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Bitalia in the Catacombs of San Gennaro


In the past week, seminary student and YouTuber Zach Miller posted an interview he did with Carolyn Osiek, a highly respected New Testament scholar and expert on the early church. Zach included a portrait of a fifth-century woman named Cerula at the beginning of this interview, and this has reignited a few conversations on the nature of Cerula’s ministry.

[In the past fortnight, Zach also interviewed Holly Carey on Jesus’s female disciples, Sandra Glahn on Artemis, Lyn Kidson on 1 Timothy, and me. I spoke about Phoebe.]

The conversations about Cerula motivated me to expand on a comment I had previously written about a similar portrait of a woman named Bitalia. As my word count increased, I realised I needed to post this as a new blog post. So here it is, my observations on the frescoes of Cerula and Bitalia.

The Tombs of Cerula and Bitalia

Between the second and sixth centuries, at least 3000 Christians were laid to rest in the Catacombs of San Gennaro, which is located on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. These Christians included clergy, such as bishops and presbyters/ priests, as well as ordinary believers.

In the fifth or early sixth century, two women Cerula and Bitalia joined them. Cerula was buried in a large archisolium: a tomb under a decorated arch. Bitalia was buried in a smaller niche. But both had their portrait painted as part of the decoration. The grey hair of Cerula in her portrait shows that she was not a young woman when she died. Bitalia may have grey hair also. Both portraits contain interesting iconography, some common, but others rare. What this iconography tells us about the ecclesial role or position of Cerula and Bitalia has been much discussed.


Cerula in the Catacombs of San Gennaro

Raised Hands

The portraits are only of the upper body, and both women are shown with their arms outstretched and slightly raised. This orans or prayer posture was common in Christian catacomb art and it doesn’t necessarily indicate leadership as some suggest. It is not typically a gesture of giving a blessing. Rather, it figuratively depicts the soul of the deceased person now in the presence of the Lord. It also indicates the piety of the deceased. Furthermore, because souls were thought to be feminine, the orans figure is often depicted as female even when the deceased person was a man.[1] But Cerula and Bitalia were definitely women; they have feminine names.

The Gospel Books

What is more interesting is the unique iconography of the two open books containing the four Gospels. The Gospel books with loose red flowing straps feature in both Cerula’s and Bitalia’s portraits. So far, no other early Christian art has been found with the same depiction of the two open Gospel books. However, there are other fourth and fifth-century Christian mosaics and frescoes that feature books. Here are three examples.

~ In the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is a mosaic of Peter and Paul each carrying a similar-looking book. The apostles are depicted as ready to ordain a new bishop. This mosaic was created sometime between 432-440. (See and scroll here.)

~ In the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome is a mosaic of two women each holding a book. But these women are representations of the Jewish and the Gentile churches rather than of individuals. This mosaic was created around 430. (See and scroll here.)

~ In the Catacombs of Domitilla in Rome is a fresco of two women. It shows Petronilla, a martyr, ushering Veneranda into paradise. And there is an open book like the ones in the frescoes of Cerula and Bitalia. Is it a book of the Gospels? Is it “The Book of Life“? Was there another open book on the left side of the fresco that is damaged? This fresco was painted in the fourth century, possibly soon after 356. (See below.)

The Gospels in Cerula’s and Bitalia’s frescoes may indicate that the women could read and they may have been teachers of the gospel like Marcella of Rome (325-410) or the unnamed deaconess (360s) mentioned by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s in his Church History. Or is there something more to it?

Veneranda and Petronilla in the Catacombs of Domitilla

The Gospels and Ordination

In the modern Roman Catholic Church, “The ordination rites of both bishops and deacons indicate their intimate connection with the Gospels. At an episcopal ordination, two deacons hold the Book of the Gospels opened and above the head of the soon-to-be bishop.”[2] A Vatican document explains, “The book of the Gospels, placed over the head of the Bishop, is a sign of a life totally submitted to the Word of God and spent in preaching the Gospel with the utmost patience and teaching.”[3]

The origin of this ritual stretches back centuries. For example, the Apostolic Constitutions, circa AD 380, includes this rite in the ordination of a new bishop, followed by a prayer. It says,

“And silence being made, let one of the principal bishops, together with two others, stand near to the altar, the rest of the bishops and presbyters praying silently, and the deacons holding the divine Gospels open upon the head of him that is to be ordained, and say to God thus …” Apostolic Constitutions 8.4

Paul Bradshaw writes,

The ceremony of the Gospel book was not something invented by the author of the Apostolic Constitutions, since there is evidence that it was also practised at Antioch before the end of the fourth century, being mentioned briefly by Palladius, and more fully by Severian of Gabala, who interpreted it as being a symbol of the descent of the Spirit on the ordinand. Severian believed that the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire on the Apostles at Pentecost was the sign of their ordination, and that

