The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women

The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women

The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women

The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women

Synopsis

The bone gatherers found in the annals and legends of the early Roman Catholic Church were women who collected the bodies of martyred saints to give them a proper burial. They have come down to us as deeply resonant symbols of grief: from the women who anointed Jesus's crucified body in the gospels to the Pieta, we are accustomed to thinking of women as natural mourners, caring for the body in all its fragility and expressing our deepest sorrow.

But to think of women bone gatherers merely as mourners of the dead is to limit their capacity to stand for something more significant. In fact, Denzey argues that the bone gatherers are the mythic counterparts of historical women of substance and means-women who, like their pagan sisters, devoted their lives and financial resources to the things that mattered most to them: their families, their marriages, and their religion. We find their sometimes splendid burial chambers in the catacombs of Rome, but until Denzey began her research for The Bone Gatherers, the monuments left to memorialize these women and their contributions to the Church went largely unexamined.

The Bone Gatherers introduces us to once-powerful women who had, until recently, been lost to history- from the sorrowing mothers and ghastly brides of pagan Rome to the child martyrs and women sponsors who shaped early Christianity. It was often only in death that ancient women became visible- through the buildings, burial sites, and art constructed in their memory- and Denzey uses this archaeological evidence, along with ancient texts, to resurrect the lives of several fourth-century women.

Surprisingly, she finds that representations of aristocratic Roman Christian women show a shift in the value and significance of womanhood over the fourth century: once esteemed as powerful leaders or patrons, women came to be revered (in an increasingly male-dominated church) only as virgins or martyrs- figureheads for sexual purity. These depictions belie a power struggle between the sexes within early Christianity, waged via the Church's creation and manipulation of collective memory and subtly shifting perceptions of women and femaleness in the process of Christianization.

The Bone Gatherers is at once a primer on how to "read" ancient art and the story of a struggle that has had long-lasting implications for the role of women in the Church.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

At a flashpoint in tensions during three tumultuous years of persecutions and pogroms from 249 to 251 ce, Rome's bishop, Cornelius, faced the fearsome Decius, the first emperor to launch a systematic and cruel hunt for Christians in Rome and abroad. Decius had already put to death Cornelius's predecessor, Fabian, in 250. the papal seat sat vacant for nearly a year as the Christian population of Rome roiled against the emperor and fractured under the force of external and internal pressures. Cornelius had been elected against his wishes, for 251 was a dangerous year to become the bishop of Rome. Decius himself had declared that he would rather vie with a claimant to the imperial throne than tolerate another bishop of Rome (Cyprian, Epis- tle 55.9).

Two years later, Cornelius was dragged outside the city to a Temple of Mars and ordered to throw a pinch of incense on an altar in honor of the emperor and the gods of Rome. Cornelius stood his ground and refused. the imperial response was swift: the bishop was summarily decapitated. His body lay in pieces, unmourned, until it was brought back to the city by a hero as unlikely as she is unknown—a "blessed" (beata) Roman Christian woman by the name of Lucina. Lucina brought the pope's body to her lands that adjoined the public Christian Catacombs of Callixtus, and she buried the pieces in her family crypt. She ordered his grave to be marked only with a simple marble slab and the Latin inscription "Cornelius, bishop and martyr." the stone exists still, unearthed from Rome's soft soil in 1849. Ancient sources record the date of Cornelius's burial: September 14, 253 ce.

Lucina was Rome's first bone gatherer of pious literature, a woman of substance and means who collected the bodies of the saints to give them a proper burial. It was this same Lucina who had earlier carried the body of a far more powerful saint than even the pope and martyr Cornelius to sanctuary on her lands. Before Cornelius's martyrdom, she was his friend, and she had exhorted him to exhume the bones of the city's patron saints Peter and Paul. They deserved, after all, far better than the relative ignominy of a temporary catacomb burial outside Rome's southernmost circuit. Lucina . . .

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