Newly restored Italian frescoes unveiled by the Vatican have revealed that the early Christian Church had female priests.
The frescoes, dating back to between 230 to 240 AD, are housed inside the Catacombs of Priscilla of Rome and were unveiled by the Vatican this week.
Proponents of a female priesthood have said that the frescoes prove there were women priests in early Christianity.
Dug out from the second to fifth centuries, the Catacombs of Priscilla are a complex labyrinth of underground burial chambers stretching eight miles beneath the northern half of the Italian capital city.
Daily Mail reports: The area is often called the ‘Queen of the catacombs’ because it features burial chambers of popes and a tiny, delicate fresco of the Madonna nursing Jesus dating from around 230 to 240 AD – the earliest known image of the Madonna and Child.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, opened the ‘Cubicle of Lazzaro’ which is a tiny burial chamber featuring 4th century images of biblical scenes, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and one of the early Romans buried there in bunk-bed-like stacks as was common in antiquity.
More controversially, the catacomb has two scenes said by proponents of the women’s ordination movement to show women priests.
One fresco in the ochre-hued Greek Chapel features a group of women celebrating a banquet, said to be the banquet of the Eucharist.
Another image, 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’. She also wears what appears to be a stole, a vestment worn by priests.
The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests holds the images up as evidence that there were women priests in the early Christian church – and that therefore there should be women priests today.
But Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of the Vatican’s sacred archaeology commission, said such a reading of the frescoes was pure ‘fable, a legend.’
Even though the catacombs’ official guide says there is ‘a clear reference to the banquet of the Holy Eucharist’ in the fresco, Bisconti said the scene of the banquet wasn’t a Eucharistic banquet but a funeral banquet.
He said that even though women were present they weren’t celebrating Mass.
Bisconti said the other fresco of the woman with her hands up in prayer was just that – a woman praying.
‘These are readings of the past that are a bit sensationalistic but aren’t trustworthy,’ he said.
Asked about the scenes, Ravasi professed ignorance and referred comment to Bisconti.
The Vatican has restricted the priesthood for men, arguing that Jesus chose only men as his apostles.
Google Maps has, for the first time, gone into the Roman catacombs, providing a virtual tour of the Priscilla complex available to anyone who can’t visit the real thing.
Lost for centuries after its entrances were sealed in ancient time, the catacombs were re-discovered in the 16th century and plundered of many gravestones, sarcophagi and bodies. Excavations in modern times began in the 19th century.
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