The Wholeness of Life

Cover Plate for the Burial Niche of Pontiana
early fourth century
fine-grained white Italian marble with gray veining
Museo Pio Cristiano, Inv. 32458

General Description

Reconstructed from five fragments in the fourth century, but still incomplete, this cover plate has a central message expressed in the inscription “Vibas (sic!) Pontiana in Aeterno,” meaning “May you, Pontiana, live in eternity.” The irregularly spaced text is surrounded by scenes from the Bible and rural life. Three scenes from the Bible punctuate the pictogram on the cover of Pontiana’s burial-niche:  on the far left we see the partial rendering of the Good Shepherd, in the center Adam and Eve standing right and left of the tree of Paradise (possibly a palm tree) with the serpent wound around it, and Daniel amid the lions on the far right. The Good Shepherd, between two sheep, is only partially visible. He was one of the first iconographic symbols of Jesus Christ, and is a well-known metaphor of God’s love for us. He is the beginning of salvation, the shepherd who gave his life for his sheep. He is the answer to human fallibility, hybris, and treason represented in the scene with Adam and Eve, and the tree of life. Adam and Eve stand for the origin of evil and human suffering in the world, a condition we all share in. Simultaneously, they are symbols of life, the cycle of seasons, and everyday existence reassumed and varied in the rural scenes of this burial-niche slab. On the far right, we perceive Daniel and two lions. In the midst of trial and hardship, Daniel’s commitment holds fast. His faith stands firm, and his trust in God is unbent. He represents the human counterpart to the Divine Shepherd. He is the symbol of the ready and faithful answer to the offer of God’s love. The three biblical events suggest a spiritual program encompassing the whole life. Ordinary human condition finds ultimate meaning in the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. However, meaning seeks fulfillment and thus finds expression in commitment (Daniel among the lions).

Pontiana’s life may have been the simple life pictured in the rural scenes, especially the one to the left which shows a woman seated in front of a rural dwelling in the process of spinning.  She is surrounded by what looks like farm animals. The other bucolic scenes, three peasants driving oxen toward an enclosure, and the plowing scene to the right underscore and celebrate natural life; life to us entrusted, life for which we are accountable, life we are called to pass on.  Adam and Eve, especially Eve, the mother of the living, are a reminder of this first form of life, the life we identify with creation.

Nature and Bible, creation and redemption concur in this cover plate to signify the wholeness of life, summarized in the inscription: “May you, Pontiana, live in eternity.”

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 48-49.

The Mary Page answers questions concerning Mary’s death and burial.


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