"Of Pioneering Women: Rosa Bonhere/Priscilla" (Romans 16:3-5, Acts 18:1-4)

Mark Longhurst, June 24, 2018
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Rev. Mark Longhurst
June 24, 2018
Sermon: Of Pioneering Women: Rosa Bonheur / Priscilla
Scripture: Romans 16:3-5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Acts 18:1-4

Priscilla is one pioneering woman. But first, it’s important to get her name right. She’s also known, via apostle Paul’s end of letter name-dropping, as Prisca. But it’s easy to breeze through biblical thickets and simply assume that Prisca is one more man, another disciple leaving father’s fishing nets to dedicate his life to Jesus’s cause. Prisca, however, is Priscilla. They are one and the same. Priscilla is married to Aquila, we learn, but she is not a mere supporting character in her husband’s heroic gospel work. She is a missionary; she is a woman Paul calls a co-worker, who risked her neck for Paul. And then Paul says in Romans 16 “And greet also the church in their house.” (16:5) Priscilla is a co-worker of Paul, a missionary, and, apparently, a church planter, too.

Friday night’s StorySLAM told stories of pioneering women, and The Clark’s Women in Paris exhibition packs the walls with paintings by pioneering women. One of those women is Rosa Bonheur. Hanging in the middle wall to your immediate right as you enter the exhibition, the woman herself stares out at us with kind and confident eyes. In this portrait, painted by her live-in friend, possible partner Anna Klumpke, and also in your bulletin insert, Rosa Bonheur wears women’s clothes, which is not a regular occurrence for her. She dons the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest medal of merit, which she is no doubt proud to win as the first woman, in 1865.

If the book of Acts is to be believed, Priscilla and Aquila are talking about good news through Rabbi Jesus in the Roman city of Corinth quite a bit before Paul arrives. We tend only to think of Paul as the great Christian missionary, sharing the liberating vision he has received of Jesus. But really, the early church landscape is packed with missionaries, and many of them are in conflict about what the actual message of Jesus is. Some say Jesus is the Messiah, yes, but you still have to obey the Torah, you still have to follow the Jewish Law like any upstanding Jew. Paul takes faith in Christ to an extreme – faith no longer depends on group membership, nor on God’s Law and stipulations, it depends only on the admittedly tenuous and shifting, somehow strangely unshakeable nature of faith. In those days, Paul is the heretic. We read him, oddly, as the orthodox one.

Priscilla and Aquila walked a more moderate path. They, too, are tentmakers, like Paul. They make their home in the rough and tumble new economy of Corinth. Writer Bruce Chilton says that if Athens is the London of Greece at this time, Corinth is Los Angeles. It’s diverse, it’s often perverse, and it is overflowing with creative energy and trade and the exchange of religious ideas. Priscilla and Aquila pursue a successful, gentle strategy. It’s what missionary theologians call inculturation: they cultivate a network of people that they know, they invite people into their home to learn about Jesus, and then they share a sacred meal. They do ministry within careful attention to context and culture. Paul, when he arrives in Corinth, according to Acts, does not bother to strengthen ties with the local community. He heads right into the synagogue and starts an argument.

Rosa Bonheur faces no small amount of obstacles to achieving independence as a woman artist in the mid-19th century. Art critic Linda Nochlin famously asks in 1971, “Why have there been no great women artists,” and the answer, of course, is that the entire structure of male-dominant society colludes against it. “In actuality,” Nochlin writes, “things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male.” The Clark’s exhibition, then, is filled with stories of resistance. Rosa Bonheur is one Paris’s early pathbreaking female painters. She chooses to go her own way – and she becomes a formidable animal painter to rival, and best, any man.

Rosa Bonheur wears trousers. It’s a seemingly small detail, but it sticks in my mind. She wears trousers not, she says, to make a fashion statement, but because they are practical. You see, Rosa Bonheur paints and sketches animals outdoors each day, and, well, there’s a fair amount of mud and grime and manure to step over when you’re leaning in to capture the horse’s musculature. Who could blame her for not wearing a dress? She even receives an official police permission to transgress this social norm.

The Horse Fair, on the back of your insert, is considered her masterpiece. Rosa Bonheur has been hanging paintings at the Paris Salon for over a decade now. She’s no stranger to the art-appreciating public. The French government has recently commissioned a work, but Bonheur postpones working on His Majesty’s painting until a newer work, closer to her heart, is finished. This is the Horse’s Fair, with wall-sprawling dimensions of 96 ¼ inches by 199 ½ inches. It hangs in the Paris Salon in 1853 and is wildly successful. The Salon exclaims that they’ll accept anything from Rosa Bonheur after The Horse’s Fair.

Paul continues on his missionary journeys. He heads back to Jerusalem, through Galatia, and eventually to Ephesus. It turns out that Priscilla and Aquila, too, have made their way to Ephesus. Presumably, they have been pursuing their tried and true effective missionary strategy. They’ve been making tents, building relationships with other traders, talking to people about Torah, about Jesus, inviting people into their homes to pray and to share a meal. And, once again, Paul shows up on the scene and turns it into a drama. As the book of Acts demurely puts it, “about that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.” Which is one way to say that Paul starts a riot in Ephesus.

Rosa Bonheur is born in poverty. Her father Raimond is a painter too. It’s possible that Rosa Bonheur gleans her egalitarian tenaciousness from him, because she is shaped by her father’s devotion to an obscure, gender-inclusive, Christian socialist movement called Saint-Simonianism. Raimond sees himself called to spread its teachings all over the world.

The founder of this sect, Saint-Simon, envisions a social order in which all people are equal, men and women, based on their useful labor and contribution to society. The movement contains many seeds of later socialist movements, but takes a cult-like turn when Saint-Simon calls his movement the New Christianity. His followers affirm the coming arrival of a female Messiah figure, otherwise known as “the Woman.”

They form a celibate priesthood, build a temple, and send out apostles. Raimon Bonheur longs to be one of those celibate missionaries, freed from the shackles of family. Much to his family’s grief, he makes no secret about his perceived spiritual call, and his failure as a father and husband. He is apparently passionate about women’s equality in theory, but, like many idealistic men, not as much in practice. Rosa’s mother dies young, quite possibly due to the tremendous pressures she is under to provide financially for the family.

Whatever success Paul has in Corinth, and whatever reputation he is able to build in Ephesus, and whatever effectiveness on which he is able to ride into Rome itself, he does so in relationship, and often thanks to the efforts of others, including women. Including Priscilla. Priscilla does not do her work alongside the great apostle as a subordinate. In fact, she is the one who is likely showing him the missionary ropes. Priscilla is a pioneering woman. A woman whose story, like many biblical women’s stories, slip through the page.

But whatever success Rosa Bonheur has, and whatever reputation she is able to build in Paris, and the world, she does so, in relationship, but often in spite of the efforts of others, in a world of men. Before much of the women painters of Paris have made their names, there is Rosa Bonheur, demanding with her expertise to be considered and for her paintings to be hung right alongside the men. She is a giant pioneering woman. A woman whose story, like many women’s artists stories, slip through histories cracks.

If a downloadable version is available, a clickable "W" (word) icon or "pdf' icon will appear here:

Romans 16:3-5

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. (ESV)

Acts 18:1-4

18:1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. (ESV)

Powered by Sermon Browser