Facsimile of a Dome Painting in the Bagawat Necropolis, Egypt: Left and Right Sides
Left side of the painting
Right side of the painting
Facsimile: Charles K. Wilkinson, 1920
Original: Bagawat Necropolis, Egypt, 325-375 A.D.
Tempera on paper
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
The painting relates God’s merciful salvation of his people in the Old Testament to a Christian understanding of Baptism. Reading from the far right along the bottom register one sees the loss of Eden and then a sequence of individuals whose prayers led to their deliverance. In the next register up are Noah and Jonah, whose experiences were considered types of Baptism, and Job. Then comes the most prominent register, with the Crossing of the Red Sea, also considered a type of Baptism. At the top the birds, vines, and grapes signify Eden restored. Let us look at these segments in detail.
The Bottom Register
On the far right, between the two arches, Adam and Eve leave the garden of Eden and head toward a dark door. Since the Anastasis will picture the resurrected Christ breaking the door to Hell to release Adam and Eve, this may be that door. The label above Eve is zωΗ, Zoe, her name in the Septuagint.1
Read more about images of Adam and Eve.
Reading right to left, we next see the first of the Hebrews who prayed to God and were saved by him. Daniel stands in orant position among the lions. Above his head are the words ΔΑΝΙΗΛ ΕΝ ΛΑΚΚΟ, "Daniel in the pit." This was his punishment for praying to God instead of to King Darius as commanded (Daniel 6:7-25). But the Lord keeps him safe and even sends him food, a miracle that leads Darius to decree that all his subjects must reverence Daniel's God, "the deliverer and savior" (Daniel 6:26-27).
Read more about images of Daniel.
Moving again to the left we find the similar story of Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego. These youths were consigned to the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the statue of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:8-15). In the image they are in the furnace and a servant is stoking the flames (Daniel 3:46). But an angel comes, drives the flames away, and keeps them cool. When they emerge unharmed Nebuchadnezzar, like Darius, orders that God be reverenced "for there is no other God that can save in this manner" (Daniel 3:96).
Read more about images of Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego.
Continuing to the left, two men use a bucksaw to saw Isaiah in half. The prophet is identified by an inscription above his head. A non-canonical tradition held that he was executed in this way, and images of his death usually look much like this one (example). Unlike the stories of Daniel and the three youths, this one does not illustrate God's saving power, but it can put the viewer in mind of the multitude of prayers in The Book of Isaiah that could be compared to the prayers of Daniel and the three youths. The one about the vineyard that yielded rotten grapes (Isaiah 5:1-7) is especially relevant to the paradisical vineyard at the top of this painting.
Read more about images of Isaiah.
Next, above the left arch Eliezer travels with his camels in search of a bride for Isaac and finds Rebekah at the well of Nahor (Genesis 24:10-20). In the painting he is pictured twice — on the left in the detail shown here he is traveling with his camels. On the right, he is the figure in white holding the camels' reins. At his side, Rebekah draws water from the well into a pitcher. Above the well is Rebekah's name in Greek, PENBEKA. In the commentaries the water she gives to Eliezer is most often compared to the learning that one obtains from Christian preachers and the scriptures, but Ambrose and Augustine also see it as the water of baptism that makes possible the union of Christ and his Church that is prefigured in the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. (Glossa Ordinaria, I, 283, 285).
Read more about images of Isaac and Rebecca.
Above the center arch is a picture of a great whale. This is part of the second register and will be discussed below.
Continuing to the left, past a detail I cannot identify, we come to a seated person labeled with the letter C (perhaps a nonstandard sigma - equivalent to Latin S) and a blur and then the letters ANNA. This may be Susanna, another figure from the Book of Daniel. Her prayer for deliverance was answered when the young Daniel spoke up at her trial (Vulgate Daniel 13:42-60).
Read more about images of Daniel and Susanna.
THE SECOND REGISTER
On the far right Noah reaches out from the ark to the dove, which holds the olive branch in its beak (Genesis 8:11). This marks the end of the great flood, which is said to prefigure baptism in I Peter 3:20-21.
Read more about images of Noah.
To the left of Noah's ark, above the Eliezer scenes, Jonah's shipmates toss him into the sea headfirst. Usually this scene has the whale opening its jaws to devour Jonah, but in this painting it is placed to the left of the ship instead and is pictured as enormous in size, with triangular spikes on its back. Above this monster the Greek word kntoc, ("whale" or "sea monster") is written twice. The reason for making the whale huge and displacing it to the left of the ship may be explained by the two figures who sit just above it and face each other. The man on the left is labeled IωB, "Job," and the other could be either Elihu (Job 32-37) or the Lord, who reveals his grandeur to Job in the great theophany of chapters 38-41, where he tells of his subduing the primeval chaos symbolized by Behemoth and the sea monster Leviathan (Vulgate Job 40:10-19, 20-28).
Read more about images of Jonah.
Continuing to the left, there are two scenes that I cannot make out. The first of them is labeled with a word that ends in the Greek leters NAC, so possibly "Jonas."
Finally, on the far left, Jonah reclines beneath the gourd tree (Jonah 4:5-10), raising his right arm and slightly lifting one leg as he does in other contemporary images of this episode. Only a few of the exegetes relate Jonah's experience to baptism, but the connection is very strong in the art.2
THE THIRD REGISTER
The crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:10-31) occupies the whole of the third register. It is the most important of the Old Testament types of Baptism, being cited in I Corinthians 10:1-2 as the event in which "all in Moses were baptized." In the photograph above of the right side, the Pharaoh and his men ride their horses away from a colonnaded structure that probably represents his palace. Above the second of the horsemen is the word ΦAΡAω ("Pharaoh"). As the images continue to the left, we again see the Pharaoh, afoot this time, leading horsemen and a troop of infantry toward the Red Sea. The word ΕΡΥΘΡΑ (erythra, "red") appears above the first of the horsemen. In the photograph of the left side the narrative continues as some of the Israelites have made it to the other side. Some of them lead their livestock or carry yokes on their shoulders. Others are still passing through the water.
Read more about images of the crossing.
Above the crossing scene birds feed on grapes hanging from vines. Referencing the Eucharist, the grapes signify the blood Christ shed to redeem the faithful, and the vine is Christ himself ("I am the vine…", John 15:5). In early Christian iconography, birds are symbols of immortality or of the immortal souls of the just.
Also see our full-resolution images of the left-side photograph and the right-side photograph.
Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.