Sarcophagus Fragment with the Nativity

4th century
Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican City

The setting in this relief appears to be a stable, not a cave. It is likely that the lost section pictured the Magi and a shepherd. In the 4th century Mary is pictured with the manger and beasts only when there is a shepherd and the scene is combined with the Adoration of the Magi (Schiller, I, 60). The star, here carved as if an extension of the stable's roof, is a constant in representations of the Adoration of the Magi, but not in scenes with the shepherd.

The ox and ass are invariable features of Nativities; here only the ass has survived the breakage. It is eating a large mouthful of something – possibly an early instance of Eucharistic imagery.

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