(A fresco inside the catacomb of Priscilla’a “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman” room showing a woman with outstretched arms like those of a priest saying Mass. In Rome November 19, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi)

Proponents of a female priesthood say frescoes in the newly restored Catacombs of Priscilla prove there were women priests in early Christianity. The Vatican says such assertions are sensationalist “fairy tales”.

The catacombs, on Rome’s Via Salaria, have been fully reopened after a five-year project that included laser technology to clean some of the ancient frescoes and a new museum to house restored marble fragments of sarcophagi. Art lovers and the curious around the world who cannot get to Rome can join the debate by using a virtual visit to the underground labyrinth by Google Maps, a first-time venture mixing antiquity and modern high technology.

Built as Christian burial sites between the second and fifth centuries and meandering underground for 13 km (8 miles) over several levels, the Catacombs of Priscilla contain frescoes of women that have provoked academic debate for many years.

One, in a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman,” shows a woman whose arms are outstretched like those of a priest saying Mass. She wears what the catacombs’ Italian website calls “a rich liturgical garment”. The word “liturgical” does not appear in the English version.