Of catacomb paintings, wymynprysts, and rocks on Mars

My email box is under siege by people who want me to comment on the recently restored ancient Roman fresco that feminists and members of COW… no… the Women’s Ordination Conference… that’s WOC… claim as evidence for the ordination of women.


Look, friends… here is the deal.

In a chapel of the 2nd century Roman catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria, there are 3rd century frescoes. They are in poor condition even though they have been recently restored.

In the “Greek chapel”, so-called because of some inscriptions in Greek, you find, above, a Good Shepherd, a peacock (symbol of eternal life, because the ancients thought peacock flesh didn’t decay). Nearby is the most ancient known depiction of Mary and the infant Jesus. There is also a fine depiction of the biblical scene of the three youths, their arms raised in the “orans” or praying position, in the fiery furnace, an symbolic illustration of our trust in God and His salvific care for us. In another section, there is a phoenix, a symbol of resurrection.

The “orans” position, arms raised in an attitude of prayer, was a pagan gesture adopted quite naturally by Christians. In ancient art, a figure standing in this attitude is usually a symbolic depiction of the soul. In a Christian burial site, it would connote the soul’s longing for and attainment of eternal life.

On one side of the Greek chapel there are several figures seated on the far side (from our view) of a table. On the ground on either side are several containers of some kind. On the other side, are the three youths in the fiery furnace.

In the center section you face, there is an “orans” figure standing in a robe falling to mid calf, head covered with a shawl much like a Jewish man’s tallit, without a beard and with disproportionately large hands. On the right there is a figure, probably female, seated on a low-backed chair holding a fairly active infant. On the left there is an older man and two smaller figures, probably young men, who are hard to distinguish. The older man is seated.  He could be wearing a palla, a cloak over a white tunic. One of the young, standing figures is holding up something round, on a cloth or platter, hard to tell.  It may be a loaf of bread.  The older figure’s hand is extended toward the round object.  It looks like what could be a Eucharistic scene.

Some people, in their fevered imaginations, make this out to be a kind of concelebration of the Eucharist, priests behind the table, assisted by deacons in the presence of a bishop.  I don’t see the connection.  Moreover, how do the youths in the furnace fit, if the left and central frescoes are connected?

If the right side of the central fresco, wherein the large “orans” dominates, is a Eucharistic celebration (why the smaller figure would hold the bread in that moment is hard to say), what is with the figure on the right, the woman seated with a baby?  She is seated in such a way not to be facing toward the supposed Eucharistic celebration, but away, which suggests that the left and the right are not related.  The seated woman is gazing pointedly back to the left, but at the “orans” figure, not the Eucharistic scene.

It could be that the family had painted an image of a woman who died in child birth, that the “orans” figure in the center is an expression of her prayer and ours for ourselves and for the dead, and that the Eucharistic scene connects our eschatological and salvific aspirations to the “bread of life”.

The problem is, when you look objectively at the fresco for a while, you can’t make out anything about the seated figures in the frescoes to the left of the central fresco. You can’t tell what sex they are.  Some claim one is a woman.  Fine.  On the other hand, there is no indication that they are clergy of any kind. The fact that they are seated at a table does not mean that this is the Eucharist. There is no evidence that they are doing anything other than eating a meal. That it is in a catacomb suggests that the meal was special, and that it concerns eternal refreshment (refrigerium) and life. It also calls to mind that early Christians not rarely had meals in cemetery’s and catacombs, a practice that persisted from some centuries.

People are conditioned, it seems to me, when they see figures seated as if for a meal on the far side of a table, to think, “Hah! Last Supper!” and therefore “Eucharistic meal” and therefore “Women were priests!” On the other hand, off the top of my head, the fresco could alternately depict the Wedding at Cana, Christ turning the water in the vague containers to wine. Why that would be in a catacomb, I am not sure, but it looks rather like.  Perhaps the donor of the paintings wanted to recall the happy day of his marriage and the wife he lost to child birth.  Perhaps the “orans” figure is him praying and mourning.  Perhaps the youths in the furnace show how he feels now.  Perhaps the Good Shepherd, above it all, shows Christ holding him on His shoulders, a lost sheep, lost without Christ.

