WHERE HAVE ALL THE WOMEN GONE? Rome´s hidden Christian leaders

One of the pleasures I find while thinking about my life is the privilege I was granted by being allowed to live in a city like Rome, this amazing storage for thousands of years of history.

Already in the early sixties when I as a ten years old boy visited Rome together with my family I was dazzled by its beauty and wealth. Since then I visited the Caput Mundi repeatedly, every time experiencing it from different angels, discovering new qualities depending on my mood and company. Once I whizzed through it on a Vespa together with a wild gang of cheerful friends just out of the boredom of school, another time its secrets were revealed by a patriarchal professor guiding me and other art students through its winding history. As a young man with author ambitions I visited it alone and wandered through its streets and alleys and recently fallen in love I experienced Rome´s enchanting evenings in company with my future wife. Nevertheless, all of these visits were characterized by a certain haste, a desire to experience as much as possible. There was never enough time and therefore it was a privilege to be granted so many years of living in the Eternal City, to indulge in what the Roman Suetonius called festina lente, make haste slowly, a search for the delicate balance between haste and diligence.

Every day in Rome, every walk through its center, reveals something new and surprising. Every inch has a story to tell and these stories are to be found both above and below ground. This leads to haste and diligence, an assiduousness manifesting itself through systematic searches in books combined with exploratory walks through the Roman topography. Let me give an example of these types of fact-finding Roman surveys by tracing the lost importance of women in the Catholic Church.

I have been fascinated by the Catholic Church's apparent reluctance to accept women leaders, despite the fact that women tend to be its most devoted followers. Admittedly, Saint Paul wrote: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law". Nevertheless, Saint Paul had not been a personal acquaintance of Jesus, who apparently had a for his time unusually open-minded relationship with women. Jesus talked willingly and diligently with women, defending them when they were threatened by bearded fundamentalists. The Gospels tell us  how an angel of God gave a mandate to three women to do exactly what most preachers state is their most important task, namely to preach the Gospel , i.e. the Good News that Jesus has risen from the Dead.

The observant Roman roamer may still find traces of influential Christian women. Several of the city's churches are built above Roman villas whose female owners probably opened their homes for Christian preachers and then became saints or martyrs themselves, like Saint Prisca, Saint Cecilia, Sanit Prassede or Saint Agnese and even large catacomb systems bear the name of women, such as Domitilla and Priscilla.

Is it plausible that women once had a more important role and better positions within the Roman Catholic Church? Maybe they could become leaders of congregations, or even bishops? There are some evidence to indicate this. In the catacombs of Priscilla we find a fresco that appears to depict a group of women who participate in a holy communion and they seem to be led by a woman.

 Quite recently another fresco was detected in the same catacomb system, apparently depicting a woman dressed in priestly robes: 

In Ephesus, a fresco contemporary with those mentioned above presents a woman standing alongside St Paul, holding her right hand in the same preaching gesture as the apostle. Someone has hacked away the woman's eyes and tried to scrape away the gesturing hand, maybe an act of protest against portraying a woman acting as a preacher alongside Saint Paul.

Was it perhaps a similar reason that made someone chopping off the “a” in Presbytera Theodora from a mosaic depicting a halo adorned woman within the church Saint Prassede in Rome. Presbytera is Greek for a "woman bishop", a standing implied by her squared halo, which in Rome indicated that it was a bishop who was portrayed.

By the beginning of a narrow street, which by the side of the Church of the Four Crowned Saints in Rome steeply rises towards the Lateran, where the Popes lived before they moved in next door to Saint Peter's Basilica, we find a small, insignificant and worn shrine. Its oxidized iron gate, sealed with chains and padlocks, is always adorned with bouquets of flowers. 

Inside the gate, a sculpture of Papissa Joanna could be found until the mid-1800s, this female pope is depicted on one of the cards in the tarot deck used by fortune tellers and New Age oracles. 

Even if the sculpture has been replaced with an image of Virgin Mary, locals still venerate the shrine in commemoration of the Pope Joan, who  sometime during the 9th century collapsed and died in labor on the very spot where the shrine now is standing. Pope Joan was heading a procession on its way between the Vatican and the Lateran. The child survived her and he eventually became a priest, his father was apparently an officer of the Papal Guard. The legend of Pope Joan is quite old, but it has been vehemently denied by the Church and it is very possible that after all the entire legend was fabricated, or at least spread and adorned, by Protestant propagandists who like a pack of wolves had thrown themselves on the juicy parts of the story, though there are actually some indications that there may have been a female pope.

In the Vatican museums we find a quite remarkable object, the so-called Porphyry Chair, or more scurrilously Sedia Stercorarie, the Toilet Bowl or Dung Chair. It's a hefty piece made ​​of a reddish brown, spotted marble-like rock called purple porphyry. Judging from a keyhole-shaped opening it may be an antique toilet seat, though it could also be a birthing chair.

