Front of a double-register stone sarcophagus
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican
This sarcophagus uses a complex set of compositional relationships exploring the main theme of resurrection to eternal life.
First there is the relationship between the Old Testament episodes clustered around the central clipeus and the New Testament panels to the left and right. The Old Testament panels focus on the Hebrews' steadfastness as they await the coming of the savior (the three youths in the furnace, Daniel with the lions) and God's guidance for them in the mean time (giving the Law to Moses, staying Abraham's hand). On the "moral" level of allegory, these moments refer to the life of the Christian who is steadfast in the faith, as the couple in the clipeus are presumed to have been.
The New Testament scenes on the left and right look forward to the salvation promised to the Christian. On the right of the upper register, Jesus restores life to Lazarus and vision to the blind man (John 11). On the far left he multiplies the loaves for the five thousand, a symbol of the heavenly banquet. On the closer left, he hands Peter the scroll that symbolizes his authority as a teacher, despite Peter's denial (the rooster). The scroll also represents the New Law, juxtaposed as it is with Moses' reception of the Old Law. Below, Peter is arrested on the left side but takes up Jesus' and Moses' roles as thaumaturge on the right, educing water from the rock of his prison cell so he can baptize his jailers.
Those jailers are first seen on the left arresting Peter. But just as he was forgiven his betrayal they are brought into the faith by Baptism.
Another set of relations addresses the role of the sacraments. Eucharist is symbolized by the chiasmic relation between the bread in the upper left and the wine in the lower left. Baptism is referenced by the water miracle, which is juxtaposed with the cure of the invalid at the Bethesda pool, an incident that the commentators took as a symbol of Baptism. The soldiers being washed in the water on the far right in turn help one understand the imagery on the left, where they served the unrighteous by arresting Peter. These are men who like Peter needed forgiveness and received it. The female orant on the far left represents the Church allegorically, while the soldiers represent it by synecdoche.
In making the soldiers represent a Church led by a man who once denied Christ, the sarcophagus emphasizes that salvation is by faith. The image of the upright orant relates chiasmically to the figure of Martha bent over on the extreme right of the upper register. In the Lazarus episode it is she who tells Jesus, "Yea, Lord, I have believed that thou art Christ the Son of the living God," the same words that Peter spoke in Matthew 16:16. To the right of the Lazarus panel, Jesus cures the blind man, saying "thy faith hath made thee whole" (Luke 18:42).
As in most other sarcophagi of the time, Jesus always holds a symbol of his authority. For the multiplication of the loaves and the transformation of water into wine, it is a staff. For the other episodes, it is a scroll. In each panel he is pictured as a young person with no beard, like the young Daniel and the three Hebrew youths. The soldiers who arrest Peter and are subsequently baptized by him are also beardless, perhaps a reference to their new life in Christ. The disciples are always bearded.
The same pair of Moses and Abraham scenes on either side of a clipeus appears in Sarcophagus 31551 in the museum and the Sarcophagus of Adelphia in Sicily.
Please see further commentary on these panels of the sarcophagus:
- The multiplication of the loaves and fishes
- Jesus, Peter, and the rooster
- God gives Moses the Law (Exodus 19): God is represented by the hand proffering a double tablet to Moses, whose left foot stands on a little model of Mount Sinai. This scene is carefully paralleled by the one on the other side of the clipeus, where God hands Abraham a scroll representing the command not to sacrifice Isaac. That scene also provides a little image of a mountain, below the ram.
- Upper register: right
- The sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19): God is represented by a hand giving Abraham a scroll that represents his words in the text. Just to the right of the clipeus we see the ram, which will be sacrificed in Isaac's stead, perched on a tiny Mount Moriah. Abraham's left hand rests on Isaac's head, which is turned toward the already-flaming altar. Genesis 22:11 says it was an angel that God sent with his message, but here we see a bearded man with male-pattern baldness staying the patriarch's hand. The man bears a strong resemblance to the images of Peter on the left and below: same short, square beard; same kind of baldness; same prominent forehead. Peter's faith, comparable to Abraham's, may be the point. There may also be a political point given the rivalry between Rome and Constantine's new establishment at Constantinople.
Jesus cures a blind man by touching his eyes, as he does in Matthew 9:29, Matthew 20:34, and Mark 8:23. A disciple stands by. In Matthew 9 and Mark 8 it is faith that makes the cure possible: "According to your faith, be it done unto you" and "Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole."
☛ For a full-resolution detail of this scene and the next (4.66 MB) follow this link.
- Jesus raises Lazarus to life (John 11:1,17-34). Notwithstanding the gospel's statement that Lazarus lay in a cave covered by a stone, the sarcophagi of this period typically show him in a little temple. Lazarus stands in his winding-cloths. His sister Martha bows in supplication at Jesus' feet. Her last words in the episode are "Yea, Lord, I have believed that thou art Christ the Son of the living God," the same words that Peter spoke to Jesus in Matthew 16:16. Thus the whole right side of this register focuses on salvation by faith, a most appropriate theme in a Christian burial.
- The arrest of St. Peter. As usual, the soldiers are portrayed in boots, short tunics, and pillbox hats.
Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego, the Jewish youths who were cast into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Like Daniel to the right they are naked. Jensen (Nudity) has argued that naked portrayals of Daniel allude to the Roman practice of shaming the Christian martyrs by sending them naked into the arena.
☛ For a full-resolution detail of this scene (2.97 MB) follow this link.
Daniel in the lions' den (Daniel 6:1-24 and Vulgate Daniel 14:27-42). Usually Habakkuk is shown bringing him bread, but here we have two bearded men and no bread.
☛ For a full-resolution detail of this scene and the next (5.627 MB) follow this link.
- At Cana Jesus changes water into wine (John 2:1-11). The man with him should be the steward who complimented the quality of the wine, but he looks just like St. Peter.
Jesus cures the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26). Probably the point of including this episode is that in each of the gospel passages Jesus first tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven – again, a counsel very appropriate for those who hope to die a good death.
☛ For a full-resolution detail of this scene and the next (4.91 MB) follow this link.
- St. Peter's water miracle: He strikes the rock face of his prison cell, and water gushes forth for him to use in baptizing his two guards, who are dressed like the soldiers shown in the arrest scene, with pillbox hats and short tunics.
Also see these full-resolution images:
- The entire frontal
- follow The husband and wife in the clipeus.
- The female orant
Photographed at the Vatican Museums by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.