Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus – Christian art (4th century AD)


As I talked about in my post about the Saint Agnes gold glass, Christian art was very subtle at its beginning and then it developed into something new. The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, probably from one of the best Roman workshops, according to the quality, is a good example of the development. This sarcophagus, dated from 359, is in the Vatican Grottos (caves under the Saint-Peter basilica containing chapels and various tombs).

Junius Bassus was the prefect of Rome which may explain the privilege he received by being buried in the Vatican Grottos. On top of the sarcophagus, we can see an inscription. It gives his name, his age when he died (42) and the year (359). On the body, there are ten small scenes on two levels, separated from each other by a column. To understand the story told by the scenes, you need to read them from left to right and, at the same time, from top to bottom. On the upper level we can see the sacrifice of Isaac, Peter’s arrest, and the traditio legis, Christ’s arrest and Pilate’s judgement. The bottom level shows Job on the dunghill, Adam and Eve after the original sin, the Christ entering into Jerusalem, Daniel in the lion’s den, and the preparation for Paul’s execution.

The sources of iconography are diverse, scenes are taken from the Old and the New Testament. All of these scenes are commonly used in Christian art except for the traditio legis, which is new. This scene has no origins in the scriptures. It depicts the transmission of the law. The Christ is in majesty, as a teenager to show his divine nature (he can’t age). He sits on a throne which makes him the emperor, and his feet are on the cosmos as he is the universal emperor. He is surrounded by his imperial guard embodied by Peter and Paul, to whom he gives his law. This scene is a creation of the 4th century and this sarcophagus gives us the oldest representation. This sarcophagus’ iconography is there to tell the faithful that his or her faith should not weaken and, in exchange, the resurrection is a promise. This interpretation is made possible by the juxtaposition of the scenes and their inner link.

In a stylistic approach, this sarcophagus is similar to earlier models. The scenes are easy to read, the use of the antique drill bit creates striking effects of light and shadow. The very high relief shows characters with short proportions. The scenes show the strict minimalism, and the number of characters is limited even if the scriptures quote more. This sarcophagus is the inheritance of  classicism coming from first century Roman art and the details are from the 3rd century. This alliance is characteristic of the production of the 4th century.


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