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This marble sarcophagus was discovered in the fifteenth century. It was excavated from beneath the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It’s one of the earliest pieces of Christian art in Greco-Roman culture. On the main face, Christ, in the presence of Saint Paul and the apostles, presents Peter with the Law. The ends of the sarcophagus depict Old Testament scenes: the ascension of Elijah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.
Three of the four sides were purchased in 1808 by Napoleon I and placed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. They are part of the Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Christian and Byzantine Art section. The fourth side resides in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome.
This is a sarcophagus that was most likely built in the late fourth century, the tail end of the era of sarcophagi’s dominance as the most important form of Roman sculpture. As Christianity began to overtake paganism, the carvings of the sarcophagi became more and more based on the Christian stories of the Bible instead of the mythologies of the Roman pantheon .
In Rome, the sarcophagi were placed in niches or set against the wall, which meant that only the long front and the short ends were visible. Attic carvers (those from the region of Attica ) didn’t keep the narrative continuous around the sides; each side was a sculpture within itself.
Marble was used for this specific sarcophagus; marble is today considered the most common medium of classical sculpture, but in the late fourth century, bronze was equally popular. Marble was imported from all over the empire in the Roman Empire due to different colors of the marble that could be found around the different regions, and the different kinds of marble created a dramatic effect in the sarcophagus. Major excavation of new towns was a process of Romanization, or forcing the newly conquered areas to become a fully-functioning and participating part of the Roman Empire.
Local Historical ContextEdit
Christianity had been persecuted in the Roman Empire until the emergence of Constantine, who believed that the Christian God had granted him victory in the civil war that plagued the Empire for the early fourth century.
In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan , which decreed that Christianity would be tolerated and no longer persecuted by the state. In 325 he convened the Council of Nicea, and abolished the Arian heresy , stating that Jesus was to be brought into the Godhead and worshipped as God's equal. Though he was the champion of Christianity within the Roman Empire, he did not get baptized himself until he was on his deathbed. He discarded the imperial color purple for his last weeks of life, donning instead a saintly white to further emphasize his new faith in Christ.
Theodosius I the Great was the last competent ruler of the Roman Empire, ruling from 379-395. By 391 he had declared Christianity the official state religion and banned all forms of traditional Roman worship. His declaration of the Church as the official state religion led to the beginning of the state being subject to the church; after he slaughtered thousands in Thessalonika , the pope refused to give him communion until he did penance.
World Historical SignificanceEdit
After Christianity was no longer being condemned by the majority of the Roman World, those in power, who had money and prestige, began converting to the new "vogue" religion of the day. Christianity had its roots in Judaism, being the fulfillment of the Jewish covenent for a Messiah through Jesus. However, due to a lack of Jewish art, Christian artists had to look to the pagan creations of the Greeks and Romans to find inspiration.
This sarcophagus has important historical significance in the fact that it's a physical representation of what was happening around the world at the time. Christianity was becoming a world force, backed by the power of the Romans. This piece of art is just the beginning of a movement that will focus on the apostles, Virgin Mary, and Christ as the majority of its muses for the next couple of centuries. Though Christianity had begun with the downtrodden, the force of one of the most powerful empires in the world is what propelled it to one of the universal religions; this is seen in the combination of the Christian themes of the art with the Roman medium of the sarcophagus.
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