Pio Cristiano Sarcophagus 31546

Front of a double-register stone sarcophagus
Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican

This sarcophagus uses a complex set of compositional relationships exploring the main theme of resurrection to eternal life.

First there is the relationship between the Old Testament episodes clustered around the central clipeus and the New Testament panels to the left and right. The Old Testament panels focus on the Hebrews' steadfastness as they await the coming of the savior (the three youths in the furnace, Daniel with the lions) and God's guidance for them in the mean time (giving the Law to Moses, staying Abraham's hand). On the "moral" level of allegory, these moments refer to the life of the Christian who is steadfast in the faith, as the couple in the clipeus are presumed to have been.

The New Testament scenes on the left and right look forward to the salvation promised to the Christian. On the right of the upper register, Jesus restores life to Lazarus and vision to the blind man (John 11). On the far left he multiplies the loaves for the five thousand, a symbol of the heavenly banquet. On the closer left, he hands Peter the scroll that symbolizes his authority as a teacher, despite Peter's denial (the rooster). The scroll also represents the New Law, juxtaposed as it is with Moses' reception of the Old Law. Below, Peter is arrested on the left side but takes up Jesus' and Moses' roles as thaumaturge on the right, educing water from the rock of his prison cell so he can baptize his jailers.

Those jailers are first seen on the left arresting Peter. But just as he was forgiven his betrayal they are brought into the faith by Baptism.

Another set of relations addresses the role of the sacraments. Eucharist is symbolized by the chiasmic relation between the bread in the upper left and the wine in the lower left. Baptism is referenced by the water miracle, which is juxtaposed with the cure of the invalid at the Bethesda pool, an incident that the commentators took as a symbol of Baptism. The soldiers being washed in the water on the far right in turn help one understand the imagery on the left, where they served the unrighteous by arresting Peter. These are men who like Peter needed forgiveness and received it. The female orant on the far left represents the Church allegorically, while the soldiers represent it by synecdoche.

In making the soldiers represent a Church led by a man who once denied Christ, the sarcophagus emphasizes that salvation is by faith. The image of the upright orant relates chiasmically to the figure of Martha bent over on the extreme right of the upper register. In the Lazarus episode it is she who tells Jesus, "Yea, Lord, I have believed that thou art Christ the Son of the living God," the same words that Peter spoke in Matthew 16:16. To the right of the Lazarus panel, Jesus cures the blind man, saying "thy faith hath made thee whole" (Luke 18:42).

As in most other sarcophagi of the time, Jesus always holds a symbol of his authority. For the multiplication of the loaves and the transformation of water into wine, it is a staff. For the other episodes, it is a scroll. In each panel he is pictured as a young person with no beard, like the young Daniel and the three Hebrew youths. The soldiers who arrest Peter and are subsequently baptized by him are also beardless, perhaps a reference to their new life in Christ. The disciples are always bearded.

The same pair of Moses and Abraham scenes on either side of a clipeus appears in Sarcophagus 31551 in the museum and the Sarcophagus of Adelphia in Sicily.

Please see further commentary on these panels of the sarcophagus:

Read more about the miracles of Jesus, St. Peter, Moses, Abraham, Lazarus, Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego, Daniel, and the Cana miracle.

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