Whatever it is the frescoes depict, I don’t think anyone can reasonably conclude that they depict a Eucharistic meal with a female presider.

It is far more likely that we see symbolic representations of the family’s hopes for those interred therein, along with a depiction of the Christian soul in an attitude of petitioning and glorifying prayer, thus prompting the viewer to do the same for those buried within.

Just as most of the nasty things written about Pius XII had their origin in a single vicious play, The Deputy, the claims made about the Priscilla fresco find their origin with a feminist named Joan Morris (who also promoted the loony fable about “Pope Joan”).  Writers have been running with both fables ever since, footnoting them as if they were true.

I also want here to bring the readers’ attention to some rocks on the plant Mars that were discovered and photographed by the rover Curiosity.

These rocks definitely prove that someone was there and left her Barbi doll (or perhaps Fulla doll) behind.

In fact, this photo proves that the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC!) is really from Mars, not Venus, thus overturning decades of serious research about the differences of women and men!

“But Father! But Father!”, you are asking with good reason, “Why is that Barbi alone?  Where is the wymynpryst who was playing with it?  Your theory is ridiculous and you hate Vatican II.  Vatican II wanted women priests!”

This is easily explained.

The wymynpryst ran off at the approach of Curiosity!

She left the doll there and ran off because she was embarrassed to have been caught by male technology (you know, rovers… get it? “rovers“?…. have that long thing that sticks out).  Furthermore, she was about to be caught playing with a ghastly icon of the oppression of women!  It was more than she could bear, so she dropped her doll and skeedaddled.

We, however, have the definitive proof in that photo.  It is incontrovertible.

I only ask that you footnote this blog when you write your scholarly papers about this electrifying discovery, which is sure to be prompted by Google to the very top of all your search pages…. just like the fact that the fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla prove that women were ordained.

We also know that there are iguanas on Mars.  But that is the stuff of another post.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "But Father! But Father!", Lighter fare, Magisterium of Nuns, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill, You must be joking! and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I was with you till the iguana part. So, what’s up with that, again?

    [Try to keep up, Ed. We can’t hold up the whole blog just for you. o{]:¬) ]

  2. pmullane says:

    ‘Ordination Tambourine Barbie’?

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. Unwilling says:

    Not proof. Not even evidence.

    The Bible begins with the letter, beth. Beth.le.hem (house-for-bread) is where Christianity was born of a woman. Women make bread. The Church is a house.

    How can you argue with that?!

  4. pseudomodo says:

    This is not the ORANS position!

    What is even MORE obvious to me is that these frescos actually depict the beginnings of an obscure sect that exists even today – the CAMB* people….

    * Come At Me, Bro!

    Google it – it’s TRUE!

  5. Supertradmum says:

    That a woman was the artistic metaphor for the soul, as you, Father, rightly note, is older than the New Testament. Anima or Psyche was picked up by Christians as an emphasis on life eternal.

    Of course, those who want womenpriests are ignoring the final say, which has been around for a long time now http://goo.gl/XAEuKW

    As to iguanas, I shall wait for the longer scientific article, from you, Father Z.

  6. The Masked Chicken says:

    I sent in my e-mail to Fr Z., not because of the womenpriest thingy, of which I was unaware, but because Google went inside with its mapping technology, so that you can walk all through the catacombs. That’s the closest I’ll ever get to Rome, sigh. Here is the link to the Google map:


    The Chicken

  7. rtjl says:

    I read a piece this morning in which an archaeologist suggested that the central figure was probably a depiction of a deceased woman praying in the orans position which would have been common enough, the painting to the left was probably a depiction of the woman on her wedding day and the painting to the right was probably a depiction of the woman on a birthing stool. In other words these are probably simply the depictions of key moments in the life of a particular deceased woman.

    Notice the hesitancy of a professional archaeologist who is only willing to interpret these images within a degree of probabiliy – in contrast to feminists who are certain that this is proof of women priests. Proof of women priests is almost certainly the one thing this isn’t.

  8. NBW says:

    Perhaps they can send members of WOC to Mars to investigate. ;)

  9. Lori Pieper says:

    I think I recall reading an interpretation (in an art book?) of the three-part scene that saw it as a depiction of the Christmas story: the central figure with the Jewish shawl is one of the prophets foretelling the birth of Christ. On the right is Mary with the Child Jesus; on the other side, the three Magi – the little round thingie they are holding up could be a little casket with the gifts. This made sense to me.

