Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Theodora episcopa, Praxedes, the Virgin Mary, and Pudentiana
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The church of Santa Prassede dates from the reign of Pope Paschal I (817-824 CE). This mosaic is located in the north lunette of the St. Zeno Chapel, which contained the sarcophagus of Theodora, Paschal’s mother. In the mosaic, depictions of four women gaze outwards, as if from the gallery of a palace chapel. On the left, in the space typically reserved for the patron, the head of a veiled woman is surrounded by a rectangular nimbus bordered in white. An inscription in the gold ground in the top left identifies her as THEODO(RA) EPISCOPA. Three figures are located to her right: the haloed Virgin Mary who wears a blue maphorion (woman’s enveloping veil) and two gaudily costumed saint-attendants, the sisters Praxedes and Pudentiana.

    Theodora’s title and nimbus are unique for multiple reasons. By definition, episcope means the counseling, instructing, and ordering of the church’s internal life, or overseeing the distribution of charity. Typically, these jobs were performed by male presbyter-bishops. Therefore, for Theodora to be episcopa implies that she engaged in the same duties as these men. She may have acquired her title in the course of overseeing the papal household at the Lateran Palace. Her white veil suggests an ecclesial, but not necessarily an abbatial status. Also, she and Paschal are depicted wearing the same nimbus. This type of nimbus was a convention used for important living personages and served to distinguish notable contemporary persons from saints. It is unique for a woman in the medieval West to be depicted wearing this nimbus. Therefore, its incorporation as part of her image must have been a deliberate decision.

    The wall on which this mosaic is located has many registers, and Mary M. Schaefer argues that it was meant to be read from the bottom up. The gaze of the medieval viewer would have moved from Theodora’s sarcophagus, to the four frontal female busts, mothers alternating with virgins, to the deer which are symbols of thirsty souls drinking water from the living stream that is Christ, and finally to the eschatological realm of the three female saints, Agnes, Praxedes, and Pudentiana. All together, the mosaics express hope for Theodora’s life after death and bodily resurrection from the sarcophagus where her corpse will eventually lie.

    Although the figure of Mary is slightly taller than the others and her red-bordered halo is slightly larger, a sense of equality is extended to the women disciples of the Lord. Thus, Mary is bound to her virginal companions and, the matron Theodora is bound to Mary the mother. The sense of parallelism between Mary and Christ and Theodora and Paschal is further emphasized in the entrance façade to the Zeno Chapel. On this façade, two male figures flank Mary and Christ; the tonsured elder on the right is probably Zeno the presbyter, and the youthful figure on the left wearing a yellow dalmatic is believed to be a deacon. As the mother of Christ, Mary is essentially an episcopa and oversees the actions of these men. Similarly, Theodora as the mother of Paschal performs the same function. Thus, these two women, as mothers of important Church figures, are further linked by their shared episcopal duties.

  • Source: flickr
  • Rights: Photograph by Nick Thompson
  • Subject (See Also): Hagiography Mary, Virgin, Saint Nimbus, Square Paschal I, Pope Patronage, Ecclesiastical Praxedes, Saint Pudentiana, Saint Theodora Episcopa Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 9
  • Date: 817- 824
  • Related Work: Entrance Façade of St. Zeno Chapel: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2c/Santa_prassede%2C_cappella_di_san_zenone.JPG; Detail of Paschal I: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Pope_Paschalis_I._in_apsis_mosaic_of_Santa_Prassede_in_Rome.gif;
  • Current Location: St. Zeno Chapel, Santa Prassede, Rome
  • Original Location: St. Zeno Chapel, Santa Prassede, Rome
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Mosaics
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Glass tesserae
  • Donor: Male religious; Pope Paschal I
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 360/350/
  • Inscription: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic
  • Related Resources: Mackie, Gillian. "The Zeno Chapel: A Prayer for Salvation." Papers of the British School at Rome. Vol. 57. (1989). Pgs. 72-199.;
    Osborne, John. "The Portrait of Pope Leo IV in San Clemente, Rome: A Re-Examination of the So-Called 'Square' Nimbus, in Medieval Art." Papers of the British School at Rome. Vol. 47. (1979). Pgs. 58-65.;
    Schaefer, Mary M. Women in Pastoral Office: The Story of Santa Prassede, Rome. New York: Oxford University Press (2013). Pgs. 95-110.;