The Sancta Sanctorum Reliquary Box
Carved wood, engraved and partially gilded; encaustic painting on wood, 9.4 x 7 x .4 in. (24 x 18.4 x 1 cm.)
Chapel of St. Peter Martyr, Vatican City
Boxes of this type were used by pilgrims to bring back mementoes from the Holy Land. This one had been placed inside a box of relics in the 9th century and kept in the "Sancta Sanctorum" chapel of the Lateran Palace. It was not rediscovered until 1905. The Vatican Museum's commentary suggests a Palestinian origin "possibly with Syrian elements in the development of certain themes." The photograph used here is in black and white, but the original is in bright colors.
In the upper register are the Resurrection on left, and the Ascension on right. The Middle register pictures the Crucifixion, and the Lower register has the Nativity on the left and the Baptism of Christ on right.
In the Crucifixion scene Jesus has a halo and wears a priestly garment called a collobium, indications of his divine nature, while the crucifix itself and the nail-wounds in his hands reflect his human nature. The men on his right and left are, respectively, Longinus with his spear and Stephaton with the sponge. Mary and John are positioned on his right and left respectively, a convention that continues even to this day.
Read this page for a commentary on the Nativity panel and this page for our study of Nativity iconography.
Read this page for a commentary on the Resurrection panel and this page for our study of Resurrection iconography.
Read more about images of the Ascension.
Read more about images of the baptism of Christ.