“the custom remains even to the present: because the descent of the Holy Spirit is invisible, the Gospel is placed on the head of him who is to be ordained high-priest; and when this is done, one must not see anything other than a tongue of fire resting on his head—a tongue, because of preaching, a tongue of fire, because of the saying, ‘I have come to cast fire on the earth.’”[4]

With Severian’s statement in mind, Ally Kateusz posits that “The wavy red tendrils emanating from the sides and bottom of the two open books on either side of Cerula and Bitalia’s heads even more clearly suggest flames or tongues of fire.”[5]

Dr Kateusz has studied the frescoes carefully and made Cerula and Bitalia famous. I read the information in her 2019 book on the leadership of early Christian women when preparing this article. In particular, I read the section in her book entitled “Cerula and Bitalia: Ordained Bishops.” I’m not fully convinced, however, of some of the suggested interpretations of elements in the frescoes and I’m not convinced that either of the two women were bishops. Furthermore, in the frescoes of Cerula and Bitalia, and also of Veneranda, the books are not directly over the heads of the women.

Inscriptions and mosaics commemorating deceased deacons and presbyters/ priests, male or female, give their titles (which is how we know the deceased person was a deacon or presbyter). Apart from spelling out the names of the four Gospels, however, the only other writing on the frescoes of Cerula and Bitalia gives the women’s names and the Latin for “in peace.” No ministry titles are given in the frescoes, but this does not mean the women did not have an official position in the church with a title. As Carolyn Osiek pointed out in her interview with Zach, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The Chi-Rho and the Women’s “Shawls”

Cerula and Bitalia each have the Chi-Rho symbol, ☧, above their heads. This was common in catacomb art. Chi and Rho are the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. Furthermore, the Greek letters Α (alpha) and Ω (omega), also representing Christ, are included in the Chi-Rho above Cerula’s head. These letter-symbols express the allegiance of the deceased person to Christ.

Both women wear an expensive shawl-like garment. Cerula’s shawl and veil are ornately patterned with figures of people, arms raised in procession, and the shawl is also patterned with Greek crosses within circles. Bitalia’s shawl is deep red and made with a costly dye. It has been suggested that this garment is a chasuble, a garment worn by clergy during liturgies. Whether this is the case, or not, everything about the tombs and how the women are depicted indicates that they were wealthy. As such, they would have been in a position to help the church in prominent and significant ways.

Fifth-Century Italian Women Officiated at Altars

Writing about Bitalia, Christine Schenk states, “A minimalist interpretation of Bitalia’s fresco would point to her desire to be remembered as a woman of prayer, teacher of scripture, and proclaimer of the word.”[6] And with ancient literary and epigraphic evidence in mind [such as the evidence for female presbyters/ priests that I’ve outlined here], “it becomes plausible that Bitalia’s expressive fresco in Naples may indeed be that of a fifth-century woman priest ‘officiating at the sacred altar.’”[7]

In the late fifth century, pontiff Gelasius I wrote a letter to the bishops in southern Italy. This letter, dated March 11, 494, was addressed to “all episcopates established in Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicilia.” (These episcopates are in modern-day Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily.) Naples is immediately north of them. Gelasius speaks disapprovingly about women performing liturgical functions at the altar. He does not indicate whether these women were deacons or presbyters/ priests, and he does not give scriptural reasons for his disapproval. Rather, he expresses his annoyance that some bishops, all men, were allowing women to minister in areas that he believed were reserved for men. Gelasius wrote,

… we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars (ministrare sacris altaribus), and to take part in all matters (cunctaque) imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they [the women] do not belong.[8]

So it is plausible, as Christine Schenk indicates, that women in Naples, such as Bitalia, may have officiated at sacred altars like the women further south. And these women may have been presbyters. Madigan and Osiek have observed that “while synods and councils, both East and West, repeatedly condemned the practice of women presbyters, the epigraphical and literary evidence suggests their ongoing existence, even if in small numbers.”[9]

What is perhaps more significant in identifying the women as recognised or ordained ministers, is that in Cerula’s fresco, there is a figure standing on the left who represents the apostle Paul, and he is blessing her. It is plausible that another figure, such as Peter, stood on the right, but has faded over the centuries. (Take a look here.) By the fourth century, Peter and Paul were frequently depicted together, either by themselves or on either side of another person.[10] Does this fresco depict the apostles ordaining Cerula? Or are they welcoming her into paradise?


