The Sarcophagus of Domatilla

Mid-4th cent.
Museo Pio Christiano, The Vatican.

This is a "columnar sarcophagus," in which the image panels are separated by columns the height of the case. In the center is a stylized and symbolic representation of the Resurrection, an popular theme for sarcophagi of this period. Below, one of the guards at the tomb sleeps while another looks up in curiosity. The dawn is signaled by the chirping birds, who look up to the chi-rho, triumphant symbol of the resurrected Christ. The wreath encircling the chi-rho may be a riposte to the mock crown of thorns being placed on Jesus' head in the panel to the left.

The crucifixion itself is expressed indirectly but insistently. We see the cross in the middle panel, on the far left, and by implication in the decision Pilate is considering on the far right; but in this century we will not be seeing Jesus on a cross in any Christian work.

In the first panel on the left a Roman soldier has enlisted Simon of Cyrene in the work of carrying the cross (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26). That the man is Simon and not Jesus can be seen from his relative size, his short hair, and the absence of a toga over his tunic.

In the second panel a helmeted soldier in full military garb places the crown of thorns on the head of Jesus (Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17-18, John 19:2-3). The mockery implied is quietly contradicted by the scroll in Jesus' left hand, a common signifier of real authority.

Right of center is either the arrest of Jesus or, if the idea is to see this panel as flowing into the next, Jesus standing before Pilate. The soldier with him is in full military array. Jesus wears a toga, whereas Pilate has only a short tunic and a cape – the artist's way of settling the question of who is the higher authority. Pilate's chin-on-hand gesture is a common signifier of thought. But the water for washing his hands has already been brought to him by a servant wearing an exomis.

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View detail photographs of the man carrying the cross, the crowning with thorns, the central panel, and the trial before Pilate.
Read more about images of Jesus on trial, the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.