Pelagia
ID:
 
1568
 
Location of Work:
 
Antioch, Jerusalem
 
Social Status:
 

Pelagia was a famous mime actress and leader of a female chorus in Antioch. In Roman law, acting was considered an infamous and shameful profession and actors were barred from certain legal rights (Digest 3:2.1). In addition, they were legally bound to their profession (Codex Theodosianus 15.5).

Christian writers frequently condemned actors and actresses for their licentiousness and deceit. Actresses like Pelagia were favorite subjects for Christian narratives of conversion.

 
Communities:
 

After her conversion (described below), Pelagia disguised herself as a eunuch and took up a cell on the Mount of Olives.

 
Ecclesiastical Relationships:
 

Pelagia converted to Christianity under a certain bishop Nonnos, who had come to Antioch because he had been summoned by the bishop in regards to some pressing church business. The Syriac version of Pelagia's life says that Nonnos was once a monk of Tabennesi in the Thebiad of Egypt, but his see is never named. Some have identified this Nonnos as Nonnos, bishop of Edessa (449-51 and 457-70/1).

The Life of Pelagia also mentions the bishop of Antioch, but does not provide the name of this bishop. One Greek text identifies this bishop as Flavian of Antioch (381-404).

Romana, the head deaconess at Antioch, acted as Pelagia's mentor after baptism.

 
Secular Affiliations:
 

As an actress prior to her conversion, Pelagia was most likely a part of an acting guild. Acting guilds thrived in the ancient world.

 
Feast Day:
 
8 Oct.
 
Relics:
 

Nonnos first saw Pelagia while sitting in front of the martyr shrine of Julian. This shrine preserved Julian's relics.

 
Literary Works:
 

A man who identifies himself as the Jacob, deacon under bishop Nonnos, wrote the life of Pelagia. Nonnos was responsible for converting Pelagia, and the author's purported identification with Jacob is most likely an assertion to make his work more credible. The author wrote his text in the fifth century. Pelagia's life was later translated into Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, and other medieval languages.

John Chrysostom tells a story about an unnamed converted actress in Antioch. This woman was famous throughout Phoenicia, Cilicia, and Cappadocia and she even caught the attention of the brother of the empress. Some scholars assert that this unnamed woman is Pelagia. Others argue that the Life of Pelagia can be seen as a literary embellishment on Chrysostom's story.

Symeon Metaphrastes wrote a vita of Pelagia.

In the Menologion of Basil II, Pelagia appears twice: once wearing her luxurious clothes and talking to Nonnos, another dressed as a nun.

 
Brief Profile:
 

Pelagia was an actress and harlot in Antioch. One day she happened to go to church and heard Nonnos speak. Nonnos' words moved Pelagia, and Pelagia sought out communication with Nonnos. They began writing to each other. When they finally met, she lamented her luxurious and sinful lifestyle and begged Nonnos to baptize her. The deaconess Romana became her spiritual mother upon baptism and took Pelagia into her home.

Pelagia gave up all her riches and freed all her servants. She donated her possessions to the church of Antioch. She lived with Romana as a daughter, and Romana provided for her daily needs as Pelagia no longer had any possessions. Once she took off her baptismal robes, Nonnos gave her his own hair shirt and wool mantle. Pelagia then secretly left Antioch dressed as man. She moved to Jerusalem, took on the name Pelagios, and entered a cell on Olivet.

When Pelagia died, the monks from Jericho, the Transjordan, and Nikopolis (Emmaus) all gathered to see her buried. They all still believed her to be a man. But when the bishop and holy men approached her bier to anoint her, they discovered that she was a woman. They celebrated at the hidden saints on earth. A large crowd then processed around the city to honor Pelagia.