Early Roman Christian Sarcophagi from the Age of Constantine

Take a visit to Rome and one will invariably come face to face with countless sarcophagi -- almost to the point of overload. As such it can be very easy to begin to simply skip past these and not give them much attention, but in reality this would be a great mistake for there is much of interest that can be studied in these examples.  Today I wanted to specifically focus in on some of the more important Christian sarcophagi taken from the age of Constantine (give or take a few decades) for your consideration.

Our first example is the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. Bassus lived from A.D. 317-359 and was a senator and member of a noble Roman family who converted to Christianity on his deathbed. This particular sarcophagus was placed near the confessio of St. Peter's, near the apostle. The decoration of the sarcophagus shows scenes derived from the Old Testament on one side and the New Testament on the other. The scenes includes such depictionws as the Sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the Lion's Den, the Trial of Christ, as well as other pertaining to the persons of saints Peter and Paul.  In many regards then, this sarcophagus is both very Roman and very Christian and certainly bears witness to the importance of Ss. Peter and Paul to the Romans. 

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, Treasury of St. Peter's Basilica

Next we have the so-called sarcophagus of the two brothers which is dated to approximately the year 350, coming originally from the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura. Some studies of this particular sarcophagus have suggested that at one time if may have embellished with gilding and polychrome finishes. Thematically, as in the previous example the sarcophagus is covered with biblical scenes such as the raising of Lazarus, the denial of Peter, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, as well as a number of scenes involving St. Peter. 

Sarcophagus of the Two Brothers

Next we have the so-called "dogmatic sarcophagus" dated to the years 320-350. This particular sarcophagus was discovered only in the nineteenth century during the restoration works at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls and is considered one of the very most important examples of Roman-Christian sculpture of the Constantinian era -- the other being that which we began our article with, that of Junius Bassus. It is called the 'dogmatic' sarcophagus for reason that its imagery is thought to clearly refer to and proceed from the dogmatic decrees of the Council of Nicaea. Once again, we find a combination of Old and New Testament scenes -- with the couple in the central medallion representing the deceased couple for whom this sarcophagus was intended.  In the upper portion we see a representation of the Holy Trinity creating Eve from the rib of Adam. Other scenes represented at the Miracle at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, and the miracle of the multiplication of loaves. In the lower portion we find six scenes, the Adoration of the Magi, Daniel in the Lion's den, Habbakuk, and then three more related to St. Peter once again: his denial of Christ, his arrest, and one other -- once again showing St. Peter's importance within Rome from very early on.

The Dogmatic Sarcophagus

The examples we have shown thus far have mainly been figurative, so let us now turn to an example which also includes some early Christian symbols. For that, we shall first consider the 'Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Passion of Christ." This particular sarcophagus is dated to around the year 350 and came from the catacombs of Domitilla. 

The Vatican Museums provide the following description:

This sarcophagus... has twisted columns at intervals on the front panel, holding up the lintels and pediments, from which wreaths hang. The entire decoration in relief is based on the theme of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, presented in triumphal terms, as a victory over death, as well as a sign of hope for the deceased. At the left there is the Cyrenian carrying the cross, followed by the scene of the crowning with thorns; it can be seen that the crown has become a jewelled diadem, to reinforce the idea that the Passion of the Saviour is shown in reality to be glorious. In the two compartments on the right there is a depiction of the scene of Christ presented to Pilate, who is washing his hands. At the centre of the front panel, finally, there is an image of the Cross surmounted with the monogram of Christ (X and Pchi-rho, initials of the Greek Christós), symbol of resurrection (Anástasis), also alluded to by the two stunned soldiers below (Mt 28, 4).

A detail showing the chi-rho:

We have been considering sarcophagi from the age of Constantine, so we would be remiss to neglect two sarcophagi related to Constantine's very own family and so our next example is the sarcophagi of Helena -- the mother of the Emperor Constantine, better known as St. Helena who was said to have found the True Cross. Given her particular importance in relation to the Emperor Constantine, it should likely come as little surprise that it is made of rare, red Egyptian porphyry. On it are depicted scenes of the Romans victorious over the barbarians. (There is some thought that originally this may have been meant for Constantine himself, given the military theme.)

Similarly, we should also consider the sarcophagus of Constantina -- daughter of the Emperor Constantine. This too is carved from red porphyry marble. The depictions found on it are seemingly Roman in nature, depicting cupids harvesting grapes, however ti is thought this may have had Eucharistic connotations -- and anyone familiar with earlier Christian art will certainly know that this kind of 'inculturated' approach is something one certainly finds in early Roman Christian art. 

Finally we will conclude our considerations with the "sarcophagus of Jonah" dated to approximately the year 300.  This particular example was discovered on the site of St. Peter's Basilica when the 'new' basilica was being constructed at the end of the 16th century. The sarcophagus is covered by a sculptural cycle centered around the biblical story of Jonah and the whale (itself a typology for the death and resurrection of Christ.)  In addition to this, other scenes related to St. Peter can likewise be found. 

The next time you find yourself in Rome, do make certain to stop and appreciate the importance and beauty of these examples of paleochristian art. 

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