Lid for Sarcophagus of Severa
(with scene of the Epiphany)
early fourth century
fine-grained white Italian marble
Museo Pio Cristiano, Inv. 2859

General Description

The lid of this sarcophagus was originally taken from the catacombs of Priscilla. It was reconstructed from three fragments, the carvings were retraced, the surface repolished, and the edges smoothed. The narrative holds in three elements:  the portrait to the left, the inscription, and the scene to the right picturing the adoration of the Magi.

The portrait is that of Severa, the deceased, a woman of social status and culture. Hairstyle and dress point to the Constantinian era. Tunic, palla, scroll (left hand), and the gesture of greeting (right hand) are reminiscent of portraying philosophers. Countenance and overall demeanor suggest a woman intellectual. The hairstyle (a late variant of the Nestfrisur) is an important witness to cultural history.  It was introduced by the wife of Septimus Severus (late second century), and allows datation of the slab to the early fourth century. The deceased appears as earnest seeker, a woman intent with finding answers to her quest for ultimate meaning.

The inscription, awkward but clearly legible, seems to constitute the answers to Severa’s quest. Formulated as a wish, “May you live in God, Severa” (Severa/in Deo vi/vas), it may be read as a retroactive confirmation of Severa’s long and arduous quest for God.  The inscription doesn’t have only retroactive but also proactive character, illustrated in the scene to the right.  Severa will be living in God, because she is entrusted to a new life in God, manifested in the Incarnation of his Son.  The Incarnation is made visible (epiphany) to all those who seek God like Severa and the Magi.  The desire to find and the joy to reach their goal is particularly well expressed in the eager pace and fluttering mantles of the three Magi. The Phrygian caps not only recall their Oriental (Persian) origin, they also identify the three as adepts and students of light and stars, possibly as followers of Ahura Mazda.  Guided by the star, they bear gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.  Salvation awaits them in the person of the child with outstretched arms, sitting on the arms of his mother.  In fact, the mother’s gesture of presenting the child to the visitors underscores the extended arms of the Christ Child’s welcome.  The Madonna’s hairstyle is similar to that of Severa’s. (Severian hair style) She is seated on what has been identified by some as a wicker throne.  The figure behind the throne may be Joseph or more probably the prophet Balaam, his right arm pointing to the star and thus making reference to the announcement of the Messiah as found in Numbers 24:17.  The star the prophet sees was in Oriental mythology, the sign of God or of a divinized King.  It is light in darkness and, according to our interpretation, revelation of salvation.

The Oldest Known Image of Mary

It should be noted that there exists a surprising similarity between this lid for the sarcophagus of Severa and one of the oldest known images of Mary and Christ Child in the catacomb of Priscilla. Painted probably between 230 and 240, according to the canons of late Severian art, this heavily damaged fresco conveys an almost identical messianic announcement and revelation of salvation. However, the identity of the third person with his hand pointing to the star above the scene of Mother and Child seems to be in dispute. We are dealing here, possibly with the already mentioned Balaam of Numbers 24:17,  with Isaiah 7:14 or Micah 5:14. In any event, both this fresco and the lid of the sarcophagus have an identical message. They both proclaim the revelation of salvation, the light of the world. Mary is the mother of light; she is “Maria illuminatrix, sive stella maris.” (Isidore of Sevilla, Etymologarium 8:10, 1a)

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 50-51; 17.

To learn more about Mary in Art, see the questions section of The Mary Page: (scroll down to the subtitle, Art)


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