The Ludovisi Sarcophagus

Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican, inventory 31408

The central images are pagan: Juno Pronuba officiates at the marriage of a couple. The label says Cupid and Psyche were at their feet but are now lost. Below them winged genii watch a cockfight.

In the upper left panel Christ raises a child to life. The man on the right is probably Jesus. He has formed his right hand into a blessing gesture over the child, and he holds a scroll and wears a toga, as Jesus does in the other panels.

The return to life is expressed by showing the child twice, once lying supine and once standing up. Most images of Roman girls I have seen, but not all, have "girl-length" hair, down to the shoulders or up in a knot, so the child may be a boy. It is hard to tell from the photo whether he has a penis, or perhaps had one that broke off, as often happens in sculpture. If the child is a boy, he would be the son of the widow of Naim (Luke 7:11-15). If a girl, she would be the daughter of the synagogue official Jairus (Matthew 9:18-25, Mark 5:22-42, and Luke 8:41-55).

The man to the left of Jesus wears a toga, as does the bearded figure to the left of Jesus in the panel below. Each holds his arm at the same angle. The one below strongly resembles St. Peter in the water-miracle scene at the right, though with a bit more hair and beard. Most likely, then, all three figures represent St. Peter, who is a favorite subject in Roman sarcophagi.

In the lower left panel Jesus cures the blind man, who as always in 4th-century images is shown smaller than the other figures. As above, Jesus is clean-shaven and holds the scroll that symbolizes his authority. The man on his left is probably a second disciple. He has the same "roman nose," lengthened eyebrow, and puffy hair style as the man in the background above.

In the upper right is a Raising of Lazarus (John 11). For a full discussion of this iconographic type, please see the page for the Jonah Sarcophagus Lazarus. In this instance of the type a great deal has been left out. The figure of Lazarus is absent for some reason. His sister Mary kneels before Jesus, perhaps the most common of the secondary figures in Raising of Lazarus images, but there are no disciples, no Martha, no onlookers.

Finally, St. Peter's water miracle is in the lower right corner. Peter wears a toga, as does the man in the background. He could be the prefect Agrippa, who is the only civil authority mentioned in the water-miracle legend.

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Read more about St. Peter, Lazarus and other miracles of Jesus.

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