Traditional Interpretations of the Orante
Ever since their modern discovery in the catacombs and on other artifacts such as sarcophagi, Orante figures have been studied and interpreted by early church historians, art historians and other scholars. However, among present-day scholars, there is no consensus on their meaning.
One common interpretation of the Orante is that she represents the “soul of the dead person – whether a man or a woman – rather than an actual […] woman” 7 or “the immortal image of the dead, under the guise of a young girl.”8 The question becomes, why use a female figure to depict the soul? One explanation is that the word for soul in Greek, psyche, is feminine, and that the Orante is similar to other personifications of qualities and virtues; Nike, for instance, is a female personification of the quality Victory, and Tyche/Fortuna personifies Luck or Fortune.
However, in Gnostic and other literature of the early Christian period, the human soul must become male to have eternal life.9 The Jewish God was male, and the Christian Trinity—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—was overwhelmingly male (at least in the orthodox literature of the time, most of which was written by the church fathers). Sophia, or Wisdom, represented a strand of Judeo-Christian thought and an example of a female personification,10 but it does not seem to be her attributes that are depicted in the catacombs.
Therefore, the question becomes, what is it about the human soul that would compel an early Christian painter working in the catacombs (or his/her patron) to depict the soul of the deceased as a veiled female figure with upraised arms? Even if the femaleness can be accounted for, why would her arms not be folded in prayer, stretched out frontally, or held in a blessing posture, as are some Christ figures in early Christian art?
Since the Orante image occurs in both funerary and ecclesiastical art, some scholars suggest that she referred to “the security of filial piety,” with the adopted family of the church providing believers with a sense of community security or peace; this might explain depictions of the Orante in Biblical scenes of threat and impending death.11
However, this does not explain the [female] nature of the figure: “Since [the Orante] frequently represents male figures in early Christian art, the constant use of female clothing seriously affects our interpretation of pictorial art.”12 Why did the Orante emerge as female to begin with, only to be so consistently used in scenes of men—of the emperor, of Noah, of Daniel? Also, why would a female figure be used to symbolize the protection of believers from danger, when contemporary theology was so intent on stressing male deities—Jesus, God—in that role?
A third possibility is that the Orante, when surrounded with flowers, represents the gardens of Paradise. If placed in the context of the Shepherd of Hermas, an early Christian document, and the visions of St. Perpetua, “both these pastoral and floral scenes may be seen as visions of the place of light and peace.” 13 Again, though, why choose a female figure to represent paradise, rather than a Christ figure, shepherd or other masculine type? Several gardens in Biblical literature—the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane—could have been depicted, yet the catacomb artists chose a female figure with upraised arms in a pastoral, Nature-oriented setting.
Origins: The Neolithic Goddess and Her Legacy
Investigating possible origins of the Orante figure reveals that a female figure with upraised arms was in the religious repertory of historic peoples of Old Europe14 and the Mediterranean. What might this figure have represented, and could the same meaning have persisted into the Graeco-Roman era?
In recent years, excavations of sites dating to the Neolithic era (New Stone Age, approximately 7000-3500 BCE in this region) have yielded finds indicating that, unlike later societies, people revered a powerful female deity—in effect, a female manifestation of Nature or Earth and all its (her) attributes.15 Neolithic (and some Paleolithic) sites that have yielded significant finds include Çatal Hüyük in Turkey; sites on the Greek island of Crete […]; Sitagroi, Greece, near the early Christian colony of Philippi; and a number of sites in Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary.
[…] Artifacts found by archaeologists in countless Neolithic sites—overwhelmingly female in form— bear symbols of a deity that link her with water, animals, plants, birth, life, death and regeneration—indeed, all of Life. This goddess was believed […] to have dominion over not only the earth and all things on it, but also the skies and the planets (which were viewed as earth’s ceiling).16 Belief in the female origin of life and close attention to its manifestations in Nature allowed Neolithic peoples of Old Europe and elsewhere to cultivate crops, domesticate animals, and live in harmony with Nature and one another.
However, even when death and disaster struck, whether through storms, animal attacks, illness, or accident, the pre-historic mind still viewed the world from a gynocentric (female-centered) perspective. Rather than attribute bad fortune to a separate “evil” being, as in later thought, misfortunes were seen to derive from the crone, witch, or hag manifestations of the same Nature goddess. While ugly, fearsome and dreaded, these attributes were not separate from the good side, to be defeated or annihilated, but rather to be accepted as part of the natural order and propitiated with ceremony, offerings and ritual.17
The goddess was thus viewed as all-powerful and involved in almost every aspect of life, not only in the large scale events— birth, death, childbearing, marriage—but also in more of life’s everyday activities. The goddess oversaw one’s everyday work, play, seasonal activity, relationships within the community, the creation of homes and clothes, and so on. In contrast to many strands of later androcentric, historic, war-defined religion the world over, the goddess belief and praxis system emphasized joy, creativity, beauty and harmony, both between human beings and between people and Nature.
The archaeological evidence demonstrates that the agricultural communities created by such goddess-worshippers experienced a large growth in population and developed a rich and sophisticated artistic expression. This culture—a true “civilization”—boasted towns with temples several stories high, four- or five-room houses, and professional ceramicists, weavers, and copper and gold workers. A network of trade routes facilitated the exchange of obsidian, shells, marble, and salt.18 Goddess cultures of prehistory were matrilineal and matrifocal but, significantly, not matriarchal; that is, descent was through the mother, the new husband lived with his wife’s family, but women did not dominate—social structure was egalitarian.19
Out of the excavations of Neolithic sites have come thou-sands of female figurines and symbols with stunning parallels with the Orante figure. Among these are various manifestations of the Nature goddess—the hunt goddess, the snake goddess and the frog or toad.
The hunt goddess, who later became Artemis to the Greeks and Diana to the Romans, had a magic relation to animals. Her image, with upraised arms, is found throughout European folk tradition, art, alchemy and witchcraft. In Stone Age cave paintings, sacred women stood with upraised arms during the hunt, acting as receivers of cosmic energy.20 To us accustomed to an image of “man as hunter,” this image may be counterintuitive, but the archaeological evidence and later Greek and Roman literature confirm the association between hunting and an ancient female deity.
As for the snake goddess, a classic example comes from Minoan art. The great goddess of Crete, bare-breasted, wears a flounced skirt and dances ecstatically with upraised arms, holding magic snakes in her hands.21 For many pre-industrial, Nature-centered peoples, even today, snakes symbolized both immortality and the image of spontaneous life energy, and the goddess’ bare breasts in the Minoan image connote the nourishing lifestream of the Mother.22 In the catacombs and other early Christian art, the powerful female deity’s upraised arms may still have represented this same energy, life, regeneration and immortality, even though in orthodox Judeo-Christian thought the snake had evil and misogynist characteristics.
The goddess in a birth-giving position—legs spread widely apart and arms upraised—is a very common image from the Neolithic sites, appearing on pottery of various kinds from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bohemia and elsewhere in Old Europe. In some examples, the goddess resembles a frog or toad, animals closely connected to both birth and death. The frog-woman image may be as old as the Upper Paleolithic (the millennia preceding the Neolithic), appearing as stand-alone figurines or carved or painted on pottery. The animal is depicted frequently in prehistoric sites along with the human vulva and the sign of the uterus, so the frog shape is not necessarily representative of the birth-giving posture but rather an anthropomorphized animal connected by its symbolism to regeneration or life after death.23
This survey suggests that the Orante in a death/burial setting is a direct descendant of the prehistoric Nature goddess and many of her attributes. It remains to be seen how she ties in with other symbols of the catacombs and what meaning she may still have had for early Christians.
