I know the relationship between women and religion is contentious, because some of our best evidence for it is hidden, buried deep underground.
Beneath the frenetic streets of Rome twist and turn the rock-cut catacombs of Priscilla. Here, there are a series of beautiful, faded wall‑paintings. In one side chapel, women sit around a dining table breaking bread and offering wine – apparently giving communion. On the flanking walls, draped in pale cloth, they raise their arms to worship God. In another chamber, a praying woman – hands and eyes lifted to the sky – dominates the scene. To her side a bishop lays his hand on a woman’s shoulder. She is wearing an alb, the marker of an ordained priest. These catacombs were home to early Christians escaping persecution and plying their faith, when Christianity was first becoming a fully fledged religion. High on one ceiling is a picture of a young mother nursing her chubby baby. Discovered only a few years ago, it is the first extant image we have of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. Unlike the modern world of faith, women here are conspicuous not by their absence but their presence.