by Sarah MacDonald
“New research recently unveiled in Rome suggests women had a greater role in the early church’s ministries and liturgies than previously thought and were present at church altars as deacons, priests and even bishops.
Ally Kateusz, research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, presented her findings July 2 to the International Society of Biblical Literature, drawing on iconography from ancient Christian art.
A specialist in the history of late antiquity, she has taught at both Webster University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She told the conference, which was held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, that three of the earliest surviving images of Christians worshipping at church altars show women in official liturgical roles.
One of the artifacts she bases her findings on is an ivory reliquary box dating from around A.D. 430 that depicts a man and a woman standing on either side of an altar, each raising a chalice. The altar is that of Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The gesture of raising a chalice is recognized as a liturgical act performed by priests.
Two other artifacts also depict women at altars: One is a sixth century ivory pyx of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the other is a stone sarcophagus front from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople,