The Sarcophagus of Two Brothers

Mid-4th century
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican

In the upper register the first scene on the left is a Raising of Lazarus. It differs from others of this type in not actually showing Lazarus in his winding cloths. Also, the woman greeting Jesus is not kneeling at his feet like Lazarus's sister Mary in most other examples. It may be that the scene intended is Martha's discussion with Jesus that takes place before Mary arrives and Lazarus is called forth, in which Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live. And every one that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever" (John 11:25-6). In the context of a sarcophagus, there is actually more promise in this statement than in the recall of Lazarus to earthly life.

The next scene has Jesus addressing St. Peter, either predicting the latter's denial of him or, more likely considering the context, asking him three times after the Resurrection, "do you love me?" In the latter case, the rooster would represent the denial for which Jesus is now forgiving his disciple.

The two scenes on either side of the shell both represent the hand of God – on the left handing the Law to Moses, and on the right staying the hand of Abraham, who was about to sacrifice little Isaac on the altar to the right. (The ram that will be substituted can be seen at Abraham's right leg.)

The altar then doubles as a washstand in the Trial Before Pilate scene on the right. It thus serves to identify Isaac's sacrifice with that of Jesus, who is otherwise absent from the trial scene. Jesus is also absent from this panel of the Sarcophagus of Domatilla. In both cases, a second person in Roman dress and close-cropped hair sits at the right of Pilate, who holds his hand to his face, a gesture that may represent his question "What is truth?" (John 18:38). The two figures seem different enough, especially regarding the hair, to preclude a suggestion that they represent Pilate at two moments in the trial. In the present image, but not in the Domatilla panel, Pilate's wife (from Matthew 27:19) stands in the background.

St. Peter re-appears on the left end of the lower register. The soldiers in their pannonian caps are shown arresting him, but not drinking from the water he has caused to flow from the rock. The man with the curly hair looking on this scene while holding his toga is probably Nero.

Next is Daniel in the Lion's Den, as usual with a naked Daniel, two lions, and Habakkuk bringing bread.

Next is a scene that has puzzled scholars. One soldier puts his hand on a book being read by a seated old man, while another soldier eyes the man from the tree behind.

On the right end are scenes of Jesus' miracles. On the far right he blesses the loaves and fishes; left of that he cures the blind man with his touch. Behind his back there stands a bearded man holding a frame of some sort.

View this image in full resolution.
Read more about Lazarus and other miracles of Jesus.
Read more about St. Peter, Abraham, the trial before Pilate, and Daniel.

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