    I have been down in the catacombs of Callixtus and San Sebastiano – quite an experience. They had frescoes there too, though I wonder how the original people visiting could have seen them clearly when they had only smoky torches and lamps. Nowadays they have installed a few electric lights, which helps a little. I also saw the triclinium (dining room) at San Sebastiano, where the refrigeria or memorial meals were held for the saints. It also makes sense to me that this is what the “Eucharistic” meal with the women is portraying.

  10. OrthodoxChick says:

    I don’t get it. Since when has Church doctrine about anything been developed as a result of frescoes found in the catacombs? If no instance comes to mind, then what makes the WOC think that this time will be any different? The WOC is getting boring. Yawn.

    Personally, I’d rather hear about iguanas on Mars.

  11. Priam1184 says:

    On a totally unrelated note Father congrats on going over 32 million site views. I’m sure that at least a couple of those are from your Martian iguana friends…

  12. Adam Welp says:

    But Father! But Father! I read on the internet that they can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true! Why do you keep spreading all this male dominated hierarchical nonsense? How can you deny that the only solution to the Priest crisis is geriatric hippy wymyn with scarves as stoles, giant cookie looking hosts and glass communion ware spouting a Eucharistic Prayer that they made up while eating their morning bran muffin and drinking their organic, gluten free, non GMO, made on a commune in France by an all wymyn production team soy milk!

  13. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    This does suddenly get me wondering (he asked lazily) if there are any certainly known Montanist murals, figural artefacts, etc.?

    Thanks, Masked Chicken – fascinating link!

  14. Robbie says:

    There a sense of besiegement these days. Everyday, it seems to be something else.

  15. yatzer says:

    Thanks, Masked Chicken. I’ve been in a catacomb, but we weren’t allowed to stop and look for very long.
    I don’t see the Ordination Tamborine Barbie, or any Barbie at all–just a smear of color. Or maybe that’s the point; one can see anything in it?

  16. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Another question: what do we know about (1) women’s responsibilities and practices in Jewish domestic rituals at what dates and (2) how much of these continued in Christian practice? (I recall, unless I am mistaken, a Syriac source which included Our Lady’s domestic use of incense, but have not tried to find it again, yet…)

  17. Nan says:

    If I saw the three men who may be the magi and the mother and child, I’d think of the Nativity; while I’m not an expert at iconography, I’ve seen many depictions of Our Lady of the Sign but never another woman depicted in such a way. I think of the Magnificat.

  18. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: smoky torches — The cheapest lighting source in ancient Rome and most Mediterranean countries was olive oil, which burns with a clear and nearly smokeless flame (depending on how good an olive oil it is), and which was easily portable in common, cheap clay lamps or in other forms of lighting. Ancient miners used olive oil lamps, and they work well in caves. Smoky torches were not something you used much near the Mediterranean, except for effect or for areas where the wind might kick up more strongly (like on the street late at night), or where you might want to poke a torch at things.

    We don’t think of this, because we Americans are usually part of the butter/beer culture instead of the olive oil/wine culture. :)

  19. Michelle F says:

    Since this post involves art – a subject dear to me – I simply have to put in my two cents.

    I’ve always suspected the large figure in the ‘orans’ position was allegorical since it is the largest figure in the section, and hierarchical perspective (if that’s what the artist used) requires that the most important figure be the largest.

    I also suspect the figure is male. The shawl over the figure’s head looks like a Jewish prayer shawl, the use of which, at least by today’s rules, is reserved to men. Furthermore, there are many examples of beardless males in the frescoes in the catacombs, so the fact this figure is beardless does not automatically signal that the figure is female.

    Also, the rest of the figure’s attire does not look like feminine attire.

    As for the scene of the women seated at the table (assuming all of them are women), I noticed that there are seven women depicted. Based on this number, I think the scene could be a symbolic representation of the Seven Churches named in the book of Revelation. The Church is considered feminine, so it would be no great leap to depict the Seven Churches as seven women.

