Sarcophagus of Valentinian III

5th century
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

A label in the mausoleum gives the date as early 6th century and says the decedent is either Valentinian III or his uncle Honorius. But Valentinian died in 455 and Honorius in 423.

In the center panel a lamb and a cross stand on a small hill from which flow the four rivers of Genesis 2:10-14. The rivers are a common motif in paleo-Christian art. Isidore of Seville interpreted them as "the eternal flow of joy" (Glossa Ordinaria, I, 71). They thus represent the salvation that Christ earned for the faithful through the sacrifice of the Cross. Similarly, the birds on the horizontal bar of the cross derive from 4th-century images of the Resurrection (example). They also appear with the rivers and cross on a sarcophagus in Sant'Apollinare in Classe.

Left end of a sarcophagus in Sant'Apollinare in Classe. See the description page for details.

The lamb may be intended to have a double meaning. Like the lamb with the four rivers at right, it can represent Christ as the source of that "eternal flow." But Valentinian's lamb has no halo and it looks directly toward the cross, not to some unseen point in the distance; thus it can represent the faithful person who looks to Christ for salvation.

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