Restored Rome catacomb frescoes add to debate on women priests

Wed Nov 20, 2013 6:30am EST
 
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By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - Proponents of a female priesthood say frescoes in the newly restored Catacombs of Priscilla prove there were women priests in early Christianity. The Vatican says such assertions are sensationalist "fairy tales".

The catacombs, on Rome's Via Salaria, have been fully reopened after a five-year project that included laser technology to clean some of the ancient frescoes and a new museum to house restored marble fragments of sarcophagi.

Art lovers and the curious around the world who cannot get to Rome can join the debate by using a virtual visit to the underground labyrinth by Google Maps, a first-time venture mixing antiquity and modern high technology.

Built as Christian burial sites between the second and fifth centuries and meandering underground for 13 km (8 miles) over several levels, the Catacombs of Priscilla contain frescoes of women that have provoked academic debate for many years.

One, in a room called the "Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman," shows a woman whose arms are outstretched like those of a priest saying Mass. She wears what the catacombs' Italian website calls "a rich liturgical garment". The word "liturgical" does not appear in the English version.

She also wears what appears to be a stole, a vestment worn by priests. Another fresco, in a room known as "The Greek Chapel," shows a group of women sitting around a table, their arms outstretched like those of priests celebrating Mass.

Organizations promoting a female priesthood, such as the Women's Ordination Conference and the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests, have pointed to these ancient scenes as evidence of a female priesthood in the early Church.

But the Vatican contests these interpretations which have also appeared in books on women in Christianity, such as the "The Word According to Eve" published in 1998.   Continued...

 
A fresco is pictured inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome November 19, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi