Sarcophagus for a Child

300-325
Stone
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican

On the left is the Adoration of the Magi. As usual Mary sits enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap taking the first of the three gifts. The second and third magi wear Phrygian caps as usual, but the cap on the first mage has a smaller, more form-fitting shape.

Scholars who have suggested that the Jonahs on early Christian sarcophagi point to Baptism could cite this one as a powerful example. Jonah's scene overlaps with that of Peter's water miracle, in which he makes water flow from the rock wall of his cell to baptize his jailers. They drink avidly from the stream, which flows between them and onward to Jonah's left foot.

Compositionally, the curve of the frame around the decedent's image is seconded by a single line that leaves the upper left of the frame, curves out along Peter's jug, follows the stream downward, and then curves along the arc of Jonah's body and up to his right elbow, which returns to the frame. A second complement of the frame's shape is formed by the leaves and fruit of the gourd tree, which reach back from Jonah's elbow to the streaming water, locking the two scenes into a single expression of the progress from Baptism to the abundant life in Paradise, which is what is promised for the decedent shown in the frame.

On the right are two more scenes of salvation: God staying the hand of Abraham and providing a ram to substitute for Isaac, and Daniel safely preserved in the lions' den. Between these is the arrest of Peter by Processus and Martinianus, the soldiers in pannonian caps who will undergo baptism in the water-miracle scene.

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More of Jonah

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