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Startling Discoveries of Ancient Christian Art Change Views of Women

A video interview with Dr. Ally Kateusz

It’s hard to imagine Mary the mother of Jesus any way other than what artists have shown us the past few centuries: mother and child (‘the Madonna’), or sorrowing mother at the foot of her son’s cross (‘pieta’).

But there is more to Mary, and in this video interview, Dr. Ally Kateusz shows us some of the earliest known works of Christian art, explaining how these pieces depict Mary quite differently than do the traditions handed down to us. In fact, Mary is frequently depicted as a liturgical leader – strong, upright, leading the male apostles, and even honored as a bishop.

Watch and listen as Dr. Kateusz explains the historical and theological significance of the modern-day discovery of these images. It is difficult to recognize these pictures until you first imagine the possibility. She takes us just far enough along her own research journey to allow us to grasp what is at stake in finding and considering what these extraordinary works of art might be telling us today.


The following is a transcript of the video interview.  You’ll need to play the video to see the images being discussed.
SP indicates Shirley Paulson is the speaker, AK indicates Ally Kateusz.   

Announcer:  Hello and welcome to this video from The Bible and Beyond. We explore historical and spiritual questions about Jesus, gender, women, salvation, healing, and the meaning of life. Shirley Paulson is hosting a series of conversations by podcast and video with scholars who are able to unlock mysteries from extracanonical books, forgotten scriptures, so-called ‘Gnostic’ Gospels, and the Bible.

SP:  I’m really happy to introduce my guest to you today. Ally Kateusz is a colleague and a friend, and she has a story that will be of great interest to both Christian historians and anyone interested in the evolution of Christian thought. Ally holds a doctorate degree in history from the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and she’s a Research Associate at Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research in London. She’s published several articles on early Christianity in peer-reviewed journals, such as the Journal of Early Christianity, and she has just recently published her first book that will cover much of what we’re going to talk about today. Her book is called Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership. Ally, you’ve done some very unusual research on the way early Christians thought of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I think your conclusions are quite startling. So, to help us get into the subject, could you give us a feel for how you got into it? Are you, for example, a practicing Catholic, or why is Mary important to you?

AK:  That’s a really good question. I’m not a Catholic. I’ve never been a Catholic. I don’t have a very strong religious background, but when I started looking at the early Christian evidence and the data, it seemed to me that I was seeing things about Mary and Mary’s authority that other researchers were either not seeing or were ignoring, or maybe they just weren’t looking in the first place. So, it was kind of a wide open field.

SP:  That’s really kind of amazing that that’s what would get you into this. The next unusual thing I think about your work is that you’ve done so much of your research with actual visual art. I think a lot of scholars spend time looking over their texts, which you do, but you’ve also spent quite a bit of time traipsing around Italy and Israel and probably other places finding some rather amazing works of art. Can you give us a feel for why artwork is so important for understanding a historical character, like the person who is Jesus’ mother?

AK:  The early art that depicts Mary often depicts her very differently than we see her today. It depicts her upright, looking straight at the audience, fearless, often with her arms raised in a liturgical pose, or what’s called the liturgical pose in art, and when I first began to see some of these images, I realized there’s a very different story that early Christians were seeing on the walls of the church than we see today. And so, that is really where I began to believe that art itself can really help understand the text.

SP:  Okay. So, you’re seeing in art some things that were different from what you’ve been told through history, through popular or traditional teachings, then?

AK:  Right.

SP:  Oh, okay. Well, then, let’s take a look at some of the images that you have found, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about these. For example, this one you showed me, it’s in your book. It looks like a picture of a woman with her arms up with the name ‘Maria’ over her head. Can you tell us about that and what that means to you?

AK:  This is one of the images that I was speaking about that showed me that early Christians had a very different view of Mary than I saw in contemporary art. And this is a picture of Mary on a gold-plated glass that was found in the catacombs, and there’s several of them in the catacombs, the Christian catacombs of Rome dated in the 300s. So, they all have her arms raised. She’s looking straight. She’s not slouched or humped or hunched. She has a very different image than how we often see her today.

SP:  So, let’s go back a little bit. Maybe not everybody knows what a catacomb is and why we’d have pictures in a catacomb. Can you back up and tell us a little about that?

AK:  In the 200s, there weren’t a lot of Christians in Rome, but in the 300s and the 400s —  but especially in the 300s — you’d find Christian art underground in what are called catacombs, and they’re really tomb areas where people were buried, where Christians were buried. But there were also pagans buried with them; Jews were buried also underground in some places. These were preserved. This art was preserved because the entrances became closed off, and for several hundred years, they were just sort of left alone and not disturbed whatsoever. And then, around the 1500s, they were rediscovered, and so, this art has been preserved. Early Christian art has been preserved, and it’s a stash that is almost unlike any other to exist.

SP:  That’s kind of amazing. Okay. So, let’s go back to her again. This picture of a woman, arms up, it’s just so unlike any of the things I’ve ever known about Mary. Why do we have a picture of her looking so unlike the ones we’re all used to?

AK:  The early Christians had different narratives and stories about her, and also, even in our own Gospels, she’s depicted differently than we might think of her today. We just sort of focus on the part where she’s a mother with Jesus, but in actuality, for example, in the Gospel of John, sometimes, she’s depicted with Jesus during his ministry. Twice, she’s depicted as the lead woman at the foot of the cross. So, they had a different image of her, and they also had narratives that didn’t make it into the Bible, which had a very different description of her. And that included raising her arms and leading the prayer, praising God, and blessing people, essentially as a high priest.

SP:  So, this is startling what you’re telling us. You’re saying that instead of just being a sorrowing mother or a mother of a baby, she was actually busy being a religious leader, even when Jesus was around, or was this after Jesus was gone?

AK:  Well, it depends on which narrative. One narrative depicts her as a religious leader during his ministry, and the other ones depict her as a leader of the apostles and a religious leader of women after he died.

SP:  All right. Well, then, you’re leading me to another picture I’d like to talk about. Here’s one that I would describe as looking like another woman with her hands raised up like that; but then, it looks like Jesus is above her, maybe in the heavens, with a chariot. Is this something telling us about the relationship between Mary and Jesus?

AK:  This is a picture that is related to a story about Mary’s death, and when Jesus came down to take her up to heaven. So, the way the story goes is that Mary was about to die. It’s called the Dormition Narratives, the sleeping or dormition of Mary, and it says that the apostles all came to her from around where they were, around the Mediterranean, and when they all arrived, they told her what they had been doing, and she raised her arms then and began to pray. And about that time, they heard thundering in the heavens. And as the narrative progresses, Jesus comes down in his chariot of fire, and ultimately, he and Mary descend in chariots of fire.

SP:  Oh, I see. So, this is something that would show us long after he had died, when she’s about to die later.

AK:  Right.

SP:  Can you tell us a little bit about their relationship from this picture? Why are these men here with their arms pointing up?

AK:  This picture kind of compresses the events in the narrative. So, it’s the moment in time when she’s raising her arms and leading the prayer. The 12 apostles are there, and in this case, you’ve also got the two angels on either side of Mary. It’s like when Jesus comes down. And it has the apostles lifting their hands and going, “Oh, my goodness. Look in the sky. Here comes Jesus.”

SP:  Okay. And so, the angels who are next to Jesus, they look like little children in their arms?

AK:  I think they’re crowns, like martyrs’ crowns.

SP:  Okay. So, is Mary going to get a kind of crown, or do we not know what happens to Mary later?

AK:  Well, no. There’s a big long story about what happens after they get up in heaven. The story continues, and she goes through the 12 gates of heaven, and it’s actually one of the things that makes us know that this is a really old narrative. It says that people were outside of the mansions, and they were waiting, and thus waiting for the resurrection. Mary says, “What are they doing?” And he says, “Well, they’re waiting for when the resurrection comes.” And people waiting for the resurrection to sort of be made alive again is a very early Christian motif, no later than the second century. So, the narrative itself is datable to the second century, like the Gospel of Mary and also like the Protoevangelium of James, which is about Mary’s birth.

SP:  Okay. So, we’re getting stories that we’re not familiar with from the Bible. These are the early kinds of Christians that happened even before, say, the Council of Nicaea, right?

AK:  A couple centuries before, yep.

SP:  Okay. So, then, one more question about this picture before we go on. Is this picture telling us anything about the relationship between Mary and the other apostles? I mean, it looks like they’re listening to her. She looks like she’s in a position of authority even over them.

AK:  Right. She’s larger than them. Her arms are raised in the liturgical pose. They’re on either side of her. They’re smaller than her. She’s flanked by Peter and Paul. To me, this is one of the very first pictures that I saw that made me aware something was going on in early Christianity about Mary that I was completely unaware of, and the art was giving me a clue that there was something still to be found. So, with the art itself, the way the iconography is structured, it makes it very clear that she’s very important in this picture, and they’re actually in a subordinate position to her. And in one case, over on the left, you can even see one of the angels kind of shaking his finger at Peter, as if Peter’s done something wrong.

SP:  Oh, my goodness. So, and tell us, how do you know that’s Peter and Paul?

AK:  In art and iconography, Paul was usually depicted balding and was thought to have been bald, and Peter is usually kind of contrasted with these thick, curly bangs. And so, for art historians, it’s pretty easy to pick them out.

SP:  Paul then has the heavy beard, and Peter is the one with the bangs?

AK:  Yes, and Peter also has a beard. I mean, they’re presented as Jewish rabbi-type men.

SP:  All right. Well, let’s move on to another one I’d like to ask you about. Here’s another picture actually on the cover of your book that is quite beautiful, I think, of another woman. Tell us about her and why she’s important to you … also has her arms raised. So, what’s going on with her?

AK:  This is a really interesting picture because it’s dated late 400s, early 500s, and this is from another catacomb but one that was in Naples, which is about an hour’s drive south of Rome. And the arcosolium (or the niche) that this portrait was in, this fresco of this woman, was actually covered up for a long time with a marble plaque, a big plaque, a big piece of marble, and it was only rediscovered around the 1970s. And she’s very interesting because she’s surrounded by Christian symbols, and she has two open gospel books on either side of her head, and the gospel books are associated with bishops. And bishops and bishops alone were ordained with the open gospel book over their head. And so, this appears to be the portrait of an ordained bishop!

SP:  And it really looks like a woman to me. Am I right?

AK:  Oh, she’s definitely a woman, yes. No one questions that. There are some people in some circles who go, “Well, maybe she was a deaconess, or maybe she was just a rich woman, surely not a bishop!” But the iconography itself of the open gospels on either side of her head, and they’re identified as Marcos, Jonas, Lucas, and Mateos, there’s no question about. Plus, there’s the Chi-Rho and the Alpha-Omega above her head, and all around this portrait are additional Chi-Rhos and gold crowns and other symbols of Christian elevation.

SP:  So, go back a little bit. What does Chi-Rhos mean? What are you talking about?

AK:  It was an early cross. It was a symbol of the cross and of Christ. So, the Chi for the beginning of Christ and the Rho, Christos.

SP:  Okay. So, those are symbols that people would have known from those days?

AK:  Yes. Yes. So, there was a Chi-Rho cross above her head, which is a very early cross, and then, on either side of the bottom leg of the cross, you have an Alpha and an Omega. So, those are also very early Christian symbols.

SP:  So, now you’re raising another really perplexing question for me, Ally. You’re talking about this picture as kind of a late one at which might have been after, say, the Council of Nicaea, but then, you said it was hidden. So, was it kind of the ordaining of a woman as a priest —  I mean, as a bishop — going on? And it just got hidden? Or what do you make of this, the timing of these things?

