These claims have been touted by some of the mainstream media in recent days, so you're bound to come across them (if you haven't already, examples are here and here). So, it might be a good idea to examine the image in question to see for yourself what, if anything, we can glean from it regarding the very modern topic of women's ordination.
The above picture shows frescoes which decorate the ceiling of one of the small funerary chapels in the Catacombs of Priscilla known as the "Greek Chapel." The scene at the bottom of this photo, with three groups of figures, is the one which has gotten most of the attention in recent days because some groups (groups with an agenda in favor of women's' ordination, mind you), have pointed to the figure in the center and said that this is a clear depiction of a female priest celebrating Mass.
Is it, really? Let's look at the images objectively.
There are three groups of figures in the scene. In the center of the grouping is a standing figure that's the real focus of the media reporting. The figure (at center and larger than the other figures) appears to be a female, head covered, standing with her eyes raised heavenward and her arms raised.
This figure (and here is where some have violently tossed objectivity out the window), according to some women's ordination proponents, clearly depicts a female priest and the scene as a whole is the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, they claim, this is documentary evidence of female priests in the early Church.
Let's let objectivity seep back in for a minute, before anybody gets too excited: that claim is pure bunk.
Regardless of what anyone's thoughts are on women's ordination (and, to be clear--since this is a Catholic blog--, the Catholic Church considers the matter absolutely closed and holds, as a doctrine of faith, that the Church never has and can never ordain anyone other than men as priests), the figure at the center of the scene above does absolutely nothing to prove or disprove the idea of women priests. To present it as some kind of "proof" of early women priests (as some groups have done recently) is, at best, extremely ignorant or, at worst, woefully dishonest and misleading.
This image, of a woman standing with arms raised and eyes aloft is hardly unique (for that matter, this particular image in the Catacombs of Priscilla is also not newly-discovered, as some of the media reporting would lead us to believe). In fact, it is a stock figure in early Roman artwork and it's called an "Orans" (a name derived from the Latin word for "praying"). These figures, which depict a woman with her hands outstretched in prayer, can be found throughout the catacombs and in both Christian and pagan artwork of the time.
Most archaeologists believe that Christians adopted the Orans figure from the pagan culture around them. With Christians, as with pagans, it usually symbolized a soul in prayer. Not only was it a well-known image in ancient Roman times that symbolized prayer (and, for that reason, an image particularly well-suited to be used in the decoration of tombs and funerary chapels where passersby would be reminded to pray for the souls of the dead), early Christians also found in the figure a striking parallel to Christ, arms spread on the Cross of salvation.
|Example of another, similar Orans figure. There|
are many, many, other examples in both pagan
and Christian artwork in early Roman times.
Why was the Orans figure nearly always a female? Well in the Greek language spoken by most Romans during the early centuries of the first millennium (when use of the Orans figure in decorative art was at its peak), the word for spirit is pneuma, which is feminine. So it seems that it was popular among both pagans and Christians alike used a female Orans (with few exceptions) as the generic depiction of a soul. An interesting piece of evidence for this can be found in the collections of the Vatican Museum where there is an ancient medal that depicts the martyrdom of St. Lawrence where, leaving the saint's body, his soul is depicted as a female Orans figure.
So, for the sake of truth and objectivity, please know that the image of the "praying woman" from the Catacombs of Priscilla, then, is not new, is not unique, and has absolutely nothing to do with priesthood.