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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:18

Video transcript

we've just walked through one of the oldest churches in Rome Santa Maria Antiqua and one of the most important objects in it is an incredibly early Christian sarcophagus this states - before the time when Christianity was made legal in the Roman Empire in the early 300s so at this point Christians are for the most part practicing in secret and at times are being persecuted a sarcophagus is a stone tomb this was found buried under the Church of Santa Maria Antigua let's start at the left side well this is such an unusual figure at first it seems because this looks like an ancient Roman god of the sea it looks like Neptune he's reclining on the way he is and he's holding a trident the attribute of Neptune the god of the sea there is some conjecture though that the Trident was also an early Christian symbol and may have referenced the cross but the fact that there's the sea got here makes sense as we turn the corner and we begin to look at the next scene which shows a ship with two figures in it so this is clearly a storm we can see the rolling waves beneath the ship and this is the beginning of the story of Jonah so Jonah is a figure from the Old Testament who God has commanded to go to the city of Nineveh and foretell their destruction Jonah disobeys God Jonah gets on a ship and God decides to punish Jonah by sending a great storm the people on the ship figure out that Jonah is responsible and they ask him how can we quiet the sea and he says throw me overboard and Jonah's immediately swallowed up by a sea creature and he's in the belly of that sea creature sometimes described as a whale for three days and three nights for the early Christians this prefigured or foreshadowed the three days and three nights that Jesus spent in the tomb before the resurrection and this is particularly appropriate on her sarcophagus it's about life after death it's about surviving death this is such an odd representation of Jonah first of all he's naked but he's also laid out in his wonderful pose with this elbow his other arm outstretched and his legs crossed well he's been borrowed from an ancient Roman mythological figure of Endymion and Damien is a beautiful youth who the moon goddess loved and he was granted eternal sleep by the god Zeus and the idea of peaceful eternal sleep would make sense on a sarcophagus but what's going on above we see a tree and we know that toward the end of the story Jonah rest under a bower but the three sheep are rather mysterious it's possible this is a reference to paradise as we move along the sarcophagus we see a figure who is also very common in early Christian imagery and that is a figure that art historians call Dan or Ron two figures is generally a female figure with both arms raised and it's understood as a position of Prayer these are ideal characteristics for a couple the man has learned in the scriptures the woman in prayer an expression of her piety it's also interesting to note that her face and the face of the man seated next to her are unfinished what might happen is that all of the carving would be done except for the facial features which could then be finished after it was purchased so that it could be carved in the likeness of the purchaser this motif of a seated male figure and a standing female figure is derived from once again earlier ancient Roman pagan art we come next to another figure that is very common in early Christian art and this is Christ shown as the Good Shepherd Christ is referred to as the Good Shepherd in the New Testament if you look at the way that the figure has been carved although he is fairly squat you can still see some echoes of the older classical tradition there is still a trace of contrapposto this is a figure that goes back to ancient Greek art and is here being transformed to mean something very different and specific to the Christian community that is that the faithful are Christ's flock and that he will look after them protect them and lead them towards paradise as we move toward the right we have what is perhaps the most recognizable Christian scene this is a scene of baptism and we can see the baptismal water is underneath a bearded figure during the baptizing and a small figure that is being baptized it is possible that this is John the Baptist and that's a representation no matter how small of Christ however it's also possible that this represents baptism more generally and that this could be a convert to Christianity what's perhaps telling is that the figure being baptized looks down at a sheep if the Sheep I present the Christian flock the Christ cares for maybe that's an indication that that figure is indeed Christ we also see a dove or a bird in the tree this may just be a bird in a tree but it also is more likely a reference to the Holy Spirit who appears at the time of Christ's baptism if we turn around we'd come across two additional figures who are holding a net these are two fishermen several of Christ's apostles were fishermen and Christ referred to the work of the Apostles as being the fishermen of souls I find the motifs on the sarcophagus fascinating because they represent this moment when Christian iconography when Christians storytelling through images is being created so this sarcophagus represents such an early example of Christian art before Constantine before Christianity is decriminalized and certainly before Christianity had become dominant and the iconography will change when Christianity becomes legal when it becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire but it's interesting to think about the birth of a new artistic vocabulary for a new religion in the Roman Empire you