We can now begin to draw some conclusions about the meaning of the Orante in the catacombs. First, many, if not most, of the symbols used in catacomb art were not purely decorative. Much of it held great meaning for the patron, the deceased, the loved ones, and the community at large. This meaning of course derived from contemporary religious and philosophical belief. Most Romans of this era had at least a rudimentary understanding of mythology and ritual practice, and gods and goddesses were an integral part of their everyday lives.
Second, the context of the catacombs—underground burials in “mother earth”—reflect the prehistoric goddess’ oversight of both the earth and human death, the “womb-tomb” connection. The art of the catacombs illustrates people’s belief that the deceased did not just go to a dark, foreboding place for eternity but was rather reunited with a beneficent deity in a paradise-like setting of peacefulness and abundance.
Third, the posture of the Orante in early Christian art reflects that of earlier, very powerful female deities from the prehistoric period. The hunt goddess, snake goddess and anthropomorphized frog provide intriguing models that may have been available to the artists of the catacombs. These ancient figures represented energy, life and regeneration in female form; the Orante appears to have done the same for the Christians, Jews and pagans using the catacombs.
Fourth, the natural imagery used in so much of the catacomb art, which was also used elsewhere by Jewish and Christian artists, is striking in its resonance with prehistoric goddess symbols. As we have seen, flora and fauna chosen in many catacomb paintings had clear goddess associations millennia earlier. Romans in the early Christian era remained an agricultural, pre-industrial people, so those using the catacombs to inter their loved ones would have seen many of these plants, animals and birds in their daily lives. This is not to say that early Jews and Christians did not take comfort in other symbols, such as the shepherd, menorah, Biblical figures, and the like, but rather that images from the natural world still evoked feelings of comfort that may have been linked to an all-powerful female deity.
Now we can begin to answer the question as to why a female religious figure was used in conjunction with security and peace and the theory that the Orante represents pietas. Could it be that pietas originally developed as female because of the role the goddess had played in providing for her people? The characters of the Hebrew and Christian faiths who need rescuing—Noah, Susannah, Daniel—are depicted in the guise of the Orante, according to Snyder, because she symbolizes the rescue of threatened Christians by membership in a community of faith, a community protected by a loving god. That this meaning is depicted by an ancient figure of a female with upraised arms which, cross-culturally, represents the powerful, all-embracing love and energy of a female deity must be taken seriously in these Judeo-Christian contexts.
A fifth link between the catacombs and the prehistoric goddess is the sometimes surprising appearance of Graeco-Roman goddesses and female personifications in catacomb art. As noted above, Nike, Tyche, Demeter and Hera/Juno all make appearances in the Roman catacombs, in contexts of peacefulness, repose and abundance. Female deities of this era, even though depicted in literature as more-or-less distinct beings with their own mythologies and personalities, were descended from the prehistoric Nature goddess. Many of them, including Demeter, had dominion over the underworld; others, such as Artemis and Athena, were called upon as city protector deities throughout the Mediterrean area. For Jews and Christians to accept these deities’ images in their final resting places strongly suggests that Jews and Christians still looked to a powerful female deity for solace, protection and deliverance.
Finally, we noted above that some scholars connect the Orante with “the place of light and peace.” Light can also be linked to the prehistoric goddess – through her command of the sun, stars and moon.
The above analysis does not mean that Christians or Jews who used the catacombs as burial places necessarily consciously and ritualistically worshipped the same goddess revered in Neolithic times. What it does show is that rituals to the goddess that originated in the Neolithic era most likely continued, as did some remnant of a belief in this very ancient deity and her power. […]
Early Christians had a choice of symbols to stand forever over the graves of their loved ones. They could easily have chosen the male gender and any number of different hand and body postures to represent peace, solace, deliverance, abundance and everlasting life (which they did in other times and places). Rather, they chose a veiled woman with open eyes and upraised arms. The Orante, like other female personifications and deities of the Graeco-Roman era, is a direct descendant of the prehistoric Nature goddess in both form and function, and her image was depicted because of her beneficent power in the lives of her people.