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Published Date: January 31, 1993

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Bitalia, the Ancient Woman Priest

The CBE study group was stumping along yet another dusty corridor lined with grace openings in the Catacomb of San Gennaro on the outskirts of Naples. I, for one, was growing discouraged. We had heard rumors that there was a fresco here of an early woman priest, but it appeared to be only a rumor.

True, we had seen wall paintings that would have filled us with glee in other circumstances. Among the paintings of other bishops, we had seen the portrait of Quodvultdeus (what God wills), an African who assumed the episcopal seat of Naples in approximately A.D. 439. Exiled by the invading Vandal king, this man of God had fled from Carthage to Southern Italy, where the Christian community prized his spiritual leadership and made him their bishop. Illustration no. 1 shows Quodvultdeus, dark skinned and surrounded by African floral motifs. In his hand he holds the Scriptures as he proclaims the Word of God to the flock. But while black bishop of Naples was very exciting, couldn’t we also find the woman priest?

We had peered up at an elaborately painted ceiling and seen there three women building a church. Illustration no. 2 reproduces a line drawing (the damaged original photographs poorly). They carry bricks and build them into the tower. One woman brings bricks from the river mud, another prepares the mortar, and the third carefully lays the bricks into the structure. No doubt about their hands-on involvement!

The inspiration for this ceiling appears to come from the ancient Christian writing Shepherd of Hermas and dates the work to the third century. In the Shepherd, twelve women, representing twelve virtues, are at work upon the building. Why has the number been reduced three? Other descriptions in the Shepherd feature men at work building, rather than women. Why were the women selected here? Surely one answer is that actual women depicted were active and influential in the Christian community at Naples. But still, was there no woman priest?

The guide-archaeologist pulled back a rope and commented that we were entering a part of the catacomb not ordinarily open to visitors. Now there were no paintings at all on the walls, and things looked even less promising. But suddenly the guide shone his flashlight upon a wall and started to explain. “We must not say that this woman was necessarily a priest,” he announced, “but surely she occupied a position of great importance in the congregation. We know this because of the prominence given to her picture and because of the architectural embellishment which accompanies it.”

We were staring at a woman dressed in red who looked out at us with serenely benevolent eyes (see illustration no. 3). The picture, probably painted in the fifth century, occupied an arched niche, known as an “arcosolium.” Beneath the representation of this woman, the caption read “Bitalia [rest] in peace.”

The woman had upraised hands, in the gesture of a priest or bishop giving the benediction. This is also a gesture that is sometimes used in proclamation of the Word. Often it is argued that such a pose in early Christian art bespeaks an allegorical portrait of Mother Church or of salvation. In this case, however, the woman is specifically named and cannot be construed as some sort of abstraction. Behind her are two opened books, each revealing two pages. On the first page was written “John” and on the second “Mark.” Next came “Matthew” and finally “Luke.” The dead woman seems to have been particularly remembered for her ministry of the four Gospels. From her Bible hang down bookmarks placed in special readings. Like many a woman since, she was concerned to minister the Word of God to the people of God. She acted in obedience to Christ’s command, “Feed my sheep.”

Was the woman a bishop? CBE member Dorothy Irvin observes that her red robe may bespeak this. Like other bishops In the San Gennaro Catacomb, she is shown with the Bible. Dorothy also notes that this is not the only picture in which women are engaged in the utilization of Scripture. A painting in the Domitilla Catacomb in Rome shows Veneranda and Petronella with a round box of scrolls and one book bound in the codex form which we use today. One need only remember Paula, Marcella, and many other Roman women who were well versed in the Word! Psalm 68:11 says “The Lord gives the Word. Great is the host of women who proclaim it.” Bitalla’a testimony shows one more woman who responded to God’s call. Blessedly, she was sent to a believing community who received her ministry as a gift from God.