred such uncritical enthusiasm?

The Capella Graeca painting is of seven figures seated (‘intimately, says Byrne) at the opposite side of a table from the spectator. To either side, set on the ground, are six (or seven) containers, which appear to be either jars or baskets. Some may (or may not) contain bread. The condition of the fresco is poor, but it is certainly the case that at least one of the figures is female. The figure at the extreme left has arms extended and may (or may not) have a beard. Who are they, and what are they doing?

‘In one of the earliest (sic) catacomb paintings in Rome in the Capella Greca, within a century after the death and resurrection of Christ (sic), there is a remarkable mural depicting the breaking of bread at the celebration of the eucharist. Seven presbyters are seated in a semicircle behind the Holy Table, assisted by several deacons. This is known as the ‘Catacomb of Priscilla!, for Priscilla is seated to the right of the presiding presbyter (presumably her husband, Aquila, the poestos or bishop, and is actively engaged with him in the eucharistic rite.’ [T.F. Torrance, op.cit., pl]


Torrance then goes on to a lengthy explanation of why there are seven figures. But his fanciful speculation need not detain us now, for a more important feature of his account demands our attention: ‘…assisted’, says Torrance , ‘by several deacons’. Deacons, of course, are exactly what one would expect at a eucharistic celebration of the period. The liturgical text books are full of the role of the deacon in the Patristic liturgy. At the time I first read his paper I had, I confess, seen only a photograph of the fresco – a postcard sent me by a member of the MOW committee. It showed no ‘deacons’. Imagine, then, the excitement with which I mounted the bus for the lengthy journey up the Via Salaria, toward what would be my first viewing of the painting in its entirety. Alas! after a lengthy descent in the company of a nun whose rapid Italian I found difficult to follow, no deacons! What you see – postcard-wise – is what you get. There are seven figures and no more. Quite simply, Torrance was making these extraordinary and specific claims about a painting he had never actually seen!


Mary Ann Rossi (as interviewed for Angela Tilby’s award-winning programme) saw something else.

‘It was most striking to me to realise that these were seven women sitting around the table. And it really strikes you when you see something you had not expected, and suddenly it is brought home. There is no doubt; I think you will agree when you have seen it, that they are seven women and not seven men …..If you look at the shape of the people, these are not men. Women are not built the same! The presence, the aspect, the gestures! Ah, they seem to be self-assured, happy in their celebration. It’s a look I have seen on the faces of women with whom I have been celebrating Mass in my country. It’s a satisfaction, it’s a happiness, it’s a self-assured posture that I see in the seven women in the Priscilla painting.’ [Mary Ann Rossi, in The Hidden Tradition, BBC Television, December 8,1992]

Rossi’s effusive account is, sadly, incompatible with Torrance’s equally categorical assertion. Clearly the picture cannot, at one and the same time, represent seven concelebrating women and a mixed company (with deacons!) in which a man (Aquila) and his wife (Priscilla) are concelebrating. Ms Tilby, in her television programme, wisely kept Rossi and Torrance apart. They follow one another, but they never meet. One cannot help thinking, however, what fun she missed by not taking the pair of them to Rome (at the expense of the BBC), standing them together in front of the fresco, and letting them battle it out. The programme might have been very different as a result!

There are, however, several problems which make both readings of the picture improbable.

It is true that, almost since Joseph Wilpert’s discovery of the fresco in the nineteenth century, it has been called the ‘Fractio Panis ; and that a copy of it, in mosaic, has been used by the nuns, who are now its custodians, as an altar piece in their convent chapel since the 1960s. It is also true that the composition – a number of figures facing the spectator from behind a table – irresistibly reminds anyone who sees it of the most famous of all representations of the Last Supper. But is this a picture of a eucharistic celebration? And if so, a celebration in what circumstance or context?


Torrance writes of a ‘presiding presbyter …the poestos or bishop’, (whom he identifies as ‘presumably her husband Aquila and of Priscilla (as he confidently claims) ‘actively engaged with him in the eucharistic rite’. (Torrance, incidentally, was more definitive to camera than in the pamphlet.) Rossi speaks of ‘seven women concelebrating the eucharist. But what precisely, in either case, is envisaged?

Torrance’s slippery phrase (‘actively engaged with him in the eucharistic rite’), acknowledges, I suspect, the existence of problems of which Rossi is blissfully unaware.

Concelebration in the strict sense of a college of priests reciting the anaphora together is difficult to envisage at a time when the eucharistic prayer remained the extempore composition of the celebrant. ‘Christian texts of this type’, says Bouyer (meaning written prayers of thanksgiving at the Eucharist), ‘become common only after the great crisis of Arianism, i.e. after the second half of the fourth century’ [Eucharist, Notre Dame University Press, 1968, p.136] – which is to say: far beyond Torrance’s incredible dating of the fresco to around 130AD, and well beyond the generally agreed dating of around 290AD. The first firm evidence of concelebration in the modem sense relates to Papal masses in the seventh century. Not until the twelfth century (as St Thomas Aquinas attests) had it been exported from Rome and was common at ordinations elsewhere.

It is sometimes suggested that, in the immediately sub-apostolic period, ‘concelebrating priests’ stood beside their bishop raising their hands over the oblations in silence. But the evidence for such a practice is flimsy, and in any case it is not what is represented in the Capella Graeca. There the figures are clearly seated, and no common gesture defines them.

