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Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus

Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus (Sarcophagus with philosopher, orant, and Old and New Testament scenes), c. 270 C.E., marble, 23 1/4 x 86 inches (Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Male Voiceover] We've just walked through one of the oldest churches in Rome, Santa Maria Antiqua, and one of the most important objects in it is an incredibly early Christian sarcophagus. - [Female Voiceover] This dates to before the time when Christianity was made legal in the Roman Empire in the early 300s, so at this point, Christians are for the most part practicing in secret and at times are being persecuted. - [Male Voiceover] A sarcophagus is a stone tomb. This was found buried under the church of Santa Maria Antiqua. Let's start at the left side. - [Female Voiceover] Well, this is such an unusual figure at first it seems, because this looks like an ancient Roman God of the sea. It looks like Neptune. He's reclining on the waves and he's holding a trident, the attribute of Neptune, the God of the sea. - [Male Voiceover] There is some conjecture, though, that the trident was also an early Christian symbol and may have referenced the cross. - [Female Voiceover] But the fact that there's this sea god here makes sense as we turn the corner and we begin to look at the next scene, which shows a ship with two figures in it. So, this is clearly a storm. We can see the rolling waves beneath the ship, and this is beginning of the story of Jonah. So Jonah is a figure from the Old Testament who God has commanded to go to the city of Ninevah and foretell their destruction. Jonah disobeys God, Jonah gets on a ship, and God decided to punish Jonah by sending a great storm. - [Male Voiceover] The people on the ship figure out that Jonah is responsible and they ask him, "How can we quiet the sea?" And he says, "Throw me overboard." - [Female Voiceover] And Jonah's immediately swallowed up by a sea creature and he's in the belly of that sea creature sometimes described as a whale. for three days and three nights. For the early Christians, this prefigured or foreshadowed the three days and three nights that Jesus spent in the tomb before the resurrection. - [Male Voiceover] And this is particularly appropriate on our sarcophagus. - [Female Voiceover] It's about life after death. It's about surviving death. - [Male Voiceover] This is such an odd representation of Jonah. First of all, he's naked, but he's also laid out in this wonderful pose with his elbow up, his other arm outstretched, and his legs crossed. - [Female Voiceover] Well, he's been borrowed from an ancient Roman mythological figure of Endymion. Endymion is a beautiful youth who the moon goddess loved and he was granted eternal sleep by the god Zeus, and the idea of peaceful eternal sleep would make sense on a sarcophagus. - [Male Voiceover] But what's going on above? - [Female Voiceover] We see a tree and we know that toward the end of the story, Jonah rests under a bower, but the three sheep are rather mysterious. - [Male Voiceover] It's possible this is a reference to paradise. - [Female Voiceover] As we move along the sarcophagus, we see a figure who is also very common in early Christian imagery, and this is a figure that art historians called an Orant figure. This is generally a female figure with both arms raised, and it's understood as a position of prayer. - [Male Voiceover] These are ideal characteristics for a couple. The man as learned in the scriptures, the woman in prayer, an expression of her piety. It's also interesting to note that her face and the face of the man seated next to her are unfinished. What might happen is that all the carving would be done except for the facial features, which could then be finished after it was purchased so that it could be carved in the likeness of the purchaser. - [Female Voiceover] This motif of a seated male figure and a standing female figure is derived from, once again, earlier ancient Roman pagan art. We come next to another figure that is very common in early Christian art, and this is Christ shown as the good shepherd. Christ is referred to as the good shepherd in the new testament. - [Male Voiceover] If you look at the way that the figure has been carved, although he is very squat, you can still see some echoes of the older classical tradition. There is still a trace of contrapposto. - [Female Voiceover] This is a figure that goes back to ancient Greek art and is here being transformed to mean something very different and specific to the Christian community. - [Male Voiceover] That is that the faithful are Christ's flock and that he will look after them, protect them, and lead them towards paradise. - [Female Voiceover] As we move toward the right, we have what is perhaps the most recognizable Christian scene. This is a scene of baptism, and we can see the baptismal waters underneath, a bearded figure doing the baptizing, and a small figure that is being baptized. - [Male Voiceover] It is possible that this is John the Baptist, and that's a representation, no matter how small, of Christ. However, it's also possible that this represents baptism more generally and that this could be a convert to Christianity. - [Female Voiceover] What's perhaps telling is that the figure being baptized looks down at a sheep. If the sheep represent the Christian flock that Christ cares for, maybe that's an indication that that figure is indeed Christ. We also see a dove or a bird in the tree. This may just be a bird in a tree, but it also is more likely a reference to the holy spirit, who appears at the time of Christ's baptism. - [Male Voiceover] If we turn around, we come across two additional figures who are holding a net. These are two fishermen. - [Female Voiceover] Several of Christ's apostles were fisherman, and Christ referred to the work of the apostles as being the fishermen of souls. - [Male Voiceover] I find the motifs on this sarcophagus fascinating because they represent this moment when Christian iconography, when Christian storytelling, through images, is being created. So, this sarcophagus represents such an early example of Christian art, before Constantine, before Christianity is decriminalized, and certainly before Christianity had become dominant. - [Female Voiceover] And the iconography will change when Christianity becomes legal, when it becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, but it's interesting to think about the birth of a new artistic vocabulary for a new religion the Roman Empire. (piano music)