World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Early Christian sarcophagi

Article Id: WHEBN0020592912
Reproduction Date:

Title: Early Christian sarcophagi  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Sarcophagus, Funerary art, Ancient Roman sarcophagi, List of extant papal tombs, Papal tombs in Old St. Peter's Basilica
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Early Christian sarcophagi

Sarcophagus of Constantina, daughter of Constantine I, from her mausoleum at Santa Costanza (now in Vatican Museums).
Detail of the central panel of the Sarcophagus of Stilicho, Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan.

Early Christians sarcophagi are those Ancient Roman sarcophagi carrying inscriptions or carving relating them to early Christianity. They were produced from the late 3rd century through to the 5th century. They represent the earliest form of large Christian sculpture, and are important for the study of Early Christian art.

The production of Roman sarcophagi with carved decoration spread due to the gradual abandonment of the rite of cremation in favour of inhumation over the course of the 2nd century throughout the empire. However, burial in such sarcophagi was expensive and thus reserved for wealthy families. The end of the Christian persecutions desired by Gallienus in 260 began a period of peace for the Christians that lasted until the end of that century and allowed Christianity to spread in the army, in senior administrative posts and even the emperor's circles. In the second half of the 3rd century, especially due to increased demand from this group of wealthy Christians, the use of sarcophagi spread widely, with plastic treatments following trends in contemporary sculpture.

Production and typology

The sarcophagi seem to have been produced by workshops who also created pieces with pagan or Jewish iconography. The techniques are the same, but Christian sarcophagi developed a rather different style of layout, with framed scenes, later arranged on two tiers. The images of Christ move in an iconic direction, very unlike the depiction of gods in pagan equivalents, where deities are normally shown, if at all, in narrative scenes.


Lateran Museum, Rome, Italy. Rome - Early Christian sarcophagus, Lateran Museum, story of Isaac; Moses on Mount Sinai; healing blind; Peter denys Lord; healing sick; turning water into wine. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

A wide variety of subjects are shown on sarcophagi, with the most elaborate containing small cycles of narrative scenes from the gospels and simpler ones symbols such as the Chi Rho. Other motifs depicted include the Hetoimasia, a representation of the empty throne with a book as preparation for the Last Judgment, the Traditio Legis or "giving of the law", with the scroll of the New Covenant given to St. Peter with St. Paul on the other side of Christ, and Christ in Majesty ("Maiestas domini")- representations of the majesty of the lord ranging from visions of prophets to Christ on a throne between the apostles with his feet on a footstool

Notable examples

Engraving of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.
  • Sarcophagus of the Passion


  • De Vecchi, Pierluigi; Elda Cerchiari (1999). I tempi dell'arte (in Italian). Milan: Bompiani. 
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.