Some Surprises from the Roman Catacombs 2: Traditional Interpretations of the Orante

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The Orante – who was she in the context of pagan, Jewish and early Christian art, and what was she doing in the catacombs?

In our last post, we noted a number of religious symbols in the catacombs that indicated a reverence for the prehistoric nature goddess. One of the symbols is the Orante or Orans, generally a female figure with open eyes and upraised hands. She is a pervasive symbol, perhaps “the most important symbol in early Christian art,” in the words of church historian Graydon Snyder.

Found frequently in late second-century frescoes and paintings in the Roman catacombs, as well as in sculpture, her head is almost always covered with a veil, and she wears a tunic. She exists both as a separate symbol and as the main figure in a number of Biblical scenes, but rarely in masculine form with male clothing. Instead, she frequently stands in for male figures in scenes of deliverance – she becomes Noah in the ark (Genesis 6,7), Jonah in the boat and spewed out of the whale (Book of Jonah), Daniel between the lions (Daniel 6), and the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:19ff). In one instance, she does represent a female figure – Susannah as she is saved by Daniel (an apocryphal story). The salvation/deliverance aspect is thus essential to a meaning ascribed to her by early Christians.

Her exact meaning and usage, however, are debated, since there is no ancient literature to describe exactly how her image was employed. Before considering the range of meanings she might have had, it is necessary to discuss the catacomb context of her image.

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 dead woman” or “the immortal image of the dead, under the guise of a young girl.” 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. 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, 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?

A second possible interpretation is that the Orante represents pietas, or filial piety: the Orante appears on imperial coins with the inscription pietas. 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.

However, this does not explain the androgynous 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” (Snyder, Ante Pacem). 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 the female martyr St. Perpetua, “both these pastoral and floral scenes may be seen as visions of the place of light and peace” (Lassus, The Early Christian and Byzantine World). 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.

Significantly, a female figure with upraised arms was in the religious repertory of prehistoric peoples of Old Europe and the Mediterranean. The goddess in a birth-giving position – legs spread widely apart and arms upraised – is common from Neolithic sites, appearing on pottery of various kinds from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bohemia and elsewhere in Old Europe. Could the pagans, Jews and Christians who used the catacombs have chosen this figure as a model for the Orante?

Out of the excavations of Neolithic sites have come thousands 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. According to Sjöö and Mor, in Stone Age cave paintings, sacred women stood with upraised arms during the hunt, acting as receivers of cosmic energy. 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. 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. 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.

In some examples of pottery from Neolithic sites, 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, appearing as stand-alone figurines or carved or painted on pottery. (The Upper Paleolithic can be defined as beginning around 40,000 BCE and lasting for about 30,000 years.) As Marija Gimbutas discovered, 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.

In our final post on the Roman catacombs, we will look specifically at the Orante in light of the prehistoric nature goddess and why people who buried their deceased loved ones in the catacombs may have chosen her image


Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Goddess and God: A Holy Tension in the First Christian Centuries. Marco Polo Monographs 10. Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La Publications, 2006.

“Early Christian Art,” Harper’s Encyclopedia of Art. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937, Vol. 1, 112.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess, ed. Joan Marler. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1989.

Gospel of Thomas 51.19-26, as quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979) 49, 67.

Lassus, Jean. The Early Christian and Byzantine World. New York and Toronto: McGraw Hill and Company, 1967.

Sjöö, Monica and Mor, Barbara. The Great Cosmic Mother. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987.

Snyder, Graydon F. Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, revised edition. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003.