Monday, March 07, 2011

Friends to the end: Saints Perpetua and Felicity

Saints Perpetua and Felicity
By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. © 1996
Collection of the Living Circle, Chicago, IL

Saints Perpetua and Felicity were brave North African woman friends who were killed for their Christian faith in the third century. Their feast day is March 7.

The details of their imprisonment are known because Perpetua kept a journal, the first known written document by a woman in Christian history. In fact, her "Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions” was so revered in North Africa that St. Augustine warned people not to treat it like the Bible. People loved the story of the two women comforting each other in jail and giving each other the kiss of peace as they met their end.  Their names are familiar to Catholics because Perpetua and Felicity are included in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

Perpetua was a 22-year-old noblewoman and a nursing mother. Felicity, her slave, gave birth to a daughter while they were in prison. Although she was married, Perpetua does not mention having a husband in the narrative.

There were arrested for their Christian faith, imprisoned together, and held onto each other in the amphitheater at Carthage shortly before their execution on March 7, 203.

The icon of Perpetua and Felicity at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his progressive icons. It is rare to see an icon about the love between women, especially two African women. The rich reds and heart-shaped double-halo make it look like a holy Valentine.

Felicity and Perpetua by Jim Ru
Artist Jim Ru was inspired to paint Felicity and Perpetua as a kissing couple. His version was displayed in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee Arizona in the 1990s.

Perpetua and Felicity are still revered both inside and outside the church. For example, they are named together in the Roman Canon of the Mass. They are often included in lists of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender saints because they demonstrate the power of love between two women. Their lives are the subject of several recent historical novels, including “Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, A Passion” by Amy Peterson and “The Bronze Ladder” by Malcolm Lyon.

I also recommend the 19th-century painting “The Victory of Faith” by St. George Hare. He paints a beautiful romanticized vision of what Perpetua and Felicity might have looked like as an inter-racial couple sleeping together nude in prison. Click here to see it at its home in the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.


Icons of Perpetua and Felicity and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


Terence Weldon said...

Thanks, Kitt. I was planning to write something myself, but have had my hands full with techie stuff around migrating to a decent host.

You'd be interested in an email comment I received from a priest-colleague, who noted that while saying Mass this morning, he was suddenly struck by the literal meaning of the Latin named:

"Felicita Perpetua" = Eternal bliss"!

He also noted the geographic significance for the world of today - Carthage, in modern Tunisia, which offers ample fruit for reflection on issues of persecution,witness and liberation.

Turtle Woman said...

I drive by SS. Perpetua and Felicity church at least once a week, and now it has even more special meaning. When I grew up, they were mentioned in the Mass along with a litany of other saints. Imagine that, lesbian saints every week in church!! Who knew?!

And Terence, thanks for the further historical note of Carthage... let's hope the Tunesian rebellion will lead to women's liberation!

Turtle Woman said...

Br. Lentz' icon was on the cover of Tikkun magazine last year, in the gay and lesbian spirituality issue! How cool is that!!!

Terence Weldon said...

There are numerous other references in the Mass that point to recognition of LGBT relationships. The Eucharistic Prayers which mention Felicity and Perpetua also include several other same sex couples, in an echo of the rites of same sex union described by John Boswell.

The prayer before communion, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you" is adapted from the Gospel passage of the Roman centurion and his sick slave;lover.

Most astonishing of all, the Mass as a whole can be seen as recalling the marriage at Cana, with the bridal couple Christ and his church - but there was once a traditional belief that the bridal couple was in fact Christ and - his beloved disciple, John!


Madeleine said...

Hello, please see my last article about Jesus androgynous (in french, sorry):



KittKatt said...

Terry and Turtle Woman, you have inspired me to add a few lines to this post telling that Perpetua and Felicity are mentioned in the Mass.

Terry, what other same-sex couples are named? I'd love to know. Thank you for explaining the other references to queer couples in the Mass… all of which are news to me.

Yes, Turtle Woman, you are right that this Lentz icon graced the cover of Tikkun’s issue on queer spirituality. A reason to celebrate!

Madeleine, I enjoyed visiting your blog and viewing your post about Jesus the androgyne. Keep up the good work!