The "Via Salaria" Sarcophagus

Circa 260
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican, Rome

It cannot be determined whether this is a Christian work or a pagan one, coming as it does from a period when Christian art was expressing itself through iconography developed in earlier times. The shepherd in the center with a sheep on his shoulders will appear in many Christian images first as a metaphor for Christ and eventually as a representation of Christ himself as "Good Shepherd." To the right the praying woman would represent piety in classical iconography but in Christian contexts "the prayer of the faithful awaiting Salvation," as the museum's web site puts it. One finds this "orant" figure often in unambiguously Christian works of the following century.

The seated figures are the decedents. On the left, the man studies a scroll and listens to two other men, all three dressed as philosophers. This could speak either to a pagan man's erudition or to a Christian's grounding in scripture and tradition. On the right, a muse counsels the woman. The gist of her advice could be either Christian or pagan.

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