Columned Sarcophagus with Biblical Scenes by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Columned Sarcophagus with Biblical Scenes (Columnar sarcophagus of Agape and Crescentianus), c.330–60, Marble high relief, 59 x 150 cm (whole sarcophagus), Vatican necropolis, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican City, MV-31558-0-0, Lanmas / Alamy Stock Photo

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Surprise Encounters

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Joan Taylor

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.

 

References

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)