The Sarcophagus of Crispina

Mid-4th century
Stone sarcophagus lid
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican

On the left is the Adoration of the Magi in its typical 4th-century form: The Child sits on the lap of his mother, who in turn sits on a throne and is veiled. The Magi wear Phrygian caps and short tunics, and the heads of their camels are seen behind them.

The gifts, however, do not look like what we usually see in this century. Instead of a torus-shaped crown the first mage offers a vessel of some kind (unless it is an eastern-style headdress). The next mage has a bowl of globe-shaped objects, perhaps gold balls. The last one also has an object covered with triangular leaves.

Also out of the ordinary, the Magi wear trousers beneath their tunics and have shoes on.

The Nativity scene makes a compromise between the Roman and western tradition of putting the manger under a tiled roof supported by wooden uprights and the eastern practice of setting it in a cave. At the right is a young shepherd carrying a staff and wearing a tunic, mantle, and boots. As usual, the ox and ass feed at the manger with their mouths nearly touching the Child.

Mary is not in evidence, probably because she is already in the Magi scene. When she is portrayed in these early Nativities, she usually reclines in a position forward of the manger. The large rock in the left foreground may be intended to substitute for her figure in balancing the composition.

The next scene gives us Daniel in the lions' den. Jensen ("Nudity," 313-17) relates his nudity to the Roman practice of sending victims into the arena undressed as a way of humiliating them. On the right Habakkuk is bringing Daniel loaves of bread, for which he rejoices, "Thou hast remembered me, O God, and thou hast not forsaken them that love thee" (14:37). This is a sentiment obviously appropriate for a sarcophagus. Also apt is the exclamation of King Darius, probably the person on the left: "O Daniel, servant of the living God, has the God whom you serve so constantly been able to save you from the lions?" (6:21).

In the center of the composition a veiled woman labeled CRISPINA reads from a codex whose visible page has a large chi-rho symbol. The symbol stands for Christ, and the woman is of course the decedent for whom the sarcophagus is intended.

To the right of the central panel two men in togas, one holding a scroll representing authority, stare sourly to their right. It would not make much sense for the woman to be the object of such grimaces on her own sarcophagus, so more likely it is Daniel who is getting the fish-eye. The two could then represent the officials of Darius's court who accused Daniel to the King.

The rest of the panel is given to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-39, Mark 6:34-44, Luke 9:10-17). As usual in the sarcophagi of this period, Jesus stands between two Apostles, one with a basket of bread and the other with two fishes, while baskets of loaves on the ground represent the food that was left over after the bread and fish were distributed. As is also usual, the loaves are marked with crosses to emphasize the Eucharistic implications of this miracle.

Finally we see two scenes with St. Peter at the right end of the lid. In the first he is arrested by two men in short tunics, military boots, and pannonian caps. Later, these men are converted and ask for baptism. Peter strikes the rock wall of his prison cell, and water gushes forth for the men, one of whom is shown at the bottom right of the picture.

Left side of this image in full resolution
Right side of this image in full resolution

More of the Magi
More of the Nativity
More of Daniel
More of the miracles of Jesus
More of St. Peter

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