The throne was once used during papal coronations and some claim that it served to test the future pope's biological sex. When the custom was introduced and when it ended is unclear and there are few eyewitness accounts, one of them comes from a certain Adam of Ash from Wales who described Innocent VII's coronation, which took place in 1404. When the future pope arrived at the Lateran Basiclica he was helped down from his horse and brought into the church to be crowned. "There he was placed on the Porphyry Throne, which for this purpose is pierced so that one of the younger cardinals can ascertain his gender, after the test they carried him [Innocent], while the Te Deum was sung, to the altar", a similar ceremony was described by the Swedish lawyer Laurentius Gunnar Banck who in 1644 witnessed Pope Innocent X's coronation. The reason for this strange tradition was by both authors connected with the legend of Pope Johanna.

Since we lived close to Papissa Joanna's shrine I visited it occasionally to see if any fresh bouquets of flowers had been attached to the gate, they were always there. Next to the humble shrine is the magnificent Basilica of Saint Clemente, replete with arts and mysteries, including the fascinating frescoes in the Chapel of Saint Catherine. They were created in the early 1400s by Masolino da Panicale, one of the first masters who used the newly invented linear perspective. These frescoes seem to be connected with Papissa Joanna and her nearby shrine. They depict the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria's life. According to legend this saint lived in the 300's, and besides having been unusually beautiful she was so also extremely well-read and so compelling that she managed to convince several of Alexandria's most learned men to convert to Christianity. St. Catherine was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, especially among women. On one of Masolinos frescoes we can witness how Saint Catherine instead of being silent in the congregation preaches to a group of attentively listening old men. One of  the era's most modern and famous artists was accordingly asked by a pope to produce a tribute to Saint Catharine's, in the vicinity of a shrine claimed to have been dedicated to Papissa Joanna.

Maybe were women within the very center of Roman Catholicism far more important as church leaders than has previously been assumed. This in spite of a tendency, from the fifth century and onwards, for priests, and pious women alike, to live in celibacy. As a matter of fact it has been argued that the Church´s insistence on chastity had a liberating effect on women,  supporting their importance in common social life since it liberated them from the “limiting yoke of child bearing and family duties”. However, it was not until the Second Lateran Council of 1139 when celibacy of priests was declared as a law and the Church became even more adverse to women's leadership.

Admittedly, misogyny was nothing new in some chauvinistic circles and already in the third century a Father of the Church like Tertullian could discharge the following tirade:

“Do you not realize, Eve, that it is you? The curse of God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you softened up with cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force, The image of God, Adam, you broke him as he were a plaything. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die.”

During Roman Antiquity and Early Middle Ages, it seems that women actually had quite a great influence within the growing Christian church. Changing marriage and inheritance laws had strengthened the position of women within certain strata of Roman society, while the increasingly influential Germanic tribes apparently already had assigned women a greater degree of freedom than was common in Mediterranean communities. Perhaps it was precisely because of these conditions that disdain of women grew stronger in certain ecclesiastical circles. It has been suggested that it was not only the role of women as sexual temptresses that was behind a raising wave of misogyny, it was rather greed that was the root cause.

By controlling and changing marriage and inheritance laws at the expense of women and private landowners the Church successfully accumulated fortunes, especially in the form of increased land holdings. With the support of the Government, the Church forbade polygamy, intermarriage between close relatives and was limiting women's inheritance rights. If legal heirs were absent it opened up for the Church to grab land and the elimination of the female inheritance rights was a step in this direction. The Roman adoption laws, which allowed influential men to accept other people's children as their heirs, were banned. Concubinage was outlawed, meaning that "bastards and children of whores" were deprived of their inheritance rights . In the meantime, the Church preached that to avoid a well-deserved punishment in Hell it was a good idea to donate wealth and land to the Church. To increase its own power and wealth, the Church was striving for an efficient control of people's privacy and property. Celibacy has been considered as a result of such policies - if the men of the Church did not marry and thus could be kept away from the pernicious women's realm they conceived no heirs who could nibble at and erode the Church's riches.

Admittedly, none of these theories is ultimately proven, but it is interesting to see how women seem to disappear as church leaders when the Church was at the peak of its powers.So even though Rome has been the home of misogynic popes and the center of a Church that often has been opposed to equal rights to women, the city has still kept in store signs and traces that may reveal that declared truths of a wealthy and well-established clergy can be put in doubt by things found in the earth, the caves and dark corners of the La Cittá Eterna, The Eternal City. Rome is thus not only Caput Mundi, the Head of the World, she is also La Mamma Roma who gave birth to a Catholic Church that still rests in her amazing bosom.

You can read about Pope Johanna in Peter Stanford's book The She-Pope: A quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope John. London: Arrow Books, 1998.

 

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