Scala/Art Resource, NY

With outstretched hands, a praying figure, or orante, petitions God in this fresco from a third-century Christian burial chamber in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Orantes, usually but not always female, are common motifs in late antique catacombs, both Christian and pagan, but their meaning is not always clear; they may depict the deceased praying for deliverance or giving thanks for salvation.

According to Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Christian writers offered different explanations for God’s apparent failure to respond to human prayer. The Gospel of Mark and the Letter of James suggest that prayers fail when they are not accompanied by faith. Luke saw God’s grace manifest itself in spiritual gifts (like humility or resignation), not material rewards like bread or physical health. In this view, it might be hard to tell, just from outward signs, whether your prayers had actually been answered.