AK:  I think there were still bishops, women bishops, being ordained at this point in time. Around this very same time, Pope Gelasius complained about women who were at the altars and doing everything that men were supposed to be doing associated with the priesthood and all of the things, which would include everything that a bishop would do. And his complaint itself is evidence that in this area, that was occurring — that women did have this level of religious authority.

SP:  You’re making me wonder, also. Was there tension about it then, as well as there is now? Or when did it became a problem if that was happening?

AK:  Gelasius reigned for about three years, and he’s the only one on record of the popes that I know of before or after him for quite a while who actually had that kind of complaint. At least the complaint was preserved so that his letter was preserved. So, I think what was going on was that some people had a problem with it. And I think maybe some people fairly early on (maybe in some communities of Christ followers), but clearly, there were communities of Christ followers who thought it was normal and natural, that women had liturgical authority like this along with men. This is just the way it was in their community.

SP:  Well then, can we think back a little bit then with Mary? I presume the depiction of Mary as the mother of Jesus would’ve been much earlier than this woman you’re looking at. So, did Mary sort of set the model for women leadership?

AK:  I don’t know that she set the model, but clearly, it appears that she was being used as a role model for women clergy. So, when you see a picture of Mary in a church, and Mary herself is depicted a bishop with a bishop’s pallium and depicted that way as early as any male bishop is depicted, that seems to indicate that she was a guarantor or a role model for women in that role. So, I think she was used … Her figure was used in that way, and I think the depiction of her as a priest or a high priest or bishop of the bishops, leading the apostles in prayer, for example, was quite early, at least second century. So, I don’t know which came first, Mary or the women as womanpriests, but Mary’s a priest or womanpriest, but it may have just been simultaneously. It may have been part of the very earliest part of Jesus’ ministry.

SP:  You are raising another question. Every time you tell me something, more questions come up here. Now, what about the relationship between the Jews and Christians? At this point, clearly Jesus was a Jew, and his mother had to have been a Jew, and then, we’re looking at sort of Christian symbols and models here. Was it the later Christians who just thought of Mary in terms of being a leader, or was she thought to have been that way in memory of her?

AK:  It’s interesting. Yeah. That’s a really good question because, for example, the narrative about her birth, which is usually dated second century (although some scholars date it back to the first century) doesn’t have any words like ‘Christian,’ and a lot of the narrative about Mary’s death does not distinguish between Christian and Jew. In fact, it has a section that talks the messiah lovers and the unbelievers. So, this predates — this belief in Mary —  in my view and not only my view, but appears to predate the separation of the Jews and what we today called Jews and Christians. It predates a time when we even had the word Christian or when they were even using the word ‘Christian.’ It’s more accurate to call them ‘Jesus followers’ at that point in time. And this took several centuries before Jesus followers began to consider themselves something different than the people of Judea and Israel.

SP:  Wow. Okay. So, then, moving on into the liturgical role, which is a Christian one, let’s take another look at a scene that you’ve shown us in Old St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a little bit hard to see, but maybe you can describe to us what we’re looking at with this.

AK:  This is an ivory box that probably, at one time, had some type of bones. It’s a reliquary box, and it was buried under the altar in an area of what’s today Croatia. And it was dug up at the beginning of the last century around 1910 or something like that. It depicts a liturgical scene in Old St. Peter’s Basilica. That is, it has, over time, been proven. And what’s really interesting about it is that this is one of two very oldest liturgical scenes of real people inside of a real church at an altar.

SP:  Oh, I see.

AK:  Yeah, and it depicts a man and a woman on either side of the altar, and then, two men and two women just on the outside of the altar with their arms raised. So, it’s a gender-balanced liturgy here, which is really striking when you consider that that is the very oldest, or one of the two very oldest depictions of anyone at a Christian altar in a Christian church. And the other one actually depicts a same similar type of gender balance at the altar of another church in Constantinople, the famous second Hagia Sophia. These are two of the most important basilicas in Christendom. So, these are the two very oldest, and they depict women and men at the altar.

