The Sarcophagus of Adelphia: Detail, right side of the lid reliefs

On the left the Magi approach the manger, the first of them pointing to the star that has guided them to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9). Most Magi in paleo-Christian images wear Phrygian caps, but these men are bare-headed. The first of the gifts has the same torus shape that we see in the Magi scene on sarcophagi in the Pio Cristiano Museum and in the bottom register of this sarcophagus. It is not clear why the sarcophagus should show the Magi twice; some scholars have suggested that the lid was created separately at another time.

Detail of the middle mage's gift

The Magi's gifts are on plates, but between each plate and the hand holding it there seems to be a piece of folded cloth. If that is what I am seeing this may be the earliest example of Magi images reflecting the court practice of giving and receiving the Emperor's gifts with hands covered.

The scene demonstrates how early the iconography of the manger had set in. We will continue to see the basket of plaited reeds and the two beasts eating with their mouths right up against the Christ Child (a likely reference to the Eucharist) right into the high Middle Ages. Above the manger is a roof supported by uprights without walls, which will continue to be the characteristic setting in western Nativities. (In the East the setting was usually a cave.)

Pio-Christian Museum, The Vatican, inventory # 31563, 4th century.

Rounding out the scene on the right is a barefoot shepherd in an "exomis" (a Greek tunic worn by workmen) and the Virgin Mary wearing a tunic and palla. She sits to the right on a rock formation carved out to look like a throne with an armrest. A sarcophagus fragment in the Vatican has her in a similar position and similar dress.

View the left (Magi) side of this image in full resolution
View the right (Nativity) side in full resolution
View the entire sarcophagus

More of the Magi
More of the Nativity

Source: Photographed at the Syracuse Archeological Museum, Sicily, by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.