Front of Sarcophagus with Epiphany
fine-grained white marble
Museo, Pio Cristiano  Inv. 31450


General Description

This relief represents two distinct but complementary scenes which decorate the front of a sarcophagus found in the seventeenth century in the Vatican area.  It was reconstituted from various fragments including the right arm of Christ (figure with a stick) and the star above the child. The modest size of the slab points to a childís burial niche or sarcophagus. It can be dated to the fourth-fifth century.

The scene to the left refers to the famous vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.  He is called to prophesize that these many bones will be covered anew with flesh and revive.  Living people will surge from dead bodies.  Most important, they are given the spirit of Yahwe.  Indeed, an immense array of people alive in the spirit surge from the dead. In this scene, the spirit is represented by Christ logos holding a stick or scepter in his right hand, and a scroll in his left. Wearing tunic and pallium, his posture and expression is one of authority.  Fearless, his gaze is turned to the left, traditionally considered the realm of darkness and death.  With the stick in hand, he brings people from death to life, from darkness into light.  The various stages of revival are skillfully pictured.  Next to Christ we see the heads of two figures, one without facial features, the other with roughly defined ones.  The two nude figures standing, and turned toward Christ, have already been raised from the dead.  The figure behind Christ logos, dressed similarly in tunic and pallium, may be the prophet Ezekiel whose prophesy announces the spirit of life (Christ logos).  Resituated in its Christological context, this scene hails the Resurrection in Christ.  The deceased are promised new life beyond the grave.  Condition and access to eternal life are symbolized in the second scene.

The second scene pictures the Adoration of the Magi, rendered here in the typical style of early representations of this theme. The three Magi are in movement, walking toward the Christ Child.  Their heads are covered with the so-called Phrygian cap, and their tunics bedecked with capes.  They are bringing gifts to the child who is receiving them with a welcoming gesture.  He is sitting on his motherís lap who is holding him in a gesture both protective and demonstrative. The mother is veiled and enthroned, her feet resting on a footstool.  Her iconographic type corresponds to that of the so-called Felsenmutter or rock mother, suggesting a cave as place of the Nativity.  This second episode constitutes the foundation, historical and moral, of the Resurrection scene.  The coming of the Savior introduces the salvific event of life eternal (historical aspect).  The Magiís journey to the Christ Child is an expression of faith, personal commitment, and perseverance (moral aspect). I n short, this relief of Resurrection and Epiphany represents a summary of the essential Christian message, namely the coming of the Messiah and life eternal.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog:  The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 68-69.

See The Mary Page:  campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/epiphany.html

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