Traditio Legis Sarcophagus
5th to 8th century
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe
The enthroned Christ passes the scroll of the Law to St. Paul on his right. On his left Peter has already received his "keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19). He carries the cross on which he was martyred. Like Byzantine courtiers when giving or receiving gifts from the Emperor, Peter and Paul have covered their hands with cloths. As always, Paul has a pointy beard and receding hairline and Peter has a square beard. The scene is framed by a pair of courtiers with their hands raised in acclamation and a pair of saints bringing Christ their martyrs' crowns, also with covered hands.
The two ends of the sarcophagus are very similar:
On each end of the lid two peacocks face the cross. Standing on grapevines, they represent the faithful looking to Christ, who says in John 15:5, "I am the vine: you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing." Above each crossbar is a pair of stylized flowers with four petals around a round center. Naturalistic images of these same flowers, identifiable as garden arabis (Arabis caucasica, native to southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean) appear in the portraits of
the Virgin and Child
in the 6th-century mosaics in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
On the body of the sarcophagus, the ends feature a bearded man standing between two men without beards. Given that the front of the sarcophagus pictures the Traditio Legis with St. Peter carrying his cross, it is likely that Peter, with his traditional short, square beard, is also the central figure on the ends. The men on his right and left have no beards, suggesting that they are his disciples. On the right end Peter speaks to one of the disciples, most likely St. Apollinare, the patron saint of this church and of Ravenna. In The Passion of St. Apollinaris of Ravenna, he says to Apollinare, "Why do you sit here with us? Behold, you are well-learned about everything that Jesus did: get up and…go to the town called Ravenna, where a great many people await, and preach to them about the name of Jesus" (Everett, 154).
View in full resolution the front of the sarcophagus, the left end and the right end.
Read more about images of the Traditio Legis and about Saints Peter and Paul.
Photographed at the basilica by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.