All this said, there must, I suppose, remain a question about Torrance’s husband-and-wife team, who are both supposed to be ‘actively engaged’ in a eucharistic rite.

The question is: How would we know, from a painting, if this were the case? Necessarily, I suggest, by gesture. But by what gestures would the artist declare his intent? And are any such gestures apparent in this painting? And are all (or any) of the other participants engaged in them? To my eye there is no more evidence for Torrance’ s confidence in this matter than there is for the service of those ‘several deacons’ whose absence from the fresco we have already noted

‘…m some cases the brevity [of the signs employed in catacomb paintings] is certainly excessive, as when, for example, a scene that represents a meal of some kind has no detail that would distinguish between the Multiplication of Loaves, the Miracle of Cana, the Last Supper or the repast in paradise beyond the tomb. Those who planned the mural paintings in the catacombs were probably not entirely averse to a certain ambiguity in their image-signs, since the Multiplication of the Loaves, for example, was regarded as a symbol of the agape of paradise or a figuration of the Last Supper.’ [op.cit, pp. 8-9] –

This interpenetration of images, Grabar is emphasising, is precisely what catacomb art is all about. It is a style which eschews clarity and particularity.

No observer, looking at the four scenes cited by Grabar could fail, however, to notice a significant feature of three of them. In three of the four, prominent in the composition (in front of the table in the Callixtus and Peter and Marcellinus frescoes [Grabar, plate 6, 9J; on either side of it in the Priscilla fresco [Grabar, plate 7]) there are a number of large containers. What are they, and what are they for? The challenge for those who believe that the paintings are representations of a eucharistic celebration is to give a plausible liturgical explanation of their use and purpose. And that, I suspect, cannot be done

The painting in the catacomb of SS Peter and Marcellinus comes closest to giving us a clue. There the seven figures at the table (seven again – it is always seven!) are joined by two more, one significantly larger than the other. The mysterious vessels are this time ranged out between these standing figures. The explanation generally given seems plausible enough. The large robed figure is Jesus, the smaller one the architriklinos [Jn 2:9J and the vessels are the six hydriai [Jn 2:6] whose contents are being turned into wine. The scene is the Wedding at Cana of Galilee: itself, of course, in John’s gospel, a type of the eucharist.

Are the vessels, in the Callixtus and Priscilla frescoes, water-pots in the same way? And is the ‘veiled woman’ in the catacomb of “Priscilla intended for the bride (another richly symbolic figure, in a richly symbolic story)? On the balance of evidence its seems highly probable; but we will never know for certain. Fabrizio Mancinelli, until recently Assistant Curator of Medieval, Modern and Byzantine Art in the Vatican Museums draws attention to another possibility. The fresco in the Catacomb of Callixtus, he points out, shows eleven containers (and here they seem clearly to be baskets) ranged on either side. Were there original y twelve? (12 =kophinoi [Mk 6:43; Jn6;13]; 7 =kophinoi [Mk 8:19]; 6 =hydriai [Jn 2:7]).

The scene. ..could hardly be mistaken for a simple pagan funeral meal. It appears in several places in the Roman catacombs, and although it varies in form, it always contains the symbolic number of baskets filled with bread, a detail which is lacking in the frescoes which clearly depict a refrigerium, or funeral banquet. The baskets commemorate the miracle wrought by Jesus in the desert, when he provided bread for the famished multitude.’ [‘The Catacombs of Rome and the Origins of Christianity; Fabrizio Mancinelli, Scala. 1981. p 24]

Mancinelli, what is more, sees a great deal in the Priscilla painting than is not apparent to some:

‘Sitting at the table are seven persons, among them a woman with veiled head. At the far left a bearded figure, dressed in tunic and pallium, extends his hands to break the bread (fractio panis). On the table before him are a chalice of wine, a plate with two fishes and one with five loaves of bread. The composition is bordered by seven baskets of bread, three to one side, four to the other.’ [Mancinelli, op cit p 29]


What I suggest is most illuminating about this i story with no very firm conclusions, is not what I we learn from it about the past, but what we learn about the present.

Why, we need to ask, are intelligent people like Thomas Torrance and MaryAnn Rossi prepared to be so dogmatic about things of which they know so very little? And why is Lavinia Byrne so ready to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to Wilpert and his watercolourist? And why’ was Angela Tilby so eager to mislead viewers of her programme about the scholarly consensus regarding a series of catacomb paintings which, whatever they are, are certainly not simple portrayals of a second century eucharist, by ‘concelebrants’ either male or female?

The answer is sad but obvious: they have leapt too enthusiastically from the ethical to the historical. That the Christian priesthood should be open equally to women as to men is for them a self-evident truth. And they have assumed that what ought to be, must have been.

In disciplines like theology and church history, where, almost uniquely in the modern world, the term primitive is one of approbation, the temptation is obvious. But the practitioners are none the less culpable.

Let Tom Torrance’s deacons be a lesson to us all!

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham and appeared in the BBC television programme The Hidden Tradition’.

Angela Tilby is now a priest. Lavinia Byrne is now a lay woman. They tutor jointly at Westcott House Theological College in Cambridge.