I’m very happy to announce that my book Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity, will be published by Fortress Press in the late Fall.
It all began with our 2007 FutureChurch pilgrimage to Rome sites of women leaders in the early church. Dr. Janet Tulloch—a specialist in early Christian images—suggested that we visit the newly opened Pio Cristiano museum. Located in the Vatican Museums, the Pio Cristiano contains the most comprehensive collection of early Christian funerary art in the world. To our surprise and delight we discovered many sarcophagi of deceased women holding scrolls and codices, hands in teaching gestures, and surrounded by stories from the scriptures.
We had never seen these images before. Could they tell us something about women in the early church?
Most people have never heard of Bitalia, Veneranda, Crispina, Petronella, Leta, or Sofia the Deacon, even though their catacomb and sarcophagus art suggests their authority was influential and valued by early Christian communities. Discovering reliable historical data about Christian women is challenging because most of history relies heavily on literary records authored by men. Even though many female patrons financially subsidized male leaders in the early Church (Mary of Magdala, Phoebe, Lydia, Domitilla, Paula, Olympias), their presence is barely discernable in the literary sources. It did not take feminist scholars long to recognize that visual imagery and archaeological remains could provide information about women in the early Church either not available or sometimes distorted in the written history.
Christians were part of their Greco-Roman culture and so Christian funerary art is rooted in Greco-Roman artistic conventions. Crispina and Her Sisters explores visual imagery found on the funerary art of prominent early Christian women. It details an analysis of 2,119 images from third- to early fifth-century sarcophagi which comprise all publicly available images. A discussion of findings is carefully situated within the cultural context of customary Roman commemorations of the dead.
Recent scholarship about Roman portrait sarcophagi and the interpretation of early Christian art also receives significant attention. An in-depth analysis of iconographical features such as scrolls, speech gestures, and in-facing “apostle” figures suggests that many fourth-century Christian women were commemorated as persons of status, influence, and authority within their Christian social networks. One highly significant (and surprising) finding is that there were three times as many individual portraits of Christian women compared to individual portraits of Christian men. Another is that over twice as many individual female portraits were portrayed with in-facing “apostle” iconography compared to males. In-facing “apostle” figures are found most frequently in funerary iconography surrounding Christ imagery. This strongly suggests that women used this motif to validate their own authority within the Christian community.
A fascinating picture emerges of women’s authority in the early church, a picture either not available or sadly distorted in the written history. It is often said “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The portrait tombs of prominent fourth-century Christian women suggest that they viewed themselves and/or their loved ones viewed them as persons of authority with substantial ecclesial influence. These findings correspond well to the hypotheses of biblical and historical scholars such as Carolyn Osiek and Peter Lampe who suggest that women were more influential in the early church than has been commonly recognized.
It has been my great privilege to midwife this unfolding story, first begun by FutureChurch over ten years ago.