For a list of events related to biblical scholarship, see our online calendar.
View the Calendar >>
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive
Climbing the Dragon's Ladder: Perpetua, Felicitas, Graphic Novels, and the Possibility of Writing Modern Hagiography
Andrea Lorenzo Molinari
During my time in my doctorate program at Marquette University, I came to be introduced to the riches of early Christian literature by my gifted teacher and friend, Rev. Julian V. Hills. Among the various types of literature to which he introduced me, Julian had a special interest in the apocryphal acts of the apostles, legendary stories that had been told in the early churches reconstructing the continuing adventures of the apostles. I was intrigued to learn that modern scholars believed that these stories had been created with multiple purposes in mind. Certainly, these stories argued for various theological positions (e.g., sexual asceticism and forgiveness of serious sin after baptism), essentially using the apostles Peter, Andrew, Paul, John, and Thomas (among others) as advocates of these agendas. However, the apocryphal acts also had (and still have) a very palpable entertainment function. Simply put, they are just fun to read. Among the stories found in these charming texts, Peter makes a salted-fish swim again and enters into a "raising the dead" contest with Simon Magus. Philip fights a dragon. Thomas gets sold as a slave by Jesus himself. Andrew preaches a long sermon from his cross and then dies on cue so as to defeat his enemy. Paul appears to Roman soldiers after his execution. John, in a very Dr. Dolittle-esque way, talks to bed bugs! What could be better?
As I continued to expand my own reading in early Christianity, I began to come across early Christian apocalypses. This was a real treat for me, as I had always enjoyed reading the book of Revelation. I learned that once one comes to understand the book of Revelation as part of a whole genre of literature (and not as some spooky "guidebook in code" to the "end times"), one can appreciate the memorable imagery, evocative descriptions, and emotional power of the genre.
I also began to read the stories of the martyrs. I was deeply moved. To be sure, the stories vary in their degree of historicity, and without doubt they have their own formal stereotypes and repeated themes. Yet, they have a powerful dramatic character that draws the reader in, not unlike the Greek tragedies. Although we know they won't end well, we can't ignore the stories. They are still well worth reading.
From all these readings, it became clear to me that in the early centuries of Christianity, Christian theologians and writers were creating art — granted, of varying quality, but art nonetheless. Here is where I began to think about what modern theologians and writers like me do. My field is awash in commentaries. (Rhetorical question: Exactly how many commentaries on John do we really need? And are we getting anywhere near that number?) Joking aside, I fear that in many ways, modern scholars and students of biblical and early Christian literature have degenerated into mere "art critics," evaluating and analyzing the work of others but rarely contributing anything artistic or truly creative themselves. Is that the sum total of what we as scholars can do with this the literature we all love?
Perhaps more disturbing to me is the realization that most of the theological art being created today is being done by those who have little to no theological training. We find religious themes being played out in a whole spectrum of entertainment media ranging from movies such as "The Passion of the Christ" to novels like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, to graphic novels, and comic books in which issues of life, death, afterlife and God's judgment are common themes. Recently, I even saw a comic book in which Jesus was envisioned as clashing with vampires! It is a fact that many of these pieces have plenty of admirable qualities and are quite thought-provoking. Furthermore, issues of religion and philosophy are not — nor should they be — solely the domain of the expert. Every human can and should ponder the fundamental questions of life. My concern is less that non-experts are grappling with these questions and more that, in many ways, theologians and scholars have abandoned popular entertainment media as vehicles of educating and challenging the general public to think critically about God, the Universe and our place in the "Big Picture."
