Friday, April 25, 2008

April 25 - Feast of St. Mark -- Traditio Legis

Traditio legis from Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Late Roman, mid-4th century
Vatican City State, Vatican Museums
Gospel – Mark 16:15-16

"Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them:“Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned."

The subject of the first verse of today’s reading, the instruction to the Apostles to go into the whole world, is the scene called the “traditio legis”. It is a scene well-known from early Christian times through the Middle Ages, but seems to have disappeared from the iconography of later times.

Traditio legis translates as “the giving of the law”. In the case of Christianity it refers to the instruction of Jesus to the Apostles, which is the subject of the quotation from the Gospel of Mark cited above. The most famous early Christian appearance of the traditio legis is on the central panel of the upper row of scenes from the life of Christ on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, now in the Vatican Museum. The sarcophagus dates from the mid-fourth century (359), just a few decades from Constantine’s proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which made Christian practice legal. Prior to that time, Christian practice was illegal, sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted. With Constantine’s edict, subsequent adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, and his building of the great basilicas in Rome and Jerusalem, we begin to see Christian art emerge from the shadow of the catacombs.

Computer reconstruction of colossal statue of Constantine
which stood in the Basilica of Maxentius
Roman, 4th century
The initial images clearly derive from Imperial imagery. The specific image is that of the Emperor as lawgiver. Christ appears seated on a stool with lion feet, raised on a small platform, just as the Emperor would have sat on a raised throne stool. On either side are Apostles, who receive a scroll of the law, just as members of the Emperor’s court would have appeared on a non-Christian imperial Roman monument. At Christ’s feet appears a Roman sky god (indicated by his billowing sail/dome, a representation of the sky). This little detail shows that bits of Roman iconography remained even after the adoption of Christianity. Christ appears as a young, beardless man, as was common during the early Christian period. The more mature, bearded Christ that is familiar to us developed much later.

Quite a number of sarcophagi with representations of the traditio legis were made during the fourth and fifth centuries. While researching this article I was actually surprised by how many there are. However, following the barbarian take over of the Western Roman Empire the use of the image tapers off.

Apocalypse Tympanum from south portal at Moissac
French, 1130-1140
Moissac, Saint-Pierre
It persists, however, transformed into the familiar image of the Last Judgment seen from the facades of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals to the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and adopted by Raphael for the beautiful Disputà (Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament, of 1509) in the Vatican.

Raphael, Disputa
from Stanza della Segnatura
Italian, 1509
Vatican City State, Vatican Museums

In these images, Christ sits enthroned, surrounded by the court of heaven as He delivers judgment.