The Bone Gatherers
The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women is an historical examination of the physical memorials to ancient Christian women of means. Many such women collected and buried the martyrs, founding cemeteries, creating sacred spaces in the catacombs, and commissioning funerary paintings that, in keeping with ancient tradition, included both subtle and overt references to themselves as the ones left behind. The evidence strongly suggests that many of these women were, until the fourth century, esteemed and powerful church leaders. Thus, author Nicola Denzey presents several fascinating questions: How do we accurately ‘read’ the ancient art that was so clearly meaningful to these women? What was the cultural and religious context in which these women and their secular counterparts operated? And what happened to so extensively alter their public roles in the church?
Denzey declares that her intention is to produce a feminist midrash; that is, following Jewish tradition, to start with the facts in evidence and then “write these women back to life” by making reasonable surmises and drawing reasonable conclusions. This methodology will make some readers wary, but Denzey is fair and careful, meticulously laying out the facts (including detailed descriptions and photographs of relevant art) and the variety of opinions held by scholars, and clearly stating when she is surmising and on what basis. In so doing, she presents a factually-grounded and well-reasoned alternative to traditional male-centered interpretations of early church structures.
She begins by looking closely at the burial rituals for ancient Roman women, which reveal that even in death, women were seen as subservient; funerary paintings and poetry portray Death as either the bridegroom of the married woman or as the underworld rapist of the young virgin. Women could not claim virtue; the word directly translated means “power of man”; young men were described in their memorials as having died “virtuously” or “heroically,” whereas young women were described as having died an “untimely” death, i.e. before they had married or produced offspring. Similarly, virgin martyrdom, in both pagan and Christian contexts, was complicated, with the virgins being described as sexual objects pursued by evil gods or demons.
In life, marriage offered Roman noblewomen a certain degree of independence in their rights to own and, more significantly, to give away. They were the business managers of the domus, which generally included a large staff and some form of commerce. The domus extended to the catacombs—literally, as they were built directly below the lower levels of the house—where women were responsible for burying the dead of the household and spending considerable money on the appropriate memorials. In this context, house churches, predominant in the first centuries of Christianity, were naturally the domain of women, who gathered the martyrs into their own personal burial chambers and commissioned chapels and other underground anterooms where the devout would gather for remembrance and worship.
Among the artifacts Denzey examines are several burial chambers decorated with highly unusual paintings; the well-known “Greek Chapel”; and the famous Fractio Panis fresco (in which a figure breaking bread for a company gathered around a table has traditionally been identified as a male priest, despite the fact that ‘he’ is wearing garments worn in the that day only by married women). She asks the reader to look at these artifacts not through the lens of 1600 years of all-male popes and priests and preachers but with the clear eyes of the ancient people who built and commissioned these artifacts for their own use, recognizing that “women’s iconography is invisible in a male world of symbols and meaning.” In other words, we see what we have been told for centuries to see and not necessarily what is really there.
So what happened in the fourth century? Denzey is not adamant about her proposal, but the evidence she presents merits serious consideration. The powerful Pope Damasus—who went to war with his rival, slaughtering hundreds to secure his position—came to power in a declining Roman empire. The remaining wealth was primarily controlled by the ancient noble families, specifically by the married women of the ancient noble families. If he was going to control it, Damasus needed to move that wealth from the sphere of the domus to the sphere of the basilica. Furthermore, the two main options for free men were service in the military or service in the church, and statistics suggested to Damasus that men were choosing the military because they saw the church as less definitively masculine. This “male conversion anxiety” sparked an aggressive campaign to rename dozens of basilicas that had been erected to the memory of female saints, and to replace carvings and paintings across the city that bore the ancient symbol of Roman concord—the married couple—and replace them with images of paired male saints. Thus Damasus manipulated “an official Christian collective memory and self-identity that obliterated powerful women from Roman Christian imaginative horizons.” Perhaps most importantly, the Damasan age “was resolutely an age of language,” setting a new course for the church, one in which only educated men would be involved in writing the sanctioned doctrine and history of the Christian religion.
Denzey’s theories, while neither exclusive nor exhaustive in scope, are highly plausible, making sense of some of the apparent discrepancies between the received history and the historical evidence. And the combination of expert research and clear reasoning with nuanced creativity makes for fascinating reading. I recommend it to readers with an interest in religious/funerary art history, ancient Roman culture, or the history of gender in Christianity.