Women as Religious Leaders: The Catacombs of Priscilla

Late in 2013, the Vatican unveiled previously unrestored frescoes from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. Some of the images, featuring what seem to be women acting as priests, could be interpreted as evidence for the existence of women priests in the past. “One of the images at the center of the controversy shows a frontal female figure, wearing a stole, today understood as a vestment of priests, covering her head, with her hands raised up in a stereotypical pose invoking blessing. A second image has been described as women celebrating the religious feast of the eucharist–the predecessor to the modern Mass” (Joyce).


The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, an organization which seeks to create gender equality in the church, considers the frescoes to be evidence of female priests in history, and justification for the existence of female priests today (Yahoo News). This contradicts the Catholic Church’s position on ordination, which is that only men may be ordained, mainly because Jesus’s twelve chosen Apostles were all men. Additionally, it has been said that there is a need for “anyone who represents Jesus in an ecclesial act…to be male, to have a ‘natural resemblance’ to Jesus“. These statements were made officially in 1976, in response to the Women’s Rights Movement, which led to the questioning of the assumption that only men were suited for positions of leadership (Egan).  The Vatican takes the position that the frescoes do not display women priests, and these interpretations are “fable, a legend” and “sensationalistic, but [not] trustworthy” (The Guardian). As anthropologist Rosemary Joyce says, “You need to look at the image in relation to other similar images. If male figures with the same features are called “priests,” then you need to justify why, simply due to gender, you won’t extend that identification to identically posed figures that are female”.  In other words, gendered biases can shape the way we interpret the past, and therefore what positions we think people are suited for based on their gender. Some scholars conclude that the women in the frescoes are not priests, based not on the content of the paintings, but on their predisposition to believe that women would not have existed in those positions of religious leadership. This could lead to a misinterpretation of history, as well an enforcement of gender roles.