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Do These Ancient Paintings Prove There Were Female Priests in the Early Church?

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"These are readings of the past that are a bit sensationalistic but aren't trustworthy."

A fresco adorns the Catacombs of Priscilla, a labyrinthine cemetery complex that stretches for kilometers underground, in Rome, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. The Vatican has unveiled newly restored frescoes in the Catacombs of Priscilla, known for housing the earliest known image of the Madonna with Child, and frescoes said by some to show women priests in the early church. The catacombs feature a tiny, delicate Madonna fresco dating from 230-240 AD, as well as scenes said by proponents of the women's ordination movement to show women priests. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia) AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

New questions are emerging about the role of women in the early Christian church after the Vatican this week unveiled recently restored frescoes in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome.

Some say the paintings depict women serving as priests during Christianity's beginning centuries -- a contention the Vatican is calling the stuff of "fairy tales."

Two scenes inside the catacombs, in particular, are capturing attention.

A fresco adorns the Catacombs of Priscilla, a labyrinthine cemetery complex that stretches for kilometers underground, in Rome, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

In one, a group of women are seen celebrating what is believed to be the Eucharist. Another shows a woman in a garment that resembles a robe with her hands lifted up in a position that is generally used by priests during public worship, The Associated Press reported.

The paintings are being used as evidence by some individuals and groups that women once served as priests and that they should once again be allowed to do so within the confines of the Catholic Church.

While the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, a group that ordains and argues for female priests, believes this is the case, others aren't so certain.

Journalists enter the Catacombs of Priscilla, a labyrinthine cemetery complex that stretches for kilometers underground, in Rome, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

Fabrizio Bisconti, superintendent of the Vatican's archeology commission, told the Associated Press that this interpretation of the paintings isn't accurate. In the first fresco, he said, the women are at a funeral banquet and in the second, the woman was merely praying.

"These are readings of the past that are a bit sensationalistic but aren't trustworthy," Bisconti added, noting that the woman in prayer was "a depiction of a deceased person now in paradise."

Reuters reported that the Catacombs of Priscilla -- underground burial chambers that stretch eight miles -- were built as burial grounds between the second and fifth centuries.

The catacombs have been reopened to the public after a five-year restoration project. For those who cannot make it to Rome to see the site can explore it from home using Google Maps.

Debate over the Catholic Church's restrictions on female faith leaders continues as the Vatican's policy of only allowing male priests remains in place.

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