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Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, marble, 359 C.E. (Treasury of Saint Peter's Basilica) Please note that due to photography restrictions, the images used in the video above show the plaster cast on display in the Vatican Museum. Nevertheless, the audio conversation was recorded in the treasury in Saint Peter's Basilica, in front of the original sarcophagus. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker http://www.smarthistory.org/sarcophagus-of-junius-bassus.html. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in St. Peter's Basilica, and we're looking at a famous early Christian sarcophagus. It's the tomb of Junius Bassus. Now it's a little complicated because what people generally see is the copy that the Vatican has in their museum. But we're in the Treasury, and this is the actual sarcophagus. BETH HARRIS: And so Junius Bassus was a Roman prefect in around the mid fourth century. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. We know he had his position in 359. BETH HARRIS: So we're looking at a very early moment, soon after Constantine has made it legitimate to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. And Constantine is in the process of, in a way, making Christianity or leading toward Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, which will happen in the end of the 300s. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this is an early example, then, of a kind of openness and really a magnificent rendering of the iconography of Christian tradition. BETH HARRIS: Right. And what's interesting is that it doesn't look the way that we expect to, in a way, because Christ is here in the center represented with probably Peter and Paul, or two figures on either side of him. STEVEN ZUCKER: It looks likely Peter and Paul, yes. BETH HARRIS: But he looks very useful, like the young philosopher-teacher. STEVEN ZUCKER: He's even holding a scroll in his hand. BETH HARRIS: And he's seated and frontal, though not entirely frontal. So I guess what I'm saying is that things that we normally associate with representations of Christ, where he looks like an emperor who's older, and he's got a beard-- here he's represented very youthful. Although he's seated and frontal, he does have a kind of naturalism and movement to his body. His left leg comes forward a little bit. His head is slightly turned. And he's got his foot above an image of a river god. STEVEN ZUCKER: Which is interesting because it shows Christianity surmounting the old polytheistic traditions of the ancient Romans. BETH HARRIS: Using the iconography of ancient Roman pagan art in a new Christian context. STEVEN ZUCKER: I really am interested by the point you made earlier about Christ not fulfilling the physical attributes that we come to expect. And this is so early that, in a sense, those traditions hadn't yet developed. BETH HARRIS: Exactly. STEVEN ZUCKER: They hadn't yet been really constructed and accepted. So this is a very flexible moment. BETH HARRIS: Right. That iconography is being developed. And here, he looks much more like a pagan figure, in a way. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's certainly true because of the classical garb that he wears. And it's interesting stylistically because this sculpture is really showing a pretty high-pitched naturalism in terms of the rendering of the bodies, the contrapposto that we see the figures standing in, and even some of the sort of emotional attributes of figures. BETH HARRIS: There is a kind of naturalism, although we see the beginnings of a kind of early Christian style. There are some hints of what's to come. The heads are a little bit too large for the bodies. The bodies are starting to be a little bit on the stubby side. So it's a very interesting transitional moment. STEVEN ZUCKER: We see some other scenes from the Bible. And we're seeing early expressions of it here, but these are ways of representing the scenes that will become very familiar to us. BETH HARRIS: So we have Adam and Eve on the lower register. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. BETH HARRIS: And also other Old Testament scenes that would have prefigured the events in Christ's life. Right. So that idea of saying that events in the Old Testament, such as the sacrifice of Isaac, prefigured Christ's own sacrifice for the salvation of mankind, so that way of saying that Christ's life is a fulfillment of the prophecy and the events of the Old Testament. STEVEN ZUCKER: What we're witnessing here is the invention of a new iconography. This Is the invention of a new visual language for the telling of this critical stories. BETH HARRIS: What I'm also noticing is just how deeply carved it is. It is essentially a relief sculpture. But the figures are in very, very high relief. Some of them seem to be entirely separate from the marble ground. And I love these columns with capitals and bringing together of the classical and the beginnings of the Christian.