Frankly, I think that we can do much more. Perhaps a step toward actually bridging the gap between education and creating theological art is to "play" with the various genres ourselves. I mean to say: If we profess to understand this or that type of early Christian literature, then why not take the next step and see if we can't create some texts ourselves? More specifically, why can't a scholar who has studied the genre of the ancient Christian apocalypse and apocalyptic literature in general write a modern apocalypse? If we wrote an apocalypse using the actual formal elements common to the various types of ancient apocalypses, could this genre breathe today? How about something even more dangerous: what about a new gospel? (We are treading on dangerous territory here but — just for a moment — imagine the possibilities.) The modern author could use actual early Christian source material found in any number of early Christian writings (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, Epistle of the Apostles, Didache), but would be free to shape those materials in any way that he or she saw fit — just as the original gospel writers did. What would a gospel look like if it were told through the eyes of Mary Magdalene? How would she have told the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Which parables might she have chosen, if any? When I teach the canonical gospels, I actually assign the writing of just such a gospel, based on actual historical source materials, to my students; the results are fascinating.
As I began to experiment with these projects, I thought about other types of early Christian literature that are dramatic or entertaining. It was only logical that I ask myself: What if this same methodology were applied to the genre of apocryphal acts or an ancient martyrdom? More importantly, would such an enterprise have any ability to speak to modern Christians? I had ideas for a new project, but I needed a subject.
Then I "met" Perpetua.
I first "met" Perpetua in the early 1990s, while I was studying martyrdom and persecution in early Christianity as part of my research for my dissertation. Her story is found in the early-third-century work, the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. The text, an amalgamated piece, is constructed out of the diary of Perpetua, a twenty-one-year-old woman who was born to a wealthy Roman family from Carthage, North Africa. To this diary, a later editor attached a brief introduction and, after the diary itself, a vision of one of her companions in martyrdom, a man named Saturus. In addition, the editor includes a description of the childbirth undergone by Perpetua's friend and slave girl, Felicitas. The whole piece concludes with a few brief details of the martyrs' last days and a detailed description of their deaths in the arena on March 7, 203.
||Fig. 1. Perpetua, the first known Christian woman writer, was a mystic. This painting attempts to capture her ecstatic experience.
Simply put, I was blown away by the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. All the focus on feminism in New Testament and early Christian studies in recent decades aside, there are precious few actual women's voices that have come down to us from this period. As far as I have seen (based on my years of study in the field), the overwhelming majority of sources reflect men's views. Among other reasons, Perpetua's diary is particularly special in that it represents the first known work written by an early Christian woman. This is unique in that most ancient Christian women — even when they take center stage — are shown to us through male eyes (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina). Frankly, it is highly likely that the editor who constructed the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas was a man as well! Yet in Perpetua's diary we have a piece of literature by an early Christian woman. And what a woman! Here is a mystic who describes powerful, original visions, who is looked to by her fellow Christians for spiritual leadership, who stands before the pervasive male authorities (i.e., her father and the Roman procurator) and simply refuses their attempts to stifle her voice. Yet she is not an angry woman. She doesn't hate men. Despite her clashes with her father, her love for him is undeniable. She cares for her son and, in a profound and mystical way, expresses her concern for her deceased brother, Dinocrates.
||Fig. 2. Perpetua (Mart. 7-8) relates two separate visions that involve her deceased brother, Dinocrates (a victim of a cancer-like disease of the face at age seven). In the first of these visions she sees her brother emerging from a "dark hole," still bearing his death wounds (a feature typical of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead; see Homer, Odyssey 11; Virgil, Aeneid 6).
Then there is Saturus.
The Martyrdom itself merely says that Perpetua was married, but says nothing about who her husband was. Yet from the first time I read the piece I suspected that Saturus, described as "the builder of our strength" (perhaps a teacher of the little group of Christians?), was her husband. Perpetua states that he was not present at the initial arrest, but later gave himself up of his own accord. This alone would not mean much, but the Martyrdom includes two visions that suggest that the relationship between Perpetua and Saturus was more than simple Christian friendship.