The orans posture and the Chi-Rho symbol were common elements in Christian catacomb art and they reflect the deceased person’s piety but not their ministry. I don’t know what to make of the women’s shawls, but the rare depiction of the four Gospels seems significant. Literary evidence gives us the names of notable women ministers in the fourth century; Cerula and Bitalia may have followed in that tradition, and it is entirely possible they were deacons or presbyters. I’m less sure that they were recognised as bishops.


[1] There is a short article on orantes in catacomb art and the orans posture here.

[2] Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, “Holy Orders: Deacons and Bishops” on TheDeacon.com

[3] “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World, Intrumentum Laboris,” 2001, Section 41 (Vatican.va)

[4] Paul F. Bradshaw, Ordination Rites of the Ancient Churches of East and West (Pueblo, 1990), 40. (Internet Archive)

[5] Ally Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership (Springer International, Kindle Edition, 2019), Location 2788. Dr Kateusz has generously shared her book on Academia.edu and Library.Oapen.org.
Ally Kateusz and Luca Badini Confalonieri discuss Cerula and Bitalia in their chapter, “Women Church Leaders in and around Fifth-century Rome” in Patterns of Women’s Leadership in Early Christianity, Joan E. Taylor and Ilaria L.E. Ramelli (eds) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 228-260, esp. 245ff.

[6] Schenk, Crispina and her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Fortress Press, 2017), 147. (Google Books)

[7] Schenk, ibid. On page 90, Dr Schenk explains that “In English, the word [“presbyter” meaning “elder”] was shortened to “prester” and eventually to “priest.”

[8] Quoted in Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 129. (Dr Eisen includes more Latin words in her quotation/ translation. I’ve removed some of the Latin words.)

[9] Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, (eds) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 163.

[10] See Robert Couzin, “Chapter 6. Peter and Paul in Early Christian Art” in Right and Left in Early Christian and Medieval Art (Brill, 2021), 111-137.

© Margaret Mowczko 2024
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Image sources

Cerula: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catacombe_di_San_Gennaro._0021.JPG
Bitalia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catacombe_di_San_Gennaro_017.jpg
Veneranda: https://blogcamminarenellastoria.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/roma-le-catacombe-di-domitilla/ Used with permission.
The photographs have been cropped and enhanced slightly.

Explore more

An Overview of Women Ministers in the Early Church
Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic
A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa (d. 380-385)
Olympias: Deaconess and Chrysostom’s Friend
Atto of Vercelli on Female Priests in the Early Church

Women Elders in Ancient Christian Texts:
Part 1: Women Elders in Heterodox Churches and Ancient Church Canons
Part 2: Women Elders in Ancient Church Manuals 
Part 3: Women Elders in Inscriptions and Atto of Vercelli

8 thoughts on “Cerula and Bitalia in Catacomb Art

  1. Hi Marg, this is a wonderful article, although I think the entirety of the evidence, some of which you do not address, suggests somewhat more strongly that both Cerula and Bitalia were commemorated in this art as ordained bishops.

    For example, then as today, clergy were not always identified with their ecclesial titles in their funeral portraits or inscriptions. Several men buried in San Gennaro’s crypt of bishops do not have inscriptions that identify them as bishops, but they are identified as bishops because they are holding books. Why apply a different standard to Cerula and Bitalia? (I mention this in our 2021 Oxford University Press article that you cite.)

    Similarly, just down the corridor from the frescos of Cerula and Bitalia, the fresco of a man named Eleusinius has two feature also seen with Cerula—crosses in circles on his paenula (or “chasuble”) and two open books flanking him on the sides of his arcosolium—but he too is usually identified as a bishop despite that this title is absent for him, too (we also cite his example and provide an image of his arcosolium in our OUP article).

    In other example, there is wide disagreement as to what the third and fourth-century catacomb orantes represented, but by the fifth century the orans pose was often clearly associated with liturgical roles, so the liturgical interpretation should not be ruled out for Cerula and Bitalia in their arms-raised pose.

    Finally, I also love Sister Osiek and Sister Schenk’s work, and I met both of them some years ago on a Future Church tour to Rome. Sister Schenk was on the Future Church board and Dr. Osiek was leading the tour. Future Church is a Catholic organization that advocated the reinstitution of deaconesses in the Catholic Church, but opposed advocating for women priests. Although sometimes both of them agree with the strongest evidence of women presbyters, or priests, in my opinion their personal views often seem to color their rather conservative interpretation of other evidence, evidence that likely would lead them and other Catholic scholars to conclude that, if the same evidence pertained to a man, then the man was a priest or a bishop—evidence such as the book depicted with the men buried in San Gennaro signifying that THEY were a bishop.

