The Brescia Lipsanotheca (or Casket) is a small carved ivory relief with an internal walnut wood framework dating to the fourth century. Scholars are not certain of its original intended function, but most agree that it was probably a reliquary, and possibly made to contain the relics of martyrs Gervasius and Protasius under the direction of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (Watson 1981: 290). Its iconographic programme is similar to Christian funerary art of the same period, suggesting a common meaning.
Around the top of the casket, the apostles are displayed in medallions, with Christ at the centre above the silver lock plate. Below the plate, Christ teaches in the synagogue (Luke 4:16); to the left he heals the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43); and to the right he enters the sheepfold (John 10:1). At the bottom left and centre we see scenes from the story of Susanna (Daniel 13 Vulgate), and on the bottom right Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6). On either side of the lock plate are scenes from the story of Jonah; on the left, Jonah is being tossed overboard into the mouth of the sea monster (Jonah 1:15–17), and on the right, he is being spat back out again (Jonah 2:10). On the back of the casket, in the same position, we find Jonah lying underneath the gourd vine (Jonah 4:6).
The Jonah sequence is frequently found on sarcophagi and in catacomb frescoes, with Jonah appearing more than ten times as often as any other figure, apart from the Good Shepherd (Jensen 2007: 71). The reason for this is that Jonah is intended as a type of Christ. The Sign of Jonah allegory described in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew allowed for the artistic expression of Christ’s salvation in this way, and with it we are given both a portrait of Christ and a theology of salvation.
The three Jonah images are of his death, resurrection, and rest in paradise, and this sequence can be understood to evoke the death, resurrection, and eternal life of Christ.
Like other funerary art, the Brescia Lipsanotheca suggests something profoundly hopeful about the interred bodies of the Christian dead. They are awaiting resurrection. The Jonah sequence can be said to reflect the occupants’ faith in personal salvation from death, and the hope of resurrection and life in paradise.
Jensen, Robin. 2000. Understanding Early Christian Art. (New York: Routledge)
______. 2007. ‘Early Christian Images and Exegesis’, in Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, ed. by Jeffrey Spier (Yale: New Haven)
Watson, Carolyn Joslin. 1981. ‘The Program of the Brescia Casket’, Gesta 20.2: 283–98
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Ninʹeveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
16 And the Pharisees and Sadʹducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ 3And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Ninʹeveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. 31The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32The men of Ninʹeveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.