SP:  So, this is startling to think that the Roman Catholic church itself would have this gender parallel image here. Is that well-known in Rome?

AK:  That’s a good question. I think at one time, it was very well-known because after this box was discovered, there was a lot of discussion about it, and nobody could really quite figure out why there was a man and a woman at the altar, and then, they began to realize these spiral columns that are depicted in this scene are just like the spiral columns that are still in Old St. Peter … sorry, in the modern St. Peter’s galleries, and eventually, the discussion came that this is a scene in Old St. Peter’s. And about that time, it was the beginning of World War II. The Vatican decided to break their long-held rule that you never dig under the altar, and they began to dig under the high altar of the modern St. Peter’s to see if they could prove that this really was … or I think they were trying to prove that it was not actually Old St. Peter’s.

SP:  Okay. So, I want to make sure I’m following you here. The columns that you’re talking about, can you describe in the picture exactly where they are?

AK:  They are holding up what’s called the ciborium over the altar. It’s a way to set aside the altar area and encircle it with or frame it with columns, and these are very beautiful spiral columns that have ivy and leaves carved on them. They still exist today, and they’re depicted in the ivory.

SP:  So, what we’re looking at, I just want to be clear, this looks like the middle of the picture, the middle bottom of this picture, and the left side is kind of broken off. On the right side, you see the whole column. Is that right?

AK:  Right. And so, in this case, there’s six columns. Four of them frame the altar, and then, there’s two more set over on the side of what would’ve been the apse of the very center, curved part of the church.

SP:  Is this, then, what’s proving to us or showing to us that there’s a real picture of the … that this picture is pretty authentic? Is that the point of this, of seeing these columns?

AK:  Well, that’s what first gave scholars and art historians a clue, and so, for several decades, three or four decades, scholars agreed that there was a man and a woman at the altar in the church. Then, they begin to say, “Well, these curved columns indicate that it was Old St. Peter’s,” and when the Vatican dug under the high altar of Old St. Peter’s, right below it, they discovered a stack of medieval altars, and at the very bottom, a shrine that had a tall wall, just like you see here with a mensa embedded in it, just as here with a niche over the mensa, and just as the ivory sculptor carved. So, they agreed this was exactly that scene.

SP:  Wow. And so, what’s a mensa?

AK:  A mensa would be the Latin for table, which is sort of what the early altars were called: altar table.

SP:  I see. Okay. Well, then, that leads us to our final image. I just need to have you explain to us where it looks like there’s a drawing of these columns, but there are two images that look different from each other. What’s going on there?

AK:  Well, this is two drawings that show the whole apse of the church, which would be the round, carved part, the rounded part in the very front of the church where the altar would normally sit on the cord of the apse, and on the left, you can see that this is a reconstruction of the scene as on the ivory because it’s sort of a half hexagon, and the front of it frames the old shrine, and then, the columns behind it are set slightly out from the shrine. And then you have the other ones on the other side. So, what the Vatican did, though … So, this is exactly … The one on the left here shows exactly what the ivory shows.

SP:  Okay. Yes.

AK:  The one on the right, — after they dug down under the high altar, the Vatican archeologists took a very long time to come out with a report. After 10 years, they finally came out, and they said, “Well, we agree that the ivory is exactly what was below.” And they didn’t dig in the front of the old shrine, and nothing would’ve been there if they had because of all the reconstruction, but what they did say was, “Well, it must’ve been a square ciborium instead of a half hexagon.” They didn’t even actually address the fact that women were at the altar, and this might have been a source of discomfort to the Vatican. They just said, “Oh, well, we’ve decided to … ” They just made pictures of what they said what must’ve been the ciborium, and they made it a big square, which then, they said, “Well, the light would’ve hung in the center of the square, and the light would’ve hung over the altar.” And so, the square, it’s this 20-foot square ciborium, the light would’ve hung in the middle, which would’ve been 10 feet in front of the old shrine and its mensa table. So, basically, they were arguing (without ever saying why they were arguing it) that where the man and the woman were on the ivory was not actually the altar!