The first is what I call the "Dragon Ladder Vision" (Mart. Perp. Fel. 4). This vision was experienced as Perpetua attempted to discern God's plan for her little group of martyrs. The vision or dream (in the ancient world the difference is negligible) revealed a single bronze ladder reaching up to heaven. Attached to the ladder were all sorts of weapons, and coiled around the base of the ladder was an immense serpent. The whole thing is clearly a symbol of bloody martyrdom. Yet there is more to consider. It is striking to me that, despite the fact that there was a whole group of people arrested with Perpetua, she mentions only Saturus as being present in the vision. It was he that ascended the ladder first and it was he that called out to her from the top, warning her about the serpent. This is particularly intriguing when one considers that Perpetua is envisioning Saturus accompanying her in death before it is clear that he has joined her and the others as prisoners for the Faith! Could this be Perpetua's mind refusing to envision her life, even the afterlife, without Saturus?
||Fig. 3. Perpetua and her companions were catechumens at the time of their arrest. The first vision described by Perpetua (Mart. 4) was a response to a request from her brother that she ask God about the fate of the little group. This painting depicts the first segment of that vision in which Perpetua sees a single bronze ladder stretching to Heaven. At the base of this ladder a serpent (draco) lay coiled in a threatening posture. The ladder had various weapons attached, several that had specific connection to the arena (e.g., hooks were used a slave dressed as Pluto or Charon who cleared away the dead by hooking their corpses). Artistic license has allowed me to include the trident of the retiarius and the sica , a curved scimitar-like short sword typically associated with gladiators. In total, the the idea of "climbing" the Dragon's Ladder is a symbol of the little group's eventual martyrdom.
The second vision that seems to suggest a relationship between the two is the vision of Saturus himself, included by the editor (chapters 11-13). In this vision, Saturus describes his dream of the events that follow the execution. Like Perpetua's vision, it is striking that Saturus describes the heavenly ascent that follows his execution as shared only by Perpetua — despite the imprisonment (and condemnation to death) of the whole party of young Christians! In short, Saturus describes his initial entrance into the afterlife as a shared experience with Perpetua. Certainly the couple meets other entities (angels, martyrs from the recent past, heavenly elders, and God), but the tender dialogue between Saturus and Perpetua (narrated by Saturus) suggests an intimacy and closeness that is present between husband and wife.
In the end, the point is open for debate. Scholars differ over this, as they do with virtually every other aspect of early Christian studies. Yet, regardless of the Saturus question, Perpetua's story moved me powerfully. I felt that her story, nuanced and complicated as it is by so much human emotion, would make an excellent candidate for testing my idea.
I had found my subject.
I wanted to retell an ancient martyrdom. In so doing, I wanted to answer as many of my questions as possible about the things that were left unsaid in the actual piece. Yet, I wanted to keep these answers in the realm of what is reasonable and possible. I did not wish to write an anachronism in which the concerns of my day were retrofitted back into early Christianity. I was especially mindful of anachronism because in reading the apocryphal acts and in studying much of the available scholarly literature on them, I had become convinced that they are more reflective of the theology and issues of the second and third century churches (i.e., the milieu in which they were written) then they are of the actual historical ministries of the apostles. "I will not do this," I vowed to myself as I began to write. "I will rely on the martyrdom itself for chronology and structure. I will draw on actual theological and liturgical texts of the period as I create my early third century Carthaginian church. I will do all I can to connect the story to what I can learn of the North African and Roman geography, economy, and culture. I will respect the larger historical situation and attempt to contextualize my little story in the bigger Roman world. In short, I will attempt to resuscitate the earl-third-century Carthaginian church."
||Fig. 4. Two of Perpetua's male companions, Saturninus and Revocatus, a slave, were exposed to bears as part of the fulfillment of their sentence to be executed ad bestias (Mart. 19). Mosaics commemorating various games (ludi) from North Africa depict the use of "wheelbarrow-like" contraptions to expose victims to various animals while allowing the beast-fighter (venator) who served as executioner a modicum of safety.
