The honorific title refers to the Lady Theodora, the historical mother of Pope Paschal I, who built the chapel for her while she was still alive, as indicated by the square halo of the mosaic. Theodora was widely known to be a devout Christian in the early Church, and was notable for her acts of piety and sanctity.
There is contentious debate over what episcopa might mean in reference to this mosaic. Feminist theologians and proponents of the ordination of women point out that, linguistically, episcopa is a Latin feminization of the Greek episkopos, the traditional and biblical term for a bishop. They argue that the Theodora in the inscription is in fact, evidence of the ordination of women in the 9th-century Catholic Church. They also note that the 'a' in the word episcopa was schemingly defaced in antiquity, leading to the conclusion that it was understood by contemporaries to indicate her ecclesial status.[not in citation given] As a result, many Feminist theologians and proponents of ordination of women use this titular example to argue for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church today.
Catholic and Orthodox views
Some Roman Catholic theologians and Roman art scholars take issue with this argument by pointing out that feminizations of clerical titles have traditionally been associated with the wives and widows of early Christian clergy since the Apostolic Age.
Since married bishops were more common in late antiquity than in later centuries, the title Episkopa may refer to the wife or widow of a married bishop, as well as the mother of any bishop, such as that of Pope Paschal I. Therefore, the title Episkopa was used for the Lady Theodora for her esteemed position as the mother of the Pope, a pious woman who practiced great austerity and religiosity, and not as an ordained bishop.
Feminist theologians and proponents of women's ordination also have claimed that the white coif found in the mosaic of Theodora indicates that she was an unmarried woman. Others argue that the white coif and jeweled brooch (stars) on each shoulder was a symbol of humility, piety and social modesty, and was worn by many women at the time, regardless of marital status. However the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos as "Thrice Beloved" possesses three stars, shoulders and forehead while female saints had two stars, here interpreted as a jeweled brooch called Fibula.
Furthermore, if the Lady Theodora truly held a clerical role during that time, it would have been appropriate for her to be depicted wearing a Mitre or zuchetto, as well as a pallium and omophor like other bishops or abbots during the 8th and 9th centuries, confirming a full recognition of her role as a Bishop (Episkopos). Instead the white coif and bejeweled gown depicted on the mosaic most likely indicates her esteemed rank or position in society, while the white coif symbolizes her social modesty.
Although there is no recorded consecrator of Episcopa Theodora, it is necessary to consider that female ordination, if it truly existed in the 9th century, would most likely have been repeated and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Churches, yet neither permits female ordination to the present day.
An extant dedicatory marble inscription in the basilica identifies Theodora as the mother of Pope Paschal.
The dedication, which includes the description of the transfer of the relics of Saint Zeno after whom the chapel containing the image is named, has the following inscription:
"And at the entrance of the basilica on the right hand side where the body of his most kind mother Lady Bishop Theodora rests, the aforementioned bishop (Pope Paschal I) interred the bodies of the venerable Zeno and others…"
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- 'Et in ipso ingressu basilicae manu dextra ubi utique benignissimae suae genitricis scilicet domnae Theodorae Episcopae corpus quiescit condidit iam dictus praesul corpora venerabilium haec Zenonis et aliorum quorum....' Orazio Marucchi, "Christian Epigraphy," trans. J. Armine Willis, Cambridge: 1912, p. 458. See also Gillian Mackie, 'The Zeno Chapel: A Prayer for Salvation,' in "Papers of the British School at Rome," 57 (1989), 172-199.