The frescoes of the Santa Priscilla catacombs in Rome call our knowledge of the past into question and challenge the teachings of the Church. Amanda Ruggeri investigates.

When archaeologists in Rome at the end of the 19th Century began to excavate the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla, they hoped to find treasure: intricately carved monuments and vibrant frescoes of the type found in other ancient, underground cemeteries. Instead, they found devastation.

The marble sarcophagi they found inside had been broken into hundreds of pieces, wrote Rodolfo Lanciani, the scholar in charge of the dig. Lavish mosaics, a rare find in Rome’s catacombs, had been pulled from the walls, “the marble incrustations torn off, the altar dismantled, the bones dispersed.”

Some of the plundering, it turned out, had been carried out two centuries earlier – and on the Vatican’s orders. In the mid-17th Century, both Pope Innocent X and Clement IX sent treasure-hunters deep into the catacombs’ depths. Others may have destroyed the catacombs for a reason other than greed. Some think that early explorers vandalised the cemeteries believing they were cursed and had to be destroyed. Lanciani recounts that men picnicking at the site spoke of “the ghosts who haunted the crypt below, when suddenly the carriage which had brought them there, pushed by invisible hands, began to roll down the slope of the hill.” It fell into the river; oxen had to haul it out.

Few people think ghosts haunt the cemetery today. But the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla remain, in some ways, just as dangerous to traditional Church teachings. The discoveries there have sparked controversy over the role of women in the Church, and helped scholars re-evaluate the importance of the Virgin Mary in early Christian history.

Located on the Via Salaria, an ancient road leading north out of Rome, the Santa Priscilla catacombs aren’t as well known to travellers as those on the Via Appia. But they are among Rome’s most important. Thanks to the number of martyrs buried here as well as its sheer size, the underground cemetery was an important pilgrimage site throughout the Middle Ages.

Ladies' supper?

Today, its main draw for scholars and curious visitors is the Cappella Greca, or Greek Chapel. The space once held large, expensive marble sarcophagi, now lost. It also is lavished with an extraordinary number of frescoes – many that, unsually, feature women.

The most controversial is the fresco that depicts a Eucharistic banquet. The fresco shows seven individuals along a dining bench; the figure on the far left-hand side breaks bread. At the time of the fresco’s discovery, the assumption was that "if that figure is breaking bread, then he has to be male, because women wouldn't break bread and be leading the Eucharist,” says Nicola Denzey Lewis, professor of religious studies at Brown University and the author of The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women. Perhaps to aid that interpretation, in the 19th Century, she says, someone rubbed off some of the face’s pigment, making it look shadowed, as if it has a beard. Yet thanks to the figures’ dress (one figure in the middle even wears a veil, as a Roman woman would) and their delicate features, few academics today, or even visitors, think the figures are male.

Some have argued that the fresco shows women leading a Mass – in other words, acting as priests – which would fly in the face of Catholic teachings. But instead it might depict a funereal banquet – the kind of celebration that both pagan and early Christian Romans would hold at the tomb of the deceased. “It was not a Eucharist. It was never meant to be a Eucharist. 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,” says Denzey. “I think it's a woman in charge, absolutely. But I don't see evidence in that scene for women priests.”

Yet, say Denzey and other scholars, whether women led Mass or not may be beside the point: the frescoes in Santa Priscilla show that women played a larger role in the early Church than is generally assumed. “I don’t think anyone can seriously question whether there were women deacons until the 4th Century, at least,” says Robin Jensen, professor of Christian art history at Vanderbilt University.

Curioser and curioser

Mysterious frescoes aside, Santa Priscilla is notable for another reason. The traditional conception of Roman catacombs is that catacombs with Christian tombs were purely Christian establishments, laid out by the Church for this purpose. The implication? That the early Church was highly organised and already had a clear hierarchy. But, points out Barbara Borg, professor of classical archaeology at the University of Exeter, “this model doesn’t work with the early catacombs.” The Santa Priscilla catacomb was originally owned not by the Church, but privately, by Rome’s illustrious Acilii Glabriones family. The family – which may or may not have been Christian – owned the land for more than 250 years. They began burying the dead of their extended family here, freedmen and slaves included, in a system of tunnels, which they added to as necessary. Even if they were Christian, they probably weren’t just burying Christians: families in the early centuries of the Common Era were often of mixed religions, and the tombs here are organised around family groupings, not ecclesiastical hierarchies.

There is yet another piece of the Priscilla puzzle that calls traditional modes of thought into question: the supposed fresco of the Virgin Mary. Said to date to the 3rd Century, the painting shows a veiled woman with a child in her arms. If it is of Mary, it is the oldest image of Jesus’ mother in existence. But it is also an odd one. The small fresco is oddly placed, tucked up on high, on the ceiling. Aside from this one, the first recognised images of Mary come from the 5th Century – after the Council of Ephesus in 431 officially recognised Mary as the mother of God.

But because of how unusually early the fresco would be, some doubt whether it’s Mary at all. “It might be the very first image of the Virgin Mary. It might be a deceased woman with a baby,” says Jensen.

The Virgin Mary or someone else? A Christian catacomb or a mixed one? Women as leaders, or no? If the catacombs had not been so damaged, so much of their archaeological context erased, we might have clearer answers. For now, only the ghosts know for sure.

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