Medieval Europe + Byzantine
- The Good Shepherd in Early Christianity — Hermes recast
- The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (quiz)
- Santa Maria Maggiore
- Santa Sabina
- Santa Sabina (quiz)
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
- Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
- Santa Maria Antiqua
- Santa Pudenziana
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (quiz)
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
by Dr. Allen Farber
Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, c. 275 C.E., white veined marble, found under the floor of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome
Early Christian and Roman Art
This third century sarcophagus from the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua (above) was undoubtedly made to serve as the tomb of a relatively prosperous third century Christian. As we will see below, Early Christian art borrowed many forms from pagan art.
The male philosopher type that we see in the center of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus (above) is easily identifiable with the same type in another third century sarcophagus (below), but in this case a non-Christian one.
The female figure beside him in the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus who holds her arms outstretched combines two different conventions. The outstretched hands in Early Christian art represent the so-called “orant” or praying figure. This is the same gesture found in the catacomb paintings of Jonah being vomited from the great fish, the Hebrews in the Furnace, and Daniel in the Lions den.
Left to right: Orant from the Sarcophagus of Sabinus, c. 310-20 (Vatican Museums); Orant from the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, c. 270, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome; Orant from the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, fresco, late 2nd century through the 4th century C.E.
The juxtaposition of this female figure with the philosopher figure associates her with the convention of the muse in ancient Greek and Roman art (as a source of inspiration for the philosopher). This convention is illustrated in a later sixth century miniature showing the figure of Dioscorides, an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist (below).
Illustration of Dioscorides, late 6th century C.E., illuminated manuscript
In the left side of the sarcophagus, Jonah is represented sleeping under the ivy after being vomited from the great fish, shown on the left. The pose of the reclining Jonah with his arm over his head is based on the Greek (pagan) mythological figure of Endymion, whose wish to sleep for ever--and thus become ageless and immortal—explains the popularity of this subject on non-Christian sarcophagi.
Jonah (detail), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, c. 275 C.E., white veined marble, found under the floor of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome
Another popular Early Christian image appears on the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, known as the Good Shepherd. While echoing the New Testament parable of the Good Shepherd and the Psalms of David, the motif had clear parallels in Greek and Roman art, going back at least to Archaic Greek art, as exemplified by the so-called Moschophoros, or calf-bearer, from the early sixth century B.C.E. (below).
On the far right of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, we see an image of the Baptism of Christ (see below). The inclusion of this relatively rare representation of Christ probably refers to the importance of the sacrament of Baptism, which signified death and rebirth into a new Christian life.
Good Shepherd and Baptism (detail), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, c. 275 C.E., white veined marble, found under the floor of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome
A curious detail about the male and female figures at the center of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus is that their faces are unfinished. This suggests that this tomb was not made with a specific patron in mind. Rather, it was fabricated on a speculative basis, with the expectation that a patron would buy it and have his—and presumably his wife's—likenesses added. If this is true, it says a lot about the nature of the art industry and the status of Christianity at this period. To produce a sarcophagus like this meant a serious commitment on the part of the maker. The expense of the stone and the time taken to carve it were considerable. A craftsman would not have made a commitment like this without a sense of certainty that someone would purchase it.
Essay by Dr. Allen Farber
Want to join the conversation?
- The article says that Endymion's wish is to sleep forever, and he becomes immortal. Isn't sleeping forever pretty much being dead?(5 votes)
- In the last photo (of Christ's baptism) was it common for early Christian artists to depict Christ as a child during his baptism? When did artists start to show Jesus as an adult being baptized?(3 votes)
- Different people (doesn't matter what their religion) believe in two different ways that Jesus H. Christ was baptized, some believe he got baptized as a child, and the rest believe that he was baptized as an adult.(2 votes)
- Although i get how pretty much all the other figures and shapes on the sarcophagus drawn from earlier references, the orant figure seems to be an innovation in relation to the forms done before. Even in the 'philosopher and muse' style the body posture of the and placement of the women doesn't connect too much with that of the orant female.
Is that correct, is the orant figure an innovation in form and composition?(2 votes)
- Could I have permission to use your picture of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus on the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus as an illustration in a self-published book I have written on the subject of Christian baptism? Bruce McDowell(1 vote)
- We cannot grant permission for those particular photos. However, I have some good news. Beth and I recently returned from Rome where I was able to take much better high resolution photos of the sarcophagus that I will be posting to my Flickr group with a creative commons license (which you can reuse for any non-commercial purpose). They will be posted here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/profzucker/(3 votes)
- Why in the world would the sculper put the area on the statue children could have seen that!(0 votes)
- Chill, bro. It's just the human body. Surely children have seen their own selves naked! It's nothing forbidden.(15 votes)
- "On the far right appears of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, we see an image of the Baptism of Christ (see below)." The word "appears" is included presumably in error.(1 vote)
- Where is the sarcophagus located? I want to go and see it.(1 vote)