We have selected the following article from our printed newsletter ‘Communion’ for you.
Ally Kateusz PhD (pictured above) is a historian
with a particular interest in the roles of women in early
Christianity, and is Research Associate at the Wijngaards
Institute for Catholic Research
I have been working on several projects this year related to early Christian women clergy, and recently I realized I had missed something important. What I realized is that there does not appear to be any surviving Christian art up to at least the middle of the sixth century that depicts a Christian man at the altar in a real church without a woman also with him. There are, however, two artifacts that depict men and women flanking the altar in parallel, and these are the two very oldest surviving iconographic artifacts to depict people at the altar in a real church.
Both of these artifacts are sculptures usually dated to the decades around 430 CE. One is a large sarcophagus front, which depicts the sanctuary of the second Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and the other is the Pola ivory reliquary box, which depicts the sanctuary of Old Saint Peter’s in Rome. Both sculptors portrayed a liturgical scene with men and women flanking the altar in parallel, with men on the left and women on the right.
I published my research about these two artifacts in the Spring 2017 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, which won the March 2018 Feminae article of the month. Not only are these two the very oldest surviving artifacts to depict people at the altar in a real church, they apparently survived only because they were buried. The ivory reliquary box was buried below an altar in Roman era church near modern Pola, Croatia, and the sarcophagus in a hypogeum adjacent the Theodosian walls in Istanbul. Both were excavated in the twentieth century. From this sample of two we can surmise that other similar artifacts must have existed, but none above ground survived, suggesting that thisgender parallel liturgy may have been censored later.
The idea that the gender parallel liturgy was censored is not far-fetched given the evidence of censorship of early liturgical manuscripts, which was even more pervasive than with literary manuscripts. According to Paul Bradshaw at the beginning of his magisterial The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, almost no liturgical manuscripts, neither Christian nor Jewish, have survived from the first seven centuries CE. Instead, almost all of the oldest liturgical manuscripts date to the early eighth century, and are written on similar writing materials in similar scripts, an apparent attempt to legitimize the liturgical practices of that day by presenting them as from an older tradition.
The biggest revelation for me, however, came during dinner with Miriam Duignan, Wijngaards Institute Communications Director, who asked whether there was evidence in art of women clergy officiating without men. In fact, the very oldest surviving artifact to depict Christians of only one sex at the altar of a real church depicts only women. This scene is on an ivory pyx dated to the 500s, which today is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Most scholars agree it depicts the altar in the rotunda or basilica of the Anastasis Church in Jerusalem, also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although other scholars suggest perhaps some other church in Palestine.
The round shape of the pyx evokes the famous rotunda church, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York titles it “Pyx with the Women at Christ’s Tomb,” suggesting this identification. Other art depicts the two Marys approaching the shrine over Christ’s tomb, which was inside the rotunda. The pyx, however, does not depict the tomb. It depicts five women in what appears to be a liturgical procession to the altar table, a book set upon it, a lamp hanging above it, and a ciborium with twisted columns and curtains arching over it.The two women closest to the altar carry censers; the three others have raised arms.
A search of the Princeton Index of Christian Art indicates that a church mosaic in Qasr el Lebya that depicts a woman with a censer dated 539–540CE is the very oldest dated representation in art of a Christian with a censer. The ivory pyx, which cannot be dated more closely than the 500s, is the oldest to depict a Christian with a censer at an altar. In addition, it is by far the oldest to depict the liturgy in what was probably the Anastasis in Jerusalem – or for that matter, in any church in Palestine.
We thus see early Christian artists portraying women in the very oldest surviving art that depicts anyone at the Christian altar. We see women in the liturgy both paralleled with men and without men. We see these women inside the sanctuaries of some of the most important orthodox basilicas in Christendom. To my knowledge these artifacts are older than any surviving art to depict a Christian man alone at an altar in a real church.