In the Vatican Museums, one can admire a wonderful collection of early Christian sarcophagi. Most date from the fourth century CE. This was a crucial period in the history of Christianity. In the middle of the previous century Christians still suffered persecutions under the emperors Decius and Valerianus. Around the year 260 Gallienus, son of Valerianus, had ended these persecutions, which likely led to Christianity becoming a religio licita, a permitted religion. Some forty years later it lost this status again under the emperor Diocletianus. His persecutions of Christians, executed between 303 and 305, were the most violent and bloody up until then. They claimed the lives of thousands of people, especially in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which had by far the largest Christian communities.
The persecutions were formally continued after Diocletianus abdicated. It was the emperor Galerius who, in 311, finally ended them with his Edict of Toleration. The 313 Edict of Milan, for which the emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius were responsible, gave the Christian religion an official status in the Empire again. Constantine favoured the Christian communities wherever he could, which makes it somewhat plausible that he himself had become a de facto Christian well before his formal conversion in 337. The so-called Chronography of 354 subsequently mentions both the Christian holiday of Christmas and the birthday of the Unconquered Sun for the date of 25 December. Then things truly began to speed up. In 380 the emperor Theodosius the Great made Christianity the state religion, and in 391 the traditional religions of the culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse Roman Empire were no longer tolerated.
Christianity had started as a Jewish sect, but by the end of the first century it had cut its ties with Judaism and gone its own way. Most new converts no longer had Jewish backgrounds and – in large part because of the Apostle Paul’s efforts – were no longer bound by Mosaic laws on food taboos and mandatory circumcision. Quite unlike the ‘pagan’ world, Judaism proved to be a poor source for Christian art. The second commandment (Exodus 20:4) prohibited depicting people and animals, which is why in synagogues we usually only find figurative art such as Solomonic knots. Christians, on the other hand, were less scrupulous about the second commandment and found inspiration in non-Christian Roman art, which had a lot more in store in terms of imagery. Christian artists enthusiastically copied Bucolic scenes featuring shepherds and sheep and nautical motifs with ships and sea monsters. A good example are the early fourth century floor mosaics in the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Aquileia. The imagery we find there returns on the sarcophagi in the Vatican Museums.
Sarcophagi for ordinary Christians
I will first discuss a sarcophagus featuring a shepherd and four genii representing the seasons. The sarcophagus was made in 300-325 for an unknown person. The only thing we know about the deceased is that he or she reached the age of 25 years, two months and 24 days, as is demonstrated by the partially preserved Latin inscription. It is far from easy to establish whether this is in fact a Christian sarcophagus. Typically Christian signs such as a chi-rho symbol are absent. The bearded shepherd carries a lamb (or perhaps rather a ram) on his shoulders and is holding a shepherd’s staff in his right hand. At his feet we see a dog. The man could be Christ the Good Shepherd, but for all we know he could also just be an anonymous shepherd. The presence of the genii (spirits or benefactors) is a clue that we may in fact be dealing with a non-Christian sarcophagus.
The ‘sarcophagus of Jonah’, made in the same period (ca. 300), is a completely different story. It features scenes about the prophet Jonah from the eponymous Book in the Bible. This Book relates how Jonah had been ordered by God to travel to the pagan Assyrian city of Nineveh to prophesy. The prophet refused and instead took a ship to Tarshish – perhaps Tarsus in Cilicia – which was caught in a violent storm. To calm the storm, Jonah asked the crew to be put overboard, which the men after much hesitation did. God then sent a big fish to save Jonah. The fish swallowed the prophet, who spent three days and three nights in the animal’s belly before being spit out after a prayer. Christians saw the story – and especially the “three days” part – as foretelling the Resurrection of Christ after three days. They had good reason for doing so, for in Matthew 12:40 Christ had compared himself to Jonah.
If we study the sarcophagus, we see how Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed and then spit out again by a pistrix, a sea monster from Graeco-Roman mythology. We also see him resting in the shade of a plant which God had miraculously caused to grow. The images of the upper part of the sarcophagus depict the Raising of Lazarus by Christ, Saint Peter baptising his gaolers and Saint Peter put under arrest. We furthermore see shepherds and their sheep and fishermen. The sarcophagus was found at the end of the sixteenth century when new Saint Peter’s Basilica was built. Only its front has been preserved, which is spectacular in its own right.
Next is the ‘sarcophagus of Sabinus’ made in 310-320. Sabinus was well over 45 years old when he died and the sarcophagus was bought by his (anonymous) wife. The main reason the sarcophagus is so interesting is that it is probably an example of double reuse. Sabinus was obviously a man, but below the word MAI the sarcophagus clearly features a woman. She has been depicted praying in the so-called orans position. Her face was never finished, so we may assume that the woman was never laid to rest in this sarcophagus and that Sabinus took her place. The Christian scenes on the front featuring Jesus and Saint Peter largely correspond to those on the ‘sarcophagus of Jonah’. There are, however, a few extra scenes in which Jesus is involved: the Wedding at Cana (left of the woman), the healing of a blind man and the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes. Jesus is always clean-shaven, while Saint Peter has a beard. The lid of the sarcophagus is the second example of (assumed) reuse. It features a boar hunt, which is a compelling reason to assume that lid and sarcophagus were not made as matching elements. The lid may not even have been intended for a Christian sarcophagus.
