Photo by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC/Widener Collection 1942.9.26

Her hair cut short to disguise her sex, the first-century C.E. martyr Thecla of Iconium contemplates the blessings of virginity in the detail of a Madonna and Child surrounded by saints painted around 1600 by the Spanish Mannerist painter El Greco. Thecla, a follower of Paul, was an extremely popular figure in the early church. As author David R. Cartlidge explains, Thecla overcame the strong resistance of her male-dominated world—and even the reluctance of her mentor, Paul—to leave her home and preach Christianity. Disguising herself as a boy was a practical necessity for an unmarried female traveler in the first century, but it also signified Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28: “In Christ … there is no male or female.”