Theodo – Female Bishop?!

January 28, 2009 / Art & Archaeology

Was the Catholic Church always a male-only bastion? Santa Prassede in Rome contains a mosaic of a 9th century episcopa (female bishop), Episcopa Theodora. Not only is she in all female company (with sisters Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana, and the Virgin Mary), but notice too her square halo. This means she was alive when the mosaic of her was made… very rare and indicative of great honor (bestowed only on those pious, important, and powerful enough).

However, in the mosaic there is clear evidence of a (very botched) attempt to cover up her gender! At some point, one of the boys decided to “touch” things up and changed her name from Theodora (the “r” and the “a” were clearly removed in the mosaic and replaced by other tiles) to Theodo, a more masculine sounding but utterly nonsensical name! (Theodorus would be the correct version. What’s more, doubling the fun is the fact that our subversive monk didn’t think to change the title Episcopa to the masculine form Episcopos… or maybe his Latin wasn’t that good? Regardless, not too clever.)

Though controversial, this mosaic and others like it all over the world are revealing a heretofore hidden aspect of the early church. However, while most are in obscure locations around the world, Santa Prassede is walking distance from Termini station in Rome. Enjoy!


Douglas E. Morris is the author of Open Road’s Best of Italy. He has lived in Italy for over ten years and currently resides in Viterbo. You can contact the author through his website:

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