Sarcophagus with Six Scenes from Scripture

4th century
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican (Inventory #31541 ex 182)

The figure in the center is most likely the decedent, in orant position between a barrel and a sheaf of wheat. These probably refer to the bread and wine in the first and fifth panels. The wine is in jars in the first panel, as specified in John 2, but barrels for wine came into use in Italy beginning in the second century. This emphasis on bread and wine points to the Eucharist and thence to the heavenly banquet to which the decedent's hope is directed. The bird sitting on the barrel is a conventional symbol of the soul in both pagan and Christian iconography.

The miracle in the first panel is of course from the wedding at Cana. In the second Jesus heals a blind man by touching his eyes, as he does in Matthew 9:29, Matthew 20:34, Mark 8:23, and John 9. In Mark and Matthew blindness is a metaphor for ignorance of spiritual truth or for "blindness of heart," a condition that is registered by the diminutive scale of the blind man in representations from this period.

On the other hand, the diminutive scale of the figure in the bed in the third panel most likely means that this is a child, the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official of Matthew 9:18-19,23-26; Mark 5:22-24,35-42; Luke 8:41-42,49-56. Jairus is on the left and Jesus on the right with the wand that signifies his divine power. The wand is also in the first and fifth panels. As in the Pio Cristiano's sarcophagus 31551, the resurrection of Jairus' daughter appears in the absence of the more usual scene of Lazarus.

That fifth panel presents the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-39, Mark 6:34-44, Luke 9:10-17). The artist shows us three baskets, the same number as the jars in the Cana panel. Neither choice is scriptural: there are six jars in John 2 and twelve baskets in the synoptic gospels. The choice of the number three may be related to the trinitarian doctrine affirmed at the Council of Nicea in 325.

The sixth panel shows the cure of the woman with the flow of blood (Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:43-48). As in all 4th-century images of this episode, she touches the hem of Jesus' cloak and he places his hand on her head, a way of picturing his words, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has saved you." The gesture and turn of the head of the disciple on his right also signifies speech: When Jesus asked who in the crowd had touched him, his disciples expressed surprised that he would ask such a question with the press of people all around him.

Each of the miracle narratives shown here involves one or more interlocutors, so each of the miracle panels presents just one full-size person speaking with Jesus: In panel 1, the steward at the wedding; in panel 2, one of the apostles; Jairus in panel 3; an apostle again in panel 4, and in panel 5 the disciple who asked "Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou 'who hath touched me'?" As usual in the sarcophagi of this period, Jesus is portrayed as a beardless youth with long hair.

In the far right panel are a man holding something in his hand, a snake coiled in a tree, and an altar with a fire. I have not yet been able to identify this scene. If the thing in the man's hand looked anything like a fruit one might think the man is Adam, because the serpent in the Fall story is usually shown coiled around the trunk of the tree. But what fruit looks like a sausage? And what would a burnt offering have to do with that story? The man's garment is draped in a way that echoes that of Jesus in the other panels (and no one else), so he could be the God of the Old Testament, who is sometimes pictured as the Son in Christian images. Is it God remonstrating with the serpent in Genesis 3:14-15? God whose "spirit hath adorned the heavens, and his obstetric hand brought forth the winding serpent" (Job 26:13)?

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