There are seven scenes in the surviving three fragments of this fourth-century sarcophagus relief, each separated by columns with a twisted decoration. Four scenes show a youthful, curly-haired, beardless Christ who performs miraculous healings. On the far left, Jesus touches his staff on the head of a child wrapped up for burial (probably Lazarus); others apparently show the healing of the man born blind (here a boy), the miracle of Cana, and the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Greek Septuagint additions to Daniel (Smith 1993).
The healing of the woman with an issue of blood is a popular subject in surviving Roman sarcophagi, occurring thirty-eight times, sometimes blended with the raising of Lazarus (Jefferson 2014: 95, n.21). However, the scene in this sarcophagus is highly unusual in showing Christ viewed from behind, walking away from us, as also from the woman. We have her view of Jesus, from behind.
Christ has his left foot raised, and looks back over his right shoulder. He has been alerted to the woman’s touch. Though his foot is still in the air, such that we can even see its sole, he turns to touch the top of her head.
The woman’s profile is calm, veritably expressionless, but surprise is the key to the sculptor’s comment on this scene: Christ’s surprise and, perhaps, ours. Her seizure of the bottom of his long tunic catches and turns him in mid-stride. Our surprise is perhaps that we are so emphatically placed in her position. This image seems to urge us to reach out to Christ in faith, as she does, in the expectation that he will respond.
Jefferson, Lee M. 2014. Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art (Minneapolis: Spark House)
Smith, Kathryn A. 1993. ‘Inventing Marital Chastity: The Iconography of Susanna and the Elders in Early Christian Art’, Oxford Art Journal, 16.1: 3–24
Taylor, Joan E. 2018. What Did Jesus Look Like? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark)
20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment; 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
24b And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. 25 And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” 29 And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 And he looked around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
42b As he went, the people pressed round him. 43 And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one, 44 came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”