Reliquary of Brescia (Brescia Casket / Lipsanoteca), front view by Unknown artist, Italian school

Unknown artist, Italian school

Reliquary of Brescia (Brescia Casket or Lipsanoteca), front view, 4th century, Ivory casket, 22 x 32 x 25 cm, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, Italy, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Waiting in the Belly of the Sea Monster

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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 Susannah (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 (not pictured), 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.

 

References

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


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