Milan Cathedral

Thecla is put to the flames for flaunting the customs of her society in this 18th-century stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Milan, Italy. According to the story, her own mother Theocleia condemns her, yelling, “Burn the non-bride!” But the fire does no harm and a sudden and miraculous rain quenches it.

Thecla’s ordeal to become Christian, defying the worldly powers and prejudices arrayed against her, acquired the usual dramatic embellishments of the “lives” of early saints. Still, according to Cartlidge, there is no reason not to think that a real Thecla existed. Histories of the early church attest that women played an important role from the very beginning. Jesus’ ministry was underwritten by some of his female followers such as Mary Magdala. Paul names women as “apostles” and “coworkers” (Philippians 4:23) and even mentions that women were expected to “prophesy”—that is, preach—in the churches (1 Corinthians 11:5).