Sarcophagus of Theodore by Unknown Italian artist

Unknown Italian artist

Sarcophagus of Saint Theodore, 5th century (lid, late 7th century), Marble, 2.05 m long, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Cameraphoto Arte, Venice / Art Resource, NY

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Life Latent in Death

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Victoria Emily Jones

Made in the fifth century, this sarcophagus was reused in the seventh as the tomb of Theodore, archbishop of Ravenna from roughly 677–691. The city was a grand one: capital of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. But the Latin inscription on the sarcophagus is simple: ‘Here rests in peace Theodore, v.b. [vir bonus = good man], archbishop’.

Like much early Christian funerary art, this tomb adapts Roman victory emblems to convey a message of triumph over death through Christ, throwing into relief the Isaianic line that Paul quotes: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54; cf. Isaiah 25:8).

The centrepiece of the tomb’s front face is a monogram made up of the superimposed Greek letters chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ), the first two letters in the title Christos (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ) and therefore shorthand for ‘Jesus Christ’. Hanging from the arms of the chi are an alpha (Α) and omega (Ω), which allude to Christ as the beginning and the end of all things (cf. Revelation 22:13). This Christogram is repeated on the barrelled lid, encircled by a laurel wreath (a symbol of victory), with cross variations on either side—the cross being the ultimate symbol of death transposed into life.

Flanking the Chi-Rho on the sarcophagus are peacocks, which, because of an ancient belief that their flesh does not decay, came to symbolize incorruptibility, resurrection, renewal. Behind them unfurls a twisting vegetal pattern that recalls Paul’s seed metaphor: buried in the earth, the Christian will one day sprout forth with new life. And these are no generic vine scrolls; they are grapevines, another pagan art motif repurposed by Christians as a symbol of the life-giving blood of Christ, by which the redeemed enter heaven.

These images, carved directly onto a saint’s burial chamber, mark it as a site of future resurrection and therefore preach hope from the side aisle of the church where the tomb has lain since Theodore’s interment. The seed of a body that lies inside will one day be raised ‘imperishable’, ‘in glory’, and ‘in power’ (1 Corinthians 15:42–43). This is the promise that all God’s faithful can claim.

 

References

Schoolman, Edward M. 2013. ‘Reassessing the Sarcophagi of Ravenna’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 67: 49–74