    This double standard for male and female subjects can become exceedingly circular, to the extent that because one scholar identifies a woman with an open book as meaning simply that she was merely a learned woman, not a bishop, such as the Domitilla Catacomb fresco of Petronella and Veneranda—a name similar to that used for bishops—therefore means that Bitalia and Cerula also were learned women, not bishops. But as we detailed in our OUP article, even the Catholic catacomb expert Joseph Wilpert wrote a book in 1898 proposing that the wide strip of cloth seen on Petronella was the earliest example of the papal pallium! This, quite likely, if Petronella and “Veneranda” were men, then today they too would be identified as bishops.

    Marg, women named in the the New Testament appear to have functioned as overseers of the churches in their homes, so why would we not assume that this early tradition did not continue in some Christian communities? Were those Christians weaker or more easily swayed from the truth of Jesus’ gospel than egalitarians today?

    In that same Oxford University Press article we analyze the very oldest artifacts that depict people at a church altar and everyone of the artifacts depict women at the altar and men and women with their arms raised in the liturgy. As we also show in that article the Catholic Church itself is complicit in obscuring the early role of women clergy.

    Marg, I love your work and it saddens me to see you take a conservative position on the art when you are not even an art historian, and when our new research on this art is overturning the old patriarchal interpretations of it. Frankly, when art is not interpreted differently when it depicts a woman than when it depicts a man, the art tells its own story. Again, I love your work. I have a very, very, very high opinion of your mission. I want to see you achieve the greatest possible success. That is why I am giving you this feedback.

    1. Hi Ally, I appreciate the extra information and your insight into this! I’m sorry my observations have disappointed you. I’m not fully convinced the women were bishops, but I don’t rule out that possibility. I see myself as being cautious, rather than conservative.

      The same circular reasoning is used with New Testament women such as Junia and Nympha. If these were men’s names, the assumption would be that they were church leaders. But because they have women’s names, and on no other basis, their ministries are downplayed.

      Women were overseers (episkopoi) of congregations in the first century, but we see the ministry of women being restricted already by the end of the first century. For the author of 1 Clement (circa AD 90), the author of the Didache (circa 100), and Ignatius (circa 110), episkopoi, presbyters, and deacons were all men.

      The literary evidence for women deacons and presbyters picks up in the 200-300s, but I haven’t seen this kind of evidence for women episkopoi. It’s all a big shame.

      I love and appreciate your work!

      1. ♥️

      2. Ally, Do you know what the “bands” are just above the women’s wrists? Are they a kind of jewellery?

        1. Hi Marg, They look to me like embroidered lines around their cuffs, or something like that, not bangles. They appear to be as tight as the sleeves, so not separate. Also neither of the two ladies are wearing any other jewelry. It might help if I knew why you were wondering this.

          Also, just re-read your article. I might add that I don’t think the gospel books have to be directly above their heads to signify episcopal ordination for multiple reasons. First, a gospel book anywhere near a man signified a bishop, as seen with the men holding a book who are identified as bishops elsewhere in these same catacombs. But second, open gospel books anywhere near the head would seem to be such a unique symbol as to easily be interpreted by the viewers as part of the episcopal ordination, where open gospel books actually were held over the head of the ordinand. Third, there was a tradition in the West of two deacons holding the gospel books over the new bishop’s head; that didn’t necessarily mean a giant Bible and could very well mean two sets of books for the four gospels just as seen in the painting, and two deacons would explain why the two books and why they were depicted slightly to the sides. Finally, to paint the open gospel books directly above their head would require more space at the top, which would also mean the woman would have to be painted smaller to be proportional. This representation of the two open books on each side of their heads thus could represent the actual ritual with two deacons, or it could simply be artistic license in order to balance the composition of the painting inside the arcosolium, or both.

          1. Hi Ally, I’ve seen bands in similar positions in depictions of ancient women and I thought they might be cuff bracelets, with the practical purpose of holding sleeves close to the skin.

            You make good points. And I can imagine the position of the Chi-Rho would take precedence over where to position the Gospel books.

  2. Thank you both for giving readers an example of how to write constructive comments and have a respectful exchange when two Christians disagree. I hope that the people who attack Marg regularly in the comments take note of this. I was a bit disturbed to read this exchange late last night on my phone and so I came back to it this morning to read and understand both sides better. I respect the scholarship and care you both have in your work on early Christian women and use your work as references for (slowly) updating the “List of Christian women of the early church” on Wikipedia and the book lists “Christian gender equality: Women of the early church”, “Christian gender equality: Ordination of women, Protestant” and “Christian gender equality: Ordination of women, Catholic and Orthodox” on worldcat.org. Personally, I think that all the evidence (art, textual, archeological) has to be taken together to assess whether women conducted sacraments or were regarded as priests or bishops in the early church. I think that the fact that church fathers railed against the church mothers having a position as clergy shows that women ministers must have existed somewhere for it to be so scandalous and for the men to have acted to protect their positions.

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