Saturday, April 26, 2008

Further on Early Christian Sarcophagi

Sarcophagus with Biblical scenes (detail)
Roman Early Christina, c. 300-400
Vatican, Pio-Cristiano Museum
Following the posting I prepared yesterday in reflection on the Gospel of the day, I was reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent references to other images that appear on early Christian sarcophagi in his encyclical, Spe Salvi. In sections 5 and 6 the Holy Father says:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Sec. 5)

The sarcophagi of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually—in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life's meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want ... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me ...” (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Sec. 6)

So called Sarcophagus of Stilicho
Late Antique, c. 385-390
Milan, Sant Ambrogio

The images of Christ the Philosopher appear in a similar fashion to that of the Traditio Legis on some sarcophagi of the fourth and fifth centuries. Indeed, the chief difference seems to be that, as the Philosopher rather than the Lawgiver, Christ appears standing. See, for example, these two images from sarchophagi from the fourth (Milan) and fifth centuries (Ravenna).

Sarcophagus from San Giovanni Battista, Ravenna
Late Antique, Early 5th Century
Ravenna, Museo Nazionale

The Good Shepherd
Roman Early Christian, Late 3rd -Early 4th Century
Vatican, Pio-Cristiano Museum

Examples of the Good Shepherd abound in early Christian art, both on sarchophagi, free-standing sculpture and in mosaics. Among the most famous images are the statue of the Good Shepherd in the Vatican Museum and the mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Both have deep roots in images from the pre-Christian classical world.

I have particular affection for the mosaic from Ravenna because of its calm and serene atmosphere and because of the way Christ the Shepherd reaches across to tickle the chin of one of the sheep. She, for her part, raises her head in response to His touch. Possibly, she represents Galla Placidia herself, raising her head in hope and trust to the touch of her Shepherd and Redeemer.
The Good Shepherd
Late Antique/Early Byzantine, c. 425-450
Ravenna, Tomb of Galla Placidia

There is a long history of this gesture, sometimes referred to as the "chin chuck", that stretches from ancient Egyptian art to that of the nineteenth century. It is usually directed from man to woman or from parent to child. In this case, it flows from the Shepherd to the sheep, from the Redeemer to the redeemed.

© M. Duffy, 2008