Sarcophagus Lid with Daniel and New Testament Scenes

From the Cemetery of St. Agnes, Rome
4th century
Museo Pio-Cristiano, The Vatican (Inventory # 31471 ex 134) .

At the left end is a pair of figures. One is dressed and bearded like a philosopher and wears sandals like Peter and Paul in the center. The other, barefoot and in a short tunic, is clean-shaven. His right hand may be unsheathing a short sword.

To the right of this group is a conventional image of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:7-9, c.f. Mark 11:7-10, Luke 19:36-38). As in Matthew and Mark, someone is laying down a cloak for Jesus to ride on. The man in the tree can be either a reference to Matthew 21:8, "others cut boughs from the trees, and strewed them in the way" (though the man has no cutting implement) or to Zacchaeus, who had climbed a tree to observe Jesus' entry into Jericho earlier that same day (Luke 19:1-5).

The Y shape of the tree is also seen on the frontals of another sarcophagus from the beginning of the 4th century in the Pio-Christian and in a Sicilian sarcophagus in the Syracuse Archeological Museum from the second quarter of that century. The early 20th-century restorers of a sarcophagus frontal in the Metropolitan Museum adopted the same shape in their conjectural restoration of the Palm Sunday scene.

In the center is a Traditio Legis: As usual, Christ is flanked by Peter on the right and Paul on the left. With his left hand he passes a scroll to an oddly doubled group: the man behind, bald and with a pointy beard, appears to be St. Paul; the younger man in front is hard to identify and certainly does not appear in other Traditio scenes. With his right Christ seems to be acclaiming Peter, who is pointing to something in his own left hand. (Is it a bowl? a fold in his garment?)

Next is a naked Daniel in the lions' den. See Daniel 6:1-24 and Vulgate Daniel 14:27-42. Jensen (Nudity) argues that naked portrayals of Daniel with the lions allude to the Roman practice of disrobing martyrs in the arena as a way of shaming them. The bearded man at Daniel's right is Habakkuk bringing him loaves of bread.

On the far right Jesus resurrects Lazarus (John 11:1,17-44). For the iconography of scenes such as this, see the commentary on the Lazarus panel in the Sarcophagus of Jonah. Unlike many such images, this one does not include Mary beseeching Jesus to cure their brother. Different sculptors of this scene do different things with Jesus' hands. In this case, as in a good many others, his right hand holds a wand that signifies his divine power.

View the case of the sarcophagus.
View this image in full resolution.

Read more about the Traditio Legis, the Entry into Jerusalem, Lazarus, and Daniel.

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