The next sarcophagus is that of two brothers dating from 325-350. This sarcophagus must have originally been intended for a married couple: the brother on the left inside the seashell was previously a woman. Again the sculptural work is magnificent. The upper register features, from left to right: the raising of Lazarus, Saint Peter and Jesus with a rooster (symbolising Peter’s betrayal), Moses receiving the Law, Abraham and Isaac, and Pontius Pilate washing his hands in innocence. The lower register has the familiar scenes featuring Jesus and Peter, for instance the healing of a blind man and the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes (on the right), as well as Peter with his gaolers (on the left). The scene of Daniel in the lions’ den comes from the Old Testament. The prophet Habakkuk can be seen bringing him soup and bread. The scene directly below the seashell, between the two trees, is a bit of a mystery. The Vatican Museums claim the scene is about Saint Peter teaching the recently baptised gaolers.
The next sarcophagus is from the Catacombs of Domitilla and dates back to ca. 350. It goes without saying that it is a Christian sarcophagus, and now for the first time we see a typically Christian symbol, a Christogram or chi-rho symbol. Here the combined letters chi and rho symbolise the Resurrection or anastasis (one of the emperor Constantine’s half-sisters was called Anastasia, which is an explicitly Christian name). Below the symbol we see two sleeping soldiers. On the right, Christ is brought before Pilate, who again washes his hands in innocence. On the left, we see Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross and Christ crowned with the crown of thorns.
The sarcophagus of Agape and Crescentianus was made between 330 and 360. Agape is a typically Christian name which means ‘love’, especially the deeper kind of love. The sarcophagus was found in the Vatican necropolis. Its Latin inscription is truly touching: Crescentianus had the sarcophagus made for his dearest (karissime) Agape, to whom he had been married for over 55 years. Crescentianus himself died at the ripe old age of 101, which means he had been born between roughly 229 and 259 and must have been an eye-witness of at least the great persecution of Christians by Diocletianus. If the former year of birth is correct, he even lived during the persecutions of Decius and Valerianus!
The sarcophagus of Agape and Crescentianus features splendid decorations. On the lid we see scenes from the Old Testament. The three young men on the left are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who have been thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, but are saved by an angel. Christians readily compared this story from the Book of Daniel with the Resurrection of Jesus. On the right we once again see stories from the Book of Jonah, with the prophet, the ship, the sea monster and the plant. The figures in the lower register, between the columns, are much larger. In the centre is a beardless Jesus, flanked by a bearded Saint Peter and a rooster in between them. To the left of the central scene are Abraham and Isaac, Moses receiving the Law and the healing of a blind man, while to the right we see the healing of the bleeding woman, the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes and Saint Peter baptising the gaolers.
The last sarcophagus to be discussed here dates from 375-400 and is also from the Vatican necropolis. This time we do not see scenes from the Old or New Testament, but only Jesus – still beardless – and his apostles. In the tree above him is a rooster, again referring to Peter’s betrayal. Peter is the man left of Jesus. The other apostles cannot be identified with certainty. In the shells above the columns are eight more heads, presumably of prophets.
The Vatican Museums have a copy of the sarcophagus of Flavius Stilicho. He was an important Roman general in the late fourth and early fifth century. His father was a Vandal and therefore a ‘barbarian’, and his mother was a Roman woman. Stilicho enjoyed a brilliant career in the Roman and served as guardian of the Roman emperor Honorius (395-423) for a while. Unfortunately the emperor had his general assassinated in 408. The original sarcophagus can be found in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. The original is of course much more beautiful, but the Vatican copy is not surrounded by a pulpit which blocks part of the view. It furthermore comes with an information panel that discusses the images on the sarcophagus. I sorely missed such a panel in Milan.
The two top pieces in the Museums are two porphyry sarcophagi in which members of the imperial family were laid to rest. The first is Helena’s sarcophagus. She was Constantine the Great’s mother and first wife of his father Constantius Chlorus. Chlorus would later divorce her and marry Theodora, who bore him another six children (including Anastasia). Helena is famous for her trip to Jerusalem in 326-327, where she was said to have found the True Cross. When she died, she was buried in a splendid and very expensive sarcophagus which was placed inside a mausoleum on the Via Labicana. The remains of the mausoleum are still visible today (see Rome: Catacombe dei Santi Marcellino e Pietro). The sarcophagus is entirely made of Egyptian porphyry and decorated with images of Roman horsemen tramping barbarian enemies. As the images are of a rather violent nature, it is generally assumed that the sarcophagus was originally intended for the emperor himself. However, Constantine chose to be buried in his new capital of Constantinople. As a result, a devout Christian lady found her final resting place in this warrior’s sarcophagus.
The second imperial sarcophagus is that of a daughter of Constantine and his second wife Fausta. Of his first wife Minervina we only know that she bore him a son named Crispus. It is possible that she was already dead when Constantine married Fausta, but the emperor may also have divorced her. In any case, Fausta mothered three sons and two daughters. The second sarcophagus, which has been set up opposite Helena’s, is either that of Constantina (died 354) or that of Helena (died 360). Both daughters were interred in a mausoleum on the Via Nomentina which currently serves as a church. In the mausoleum we find a plaster copy of the Vatican sarcophagus. It is unfortunately impossible to establish whether it was Constantina or Helena who found her final resting place in this sarcophagus. The object is usually referred to as Constantina’s sarcophagus, but we cannot completely rule out the possibility that it is in fact Helena’s. Two Helenas facing each other, grandmother and granddaughter, would be rather appropriate. Grandmother Helena would, however, definitely have disapproved of her granddaughter’s marriage to the staunchly anti-Christian emperor Julianus the Apostate (361-363).