Reflecting on my post of yesterday I felt a tickle of memory. So, I pulled from my bookshelves the catalogue of the 1983 exhibition “The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art” and turned to the pages on the Museo Pio-Clementina, the member of the Vatican Museums that safeguards the collection of early Christian art. Paging through the catalogue entries I found what was causing the tickle and something else besides.
The something else is a monument inscription to a twenty-year old youth named Datus, dedicated by his parents (cat. 139, dated to 3rd or 4th c.). It is the very monument spoken of by Pope Benedict in the section of “Spe Salvi” that I included in yesterday’s post (Spe Salvi, Sec. 6). In English it reads: “Given by his parents for their well-beloved son, Datus, who lived 20 years, in peace”. Such inscriptions were not uncommon in the Roman world, as indeed they continue to be common in our own. The recent reinstallation and reopening of the Greek and Roman collections at the Metropolitan Museum show many similar inscriptions and monuments to children, young adults, wives, husbands, etc. There are some major differences, however, between this monument and those. It is, first of all, not a very impressive slab. The parents must have had some money in order to be able to afford the monument at all. However, by comparison to the monuments in the Metropolitan, they were not rich. The inscription is not as finely chiseled. It’s a bit ragged, in fact. So, the carver who made it was not one of the highly skilled. But, what makes it remarkable is not the inscription, but the rather clumsy image that occupies the left side of the slab. Christ, identified by a halo, holds a staff in his right hand and points it at a somewhat sketchily executed image of a building with a small pedimented porch with three steps. On the top step stands a figure, completely wrapped in bands like a mummy. It is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:39-44). The family knows the story of Lazarus and has the hope that as he was raised, so their “well-beloved son, Datus” will also be raised “in peace”. It is the self-same hope felt by Christians everywhere.
I confess though that this monument was not the one that caught my memory when I viewed the exhibition at the Met all those years ago. The one that caught my eye then, and that I have carried in my memory ever since, is the monument to Severa (cat. 136, dated ca.330). In this stone the left side bears a portrait of a Roman woman, presumably Severa herself. On the right three figures in short tunics and capes, carrying gifts approach a woman seated in a wicker chair, who holds out her baby. The baby reaches his arms out toward the first of the three figures. In the space between the baby and the first figure appears a star. Behind the woman stands a male figure who points at the star. Quite clearly this is an early image of the Adoration of the Magi. The catalogue identifies the standing male figure as Balaam, who prophesied “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
Important as an early image of the Adoration of the Magi is, however, the thing that made the Severa monument memorable to me was not the images, it was the inscription. The inscription, which is placed between the image of Severa and the scene of the Magi, says: “SEVERA IN DEO VIVAS (Severa may you live in God)”. This blew me out of the water when I first saw it. It was one of those moments when the veil of time, like the veil in the Temple on the first Good Friday, is ripped in two. It made the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians resonate “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead….For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. “(Colossians 2:12, 3:3,4) Therefore, this Roman woman and her family in 330 believed as I believe now. They have long since ceased to breathe and to walk in the world, but both they and I live in Christ. We are one body across the centuries because we live in Christ through baptism.