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Work "City gates" sarcophagus

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Christian and Byzantine Art

"City gates" sarcophagus

© 1999 photo RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This "city gates" sarcophagus was found in Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. It marks the emergence of early Christian art, in the late fourth century, and the creation of Christian imagery rooted in Greco-Roman models. On the main face, Christ presents Peter with the Law in the presence of Saint Paul and the apostles. The ends are decorated with scenes from the Old Testament: the ascension of Elijah, Moses receiving the tablets, and the sacrifice of Isaac.

A "city gates" sarcophagus

The three panels of this sarcophagus case were discovered in the fifteenth century, beneath the apse of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. They entered the Louvre's collection in 1808, after the purchase of the Prince Camille Borghese collection by Napoleon I. The fourth side is in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome. This monumental piece was created in a Roman workshop at the very end of the fourth century AD and is described as a "city gates" sarcophagus because of the architectural decor that frames the scenes with figures.

Scenes from the Old and New Testaments

The reliefs depict scenes taken from the Old and New Testaments. On the main face, Christ stands majestically on a rock, perhaps Mount Tabor, from which flow the four rivers of Paradise: the Tigris, the Euphrates, Pishon, and Gihon. Behind him are the crenellated walls of a city, and at his feet are the figures of two patrons, a kneeling woman and a man who bows in respect. With his right hand, Christ blesses the assembly of the apostles. With his left, he gives the Law to Peter in the presence of Saint Paul, following the well-known Traditio Legis motif. The two ends of the sarcophagus are decorated with scenes from the Old Testament. The left-hand panel features the ascension of Elijah, who, taken up to heaven in a chariot drawn by four horses, leaves his cloak to Elisha, and Moses receiving the Law from the hand of God. There are similarities between their lives and that of Christ: the distress of Elijah in the desert foreshadows Christ's agony in the Garden of Olives, and his ascension to heaven prefigures that of Christ. The Transfiguration of Christ recalls that of Moses. The personification of the river Jordan appears in the center of the panel. On the right-hand panel, Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac, who kneels on the altar, but the hand of the angel stops the old man from carrying out the act. Near a tree are the remains of the body of the ram sacrificed in Isaac's place. The four figures in the last scene have not been identified. One of them is dressed in the clothes of a high dignitary of the imperial court of the fourth century.

Greek and Roman models

After Christianity was legalized by the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, it gradually came out of hiding and became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380, under Theodosis I. Early Christian art began to flourish. However, in the absence of any figurative tradition in Jewish art, the Christian imagery that was created took its inspiration from Greek and Roman models. The bearded face of Christ is reminiscent of images of the Greek philosophers. The personification of the Jordan takes the form of a river god holding a reed and leaning on a vase from which water gushes-a pagan iconographic tradition. Finally, the drapery on the figures and the acanthus wreaths that run around the sarcophagus's base owe both their arrangement and their motifs to classical sculpture.

Bibliography

Fr. Baratte & C. Metzger, Musée du Louvre. Catalogue de sarcophages en pierre d'époques romaine et paléochrétienne, Paris, 1985, p. 312-316, n 212

Technical description

  • "City gates" sarcophagus

    Circa 390-400 AD

    Discovered in Rome, in the mausoleum of the Anicii beneath the apse of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican

    Rome

  • Marble, sculpted in high and low relief

    H. 1.1 m; W. 2.52 m; D. 1.46 m and 1.43 m

  • Formerly in the Borghese collection; purchased 1807

    Scenes from the Old and New Testaments

    Inventaire MR 688 (n° usuel Ma 2980)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Mosaics gallery
    Room 30

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Additional information about the work

The fourth side is in the Museo del Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome.