I wrote an Easter meditation for ArtWay, on the marble relief carvings of an early Christian sarcophagus. Check it out!
“In the late third century, wealthy Christians started commissioning the carving of marble sarcophagi for use in the catacombs, their network of underground burial chambers. More than decorative niceties, these relief carvings on the fronts were articulations of Christian theology—a visual expression of what the new religionists believed about death. Along with wall paintings in the catacombs, they served as confessions of faith and symbols of hope for the community after the passing of one of its own. Funerals, it turns out, provided the context for the creation of the earliest Christian art.
“The fourth-century sarcophagus pictured above highlights three distinct scenes from Jesus’s Passion narrative—Christ before Pilate (in the two rightmost registers), the crowning of Christ, and Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry his cross—plus a central scene suggestive of the Resurrection. In all of these Jesus is depicted as calm, dignified, and pretty much untouched; the physical agony that came to characterize him in the art of the Middle Ages is absent. Young and beardless, he’s your typical Roman hero, and like a philosopher, he holds a scroll.
“Most notable, however, are the various emblems of imperial power, which here assign victory and supreme authority to Jesus. The laurel wreath, the eagle, and the sun and moon, associated in contemporaneous Roman art with the emperor, are employed by the craftsmen of this sarcophagus—in consultation with their client—in the service of Christian doctrine. All three come together in the central register, which is the focal point of the piece, the climax of the narrative, and the main container of commentary. This register shows the chi-rho monogram mounted triumphantly on a cross and encircled by a laurel wreath, which two doves peck at from below.”