I have been in love with Saint Thecla of Iconium since my student days. How can you not love an ancient legend about a child-bride who runs off to join the circus and grows up to become one of the most popular saints of the early Church? All the more so when the circus in question is the apostolic mission of the New Testament writer Saint Paul. Thecla’s second-century legend, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, remembered the Apostle as having commissioned her to ‘go and preach the word of God’ – and as one might imagine, the claim that Paul had honoured a female colleague in this way caused a controversy in the second-century Church. But in fact she was among the most beloved of the early Christian saints.
Yesterday in the course of things I came across a cache of interesting articles about archaeological discoveries over the last few years at Thecla’s Roman catacomb. It is the location of one of the most exciting developments regarding Early Christian Rome in recent years. In 2010, the archaeologist Barbara Mazzei announced that using a new laser technology she had been able to uncover the original striking colours of a number of fourth-century portraits in the catacomb – four of four male apostles, some of which are now believed to be their earliest surviving portraits, and one of an elegant Roman gentlewoman who was buried in the catacomb.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most reports focused their excitement on the ‘early’ portraits of the male Apostles – they are lovely and colourful, and made only three hundred years after they died, whereas other surviving portraits date from almost a century later. But my own eye was caught by a comment made by Dr Mazzei in the Guardian article on the find, that the catacomb’s patron was a woman. A bit of searching turned up a vividly coloured portrait of the elite woman in whose grave-chamber the frescoes were found, thanks to a piece by the journalist Alicia Ambrosino, one of the few journalists to call attention to the portrait. (Read her account of her visit to the catacomb here.)
To my eye, the enigmatic fourth-century patroness is the most magnetic thing about the newly restored frescoes. Taken alongside the newly restored frescoes in the ‘Velied Woman’ cubiculum of the catacomb of Priscilla, we can begin to ask really interesting questions about the women who featured so prominently in the Roman catacombs. There has been some debate about whether they were priests. But even if they weren’t, it is significant that the early Christians of Rome saw a connection between the powerful women of their own day and the powerful women of the city’s past. Some years ago, I published an academic article on the Thecla catacomb (‘A Saint in Exile: The Early Medieval Thecla at Rome and Meriamlik’), and in those days I was disappointed that there was not better archaeological evidence for women as patronesses of Thecla’s cult in Rome, since ee know from other sources that women in fourth-century Rome were deeply interested in Thecla.
In fact, Thecla was often put forward as a model for young women to imitate – the letters of St Jerome show that this was true for the heiresses of the great Roman families, but it was probably true in other, less well-documented families as well. It is quite surprising that in such a traditional society, a disobedient daughter like Thecla was the figure parents wanted their daughters to use as a model! Of course, it was partly that parents and preachers admired Thecla’s devotion to the Apostle, but it seems likely that they also recognised her as a figure who would capture their daughters’ imagination.
So it is welcome news that we are beginning to achieve a better understanding of the archaeological record where the women of Christian Rome are concerned – we will watch with interest as Dr Mazzei and her colleagues continue their research.
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Further Reading: You can find more on Thecla and the women of fourth-century Rome in my Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women or my recent article, ‘The Bride of Christ, the “Male Woman,” and the Female Reader in Late Antiquity’.
And more about Thecla on Kateantiquity: Do have a look at the following posts: In Thecla’s Palace (A visit to Thecla’s cathedral in Milan); Through Thamyris’ Eyes (Thecla’s story told from an unexpected point of view – that of the fiancé she left to pursue her brilliant career as an apostle. This post is part of the Ancient Faces and Voices project with Thomas Whitham Sixth Form in Burnley, Lancashire); Theocleia’s Revenge (Another post from Burnley – this time the story from the money-grubbing mother’s point of view.)