AK:  And it’s so strange that they would do this, but at first, they really didn’t get away with it. It was a lot of controversy, but in the fourth and fifth centuries, Jerome, for example, said that the altar was over the tomb of St. Peter. And one of the things that they discovered when they did their excavations was that the mensa, there was a tomb below the shrine, or very close to the shrine structure. Nonetheless, they moved the light, and they moved the ciborium, and they moved the light out. And then, over time, they persuasively were able to argue with help from a couple of scholars (one of them was a Vatican archeologist) that indeed this must’ve been where it was, and they ignored the ancient authorities! And they ignored what every other scholar up to that point had said — that there was a man and a woman at the altar. They just ignored that there had ever been a woman at the altar, much less also that there were two women on either side of the altar with two men on either side of the altar, and they just sort of whitewashed and erased that part of the history of the ivory and of St. Peter’s Basilica’s altar area. I mean, they left a trail.

AK:  It’s easy enough to follow, but we get pictures in our mind like this square ciborium, and it’s kind of … I sat there looking at the square ciborium that they’re drawing and going … and then, looking at the ivory, the ciborium on the ivory and then looking at the square ciborium and going, “How did this really refined ivory sculptor artists’ perspective that got this, the picture, the shape of the ciborium wrong?” And I did that for weeks, and then, one day, I realized the Vatican has drawn it wrong.

SP:  Oh, I see. Oh, my goodness.

AK:  The Vatican artist got it wrong, not the ivory sculptor, and there was a reason to get it wrong, and that was sort of to erase the women from the sanctuary and to erase the woman from the altar.

SP:  Oh, Ally, you have really opened our eyes and minds to things that haven’t been thought of before. I think you’ve just given us a wonderful, tantalizing introduction to your book. I imagine people are going to want to flock to go find your book and read more about this! But before we go on, I just wanted to conclude here … Could you give our listeners any sense of what your takeaway is from what your research is? Where are you going with this?

AK:  Well, the thing that strikes me the most is that we have this modern imagination of the early Christian past, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told something like, “Women can’t be priests because women were never priests,” and that is just false. There’s lots of evidence that women were priests, but first, we have to get our minds around the fact that it’s false before we can actually even go look and see the data and believe our eyes, so to speak, and then pull it out and explain it and show it to people.

SP:  Well, all right. Well, thank you for helping us to learn how to believe something different so that we can see a little bit differently, Ally.

AK:  See what’s in front of our eyes, yes!

SP:  See what’s in front of our eyes, and just one final word there. Tell me what that means to you in terms of just understanding women in religion. What is this saying to you?

AK:  To me, women have been denigrated because they’ve been told that they’re not good enough to be priests. They’re not moral enough to be priests, or they’re just not metaphysically good to be priests, or they’re not in the image of Jesus or something like that. And it’s really they’ve been told to be subordinate to men, and that’s why only men can be priests or men can be clergy. That type of language follows them into their homes, and it causes abuse. It damages little girls when they hear it, whether it be in church or at home, and I think that by bringing the truth forward about what women really were — men and women: a man and a woman were at the altar in the very oldest pictures of the church, of an altar in the church, and that’s a very different story than women have been told. This is the story of women’s equality, with me.

SP:  Oh, okay. Ally, I just want to thank you so much for your … I don’t know, I feel like it’s a deep love for the beautiful truth of the parallelism that you found with men and women and how that elevates both. And what that means today, and how it can lift up our own thoughts about praising God together. I just think it’s beautiful what you’ve done, and I want to thank you so much for your hard work and for the beautiful presentation you’ve done. These images are just marvelous. Thank you so much for being with us today.

AK:  Thank you, Shirley. Thank you for inviting me.

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