Sounds like a noble cause, does it not? Perhaps. Yet what I learned in this process is that anachronism is inevitable. As soon as I finished the story and read it through for the first time, I realized that I had unintentionally written myself into the book. During the period of writing this book, I sustained two devastating losses: my mother-in-law, Wanda J. Wahmhoff, was killed in a tragic automobile accident; later, my father, Achille F. Molinari, was diagnosed with and died of bone marrow cancer in the space of less than two months. Needless to say, the issues of death and loss loomed large for me. I know that these experiences connected me to Perpetua in a powerful way. In all this, I learned that anachronism may not only be inevitable, but perhaps is also absolutely necessary for us to connect with the past and absorb its lessons as our own. Maybe that is why the early Christian apocryphal acts, apocalypses, and stories of the martyrs are so good to read — because their authors were deeply and passionately invested in their subjects.
Yet, the written word is not the sum total of my venture. My project is a graphic novel, an aspect that seems absolutely appropriate given the special nature of my subject matter. From the beginning of my research into Perpetua and her story as the possible subject of my work, I felt that artwork was an essential component. After all, Perpetua was a mystic and her visions are visual facets of her diary, even when experienced in written form. Artwork could be the key to taking my story to another level.
After much searching (I had no "up front money," so I had to try to sell poverty-stricken artists on the hope of future glory), I met my illustrator, Tyler J. Walpole. Tyler is a budding comic book illustrator (www.tylerwalpole.com) and part-owner of a comic book/ coffee shop, A Cup of Kryptonite, in Des Moines, Iowa. I was able to convince him that I was trustworthy and that I wouldn't leave him stranded after he produced his artwork. (Sadly, artists are often exploited by various publishing companies.)
Together, Tyler and I worked on each piece of art, striving to strike a balance between historical accuracy and artistic freedom. We paid special attention to the visions of Perpetua and Saturus, committing eight of the total thirty-two paintings to this purpose. As far I can determine, his artwork represents one of the first systematic attempts to depict her visions. I have been told that Perpetua's visions appear on an altar in what was once a church in Barcelona, Spain. (I must admit that I have not seen this altar to verify the veracity of this claim.)
In her foreword to my novel, Joyce E. Salisbury referred to my work as "modern hagiography." When I first read her explanation of my effort I was surprised, as I tend to think of Athanasius or Jerome when that word is tossed about. However, on further investigation, I came across a short encyclopedia article written by Daniel J. Sahas on the topic. Sahas reminds us that the Greek word graphé refers to both writing and painting and that in the Eastern Orthodox world "hagiography" means narration of something sacred by means of either writing or painting. So in the end, it appears that this is indeed the project Tyler and I have attempted: modern hagiography.
Andrea Lorenzo Molinari, Barry University, Miami, Florida
Author of the recently published graphic novel, Climbing the Dragon's Ladder: The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2006). Illustrations by Tyler J. Walpole.
 E.g., Peter J. Tomasi, Light Brigade (New York: DC Comics, 2003).
 See Tim Seeley, Loaded Bible: Jesus vs. Vampires (Berkeley, Calif.: Image Comics, 2006).
 E.g., in agreement with me is Carolyn Osiek, "Perpetua's Husband," Journal of Early Christian Studies 10/ 2 : 287-90; differing from me is Joyce E. Salisbury, in the foreword to my own novel! Ouch!.
 I am aware that the "Dragon's Ladder Vision" has been found in a carving on an early Christian sarcophagus; see Jacqueline Amat, Passion de Perpétue et de Félicité suivi des Actes: Introduction, texte critique, traduction, commentaire et index (SC 417; Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1996).
 The author of Perpetua's Passion: Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman (London: Routledge, 1997).
 See s.v., Everett Ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (2nd ed.; 2 vols.; New York: Garland, 1997), 1.507-8.
Comments on this article? email: email@example.com
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.
Citation: Andrea Lorenzo Molinari, " Climbing the Dragon's Ladder: Perpetua, Felicitas, Graphic Novels, and the Possibility of Writing Modern Hagiography," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=624