    Also, in Revelation 1:16 and 20 St. John sees the Lord with seven stars in His right hand, which are identified as symbolizing the angels of the Seven Churches. There is a famous constellation that consists of seven stars; it is called the Pleiades, or “Seven Sisters.”

    Finally, as Scott Hahn said in his TV/radio series Our Father’s Plan, the number “seven” in the Old Covenant means or signifies a covenant. If I recall correctly, he went on later in the series to say that the Seven Churches represent the entire Church.

    Combining all of these factors together, I can see the image of the seven women seated at a table together as symbolizing, ultimately, the Universal [Catholic] Church – especially since the scene also evokes a sense of the Last Supper.

    All of this is my own guesswork, but one thing is certain: there are no women priests here – and the Vatican has confirmed that one!

  20. yatzer says:

    I was looking again at the seated figures at a table and remembered that people at that time reclined to eat, did they not? That’s what I’ve always thought, anyway. Maybe not.

  21. I keep thinking to myself that the Mars Rover is going to find something on Mars that shakes the very core of mankind on earth . . . I’m thinking it is going to find the skeletal remains of man and it will become painfully clear that man’s time on earth is short and perhaps shortening each minute we continue shaking our fists at God

  22. Pingback: Achbishop Kurtz & His Brother w/Down’s Syndrome - BigPulpit.com

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Probably a tangent where any of these murals are concerned, but they got me wondering…
    St. Thecla – can anyone recommend good (online) resources about the history of her iconography and hagiography? My sense of her is as something like ‘near-apostolic, but clearly not priestly’.

    Absit invidia, interesting thoughts on this anniversary of the death of Lewis, when you think of his ‘planetary stories’ long and short.

    And to all, Happy St, Cecilia’s Day!

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Speaking of Roman artefacts on this St. Cecilia’s Day, I read recently about a new reconstruction of a Roman pipe organ now on display in a museum in Germany but cannot quickly find any links… The Wikipedia “Water Organ” article does not have it, yet, though it is itself interesting (and it is interesting to range around the different language versions for the illustrations, and the photos at the external links if nothing else).

  25. The Masked Chicken says:

    “This does suddenly get me wondering (he asked lazily) if there are any certainly known Montanist murals, figural artefacts, etc.?”

    Because of my interest in Charismatic history studies, I have has occasion to study the Montanist movement in some detail. There are some manuscript fragments that are known, but I have never heard of any Montanist iconography (which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any). For the fragments, see:

    The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia. Edited by Ronald E. Heine. North American Patristic Society, Patristic Monograph Series 14. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1989. xiv + 190 pp. $25.0

    Here is a listing of all of the fragments:


    A few recent articles:



    Of course, Priscilla was the theological confrere of Montanus and if the catacombs, which date from the third-century, reference Priscilla of the Montanist movement (as opposed to Priscilla, the wife of Aquilla and the friend of St. Paul), then she most certainly would not have been a priestess, since the Montanists most certainly did not have women priests (at least Tertullian believed in apostolic succession, thus, men clergy and see, for instance Tertullian, De Virginibus velandis for his further views on women in the Church), although they did believe in women prophetesses (since Priscilla was seen as one), so the orans position might simply have been a reference to a standard prayer position of the period (it was believed that open raised hands caught the graces coming from the Holy Spirit).

    The Chicken

  26. Charlotte Allen says:


    This looks like a pretty good source for sources on Thecla (one of my favorite saints) from the University of Chicago’s classical website.


    It includes a good brief history of Thecla’s appearance in early Christian literature, plus (at the bottom of the page) what looks like a good starter bibliography on her.

    Warning: I hope the painting reproduced at the top of the page, by the 19th-century Polish artist Henryk Siemiradzki, isn’t too much for you. I love that Bouguereau/Alma-Tadema “academic” school of historical tableaux, but the lady Christian martyr who is the painting’s subject and who isn’t wearing a stitch does look a bit like saloon art.

  27. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Masked Chicken and Charlotte Allen, Thank you both very much!

    I had forgotten the details of De Virginibus velandis (and De Baptismo with respect to Thecla!).

    Thank you for the Siemiradzki warning (I like the Bougereau/Alma-Tadema school, too) – it is not exactly pornographic, but it reminds me I am a long way from St. Nonnus (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, step 15).

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