Detail of the Sarcophagus of Domatilla: Symbolic Representation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection

Mid-4th century
Museo Pio Christiano, Rome

As Schiller (5) explains, the cross represents the dead Christ, who is further symbolized by the chi-rho. This is crowned with a wreath of victory by an eagle symbolizing the Father. The eagle is at the apex of the arc of Heaven, with the sun on the left and the moon on the right. These signify Christ's "cosmic sovereignty." The birds on the crossbar "symbolize the participation of the souls of the faithful in Christ's victory and in eternal life."

Schiller and others take the soldier on the right to be asleep, but no such detail is mentioned in the gospels. I would argue instead that the two men represent the reactions of the soldiers to the angel in Matthew 28:3-4, "And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow. And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men." The soldier on the right's lowered head is repeated by the women in Luke when they see the angels' splendor: "they were afraid, and bowed down their countenance towards the ground" (24:5a).

View the whole frontal of the sarcophagus.
Read more about images of the Resurrection and the Crucifixion.

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