A journey through the catacombs to rediscover the powerful pagan and Christian women of ancient Rome
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.
“Nicola Denzey’s lively, readable book opens up a fascinating, long hidden world of early Christian women. This fine work not only lets us into their world, but shows how it was kept hidden so long.” —Elaine Pagels, author of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity and The Gnostic Gospels
“Denzey’s prose paints vivid pictures of the sites she visits . . . her densely layered inquiry is insightful and haunting.” —Publishers Weekly
“Unique in its restricted time/place focus, the study probes in-depth with a twenty-first-century feminist eye.” —Library Journal
“A masterful study written in a lively narrative style, The Bone Gatherers is pitched perfectly to both the interested general reader and to scholars. Denzey’s expert placing of the funerary images of early Christian and pagan women into their social and cultural milieus, and her rich, well-researched iconographical reading of ancient imagery helps us to see the changing roles of women—both Christian and pagan—during the early centuries of Christian Rome.” —Ann Steinsapir, museum educator, J. Paul Getty Museum, and author of Rural Sanctuaries in Roman Syria: The Creation of a Sacred Landscape
“Nicola Denzey’s impeccable scholarship and intimate and vivid style of writing makes tangible and credible the power of the holy that was mediated by women—women saints and women patrons. The Bone Gatherers allows the reader to transcend both historical and scholarly distance to encounter the forgotten women who also shaped Christianity.” —Karen Jo Torjesen, author of When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity
“A brilliantly argued book that weaves archeology, art history, and sociology; it’s refreshing that, unlike many historians, Denzey is a gifted writer and storyteller . . . Whether or not you’re religious, it’s a great feminist read.” —M. L. Madison, Feminist Review blog
“It should be consulted by all researchers in the religions of late antiquity and would make an excellent book for undergraduate courses on the literature and art of ancient Christianity.” —Review of Biblical Literature