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.
Schoolman, Edward M. 2013. ‘Reassessing the Sarcophagi of Ravenna’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 67: 49–74
35 But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
51 Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. 54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.