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«Death in New Key: The Christian Turn of Roman Sarcophagi by Robert Couzin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of ...»

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Death in New Key: The Christian Turn of Roman Sarcophagi


Robert Couzin

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Graduate Department of Art

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Robert Couzin (2013)

Death in New Key: The Christian Turn of Roman Sarcophagi

Robert Couzin

Doctor of Philosophy

Department of Art

University of Toronto


Christian sarcophagi were produced in Rome during a long fourth century for a narrow

audience. Their iconography marks a discontinuity in a centuries-old medium, a turn away from pagan and profane themes towards biblical narratives and Christian ideas. Following their patrons and viewers, these sarcophagi “converted” to a new religion and visually expressed its novel conception of death. This dissertation approaches these monuments as autonomous historical documents that merit examination on their own terms, which is not to deny the importance of social, economic, religious or artistic developments. Some of these extrinsic elements of context are addressed in the initial chapters. In particular, inferences are drawn concerning the cohort of individuals who bought, occupied and saw these sarcophagi based on estimates of cost and the Roman income distribution. Visibility, conditions of access and the circumstances of reception are also examined. Following these contextual considerations, the study focuses on two distinct and chronologically separated groups of Christian sarcophagi. The first consists of monuments with the Jonah theme, the [ii] single most popular form in the period before 350 CE. Jonah sarcophagi are representative of the widespread use of scriptural symbolic narrative, combining Old and New Testament allusions with other potential associations. The second group are sarcophagi displaying the so-called traditio legis (a modern Latinism), an important example of the late-century “conceptual” forms that allude to religious tenets without any specific scriptural anchor.

This complex and controversial form of representation suggests a composite design, a conflation of images into a single form. Through a close reading of both the Jonah and traditio legis sarcophagi, the discussion elucidates various facets of reception and a range of over-determined and alternative meanings. The conclusion considers how the fourthcentury Roman sarcophagi contributed to the construction of a Christian imaginaire of Christian death among their viewers.

–  –  –

I could not have brought this project to fruition without the calm, unflagging and critical (in both senses) support of my dissertation supervisor, Jill Caskey. Her incisive comments and sage advice were indispensable and are deeply appreciated. She was joined on the dissertation committee by Adam S. Cohen, whose extraordinary diligence and perspicacity goaded me towards greater clarity of both thought and expression. I also thank Björn Ewald for his contribution of the Romanist perspective. Joseph Bryant (Department of Sociology and the Centre for the Study of Religion) added an important dimension to the examination committee and I appreciate his input. I am honoured that a scholar of the stature of Dale Kinney (Bryn Mawr College) agreed to serve as external examiner. She was generous in her appraisal and helpful in her comments.

Through her inspired teaching Linda Safran, the first medievalist I encountered in my graduate studies, subtly but surely deflected my interests from the Italian Renaissance to late antiquity. Without the encouragement of Michael Koortbojian (Princeton University) I would probably never have undertaken this challenge, and his continuing counsel throughout the process was invaluable. I thank my fellow students in the Department of Art for being so accepting and supportive, and the Faculty for the confidence they expressed by accepting me into the program.

I was warmly received in Rome by Umberto Utro, curator of the Museo Pio Cristiano, and at the Musée départemental Arles antique by Aurélie Coste and Valérie Clenas on behalf of the Director, Claude Sintès. Hermann Otto Geissler, who like me embarked on scholarly pursuits in retirement, kindly provided a copy of his Magisterarbeit on the traditio legis, and Arnold Provoost (Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven) generously forwarded CDs holding his extensive catalogue of early Christian funerary art. Several other scholars patiently responded to my queries, including Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (École pratique des hautes études), Walter Scheidel (Stanford University), Timothy Lim (University of Edinburgh) and Branko Milanovic (World Bank).

[iv] Table of Contents



List of Tables and Figures

List of illustrations

I. Introduction

1. Death and the viewer

2. On method

3. Dating

4. Nomenclature: nomina sunt omnia

a) Jews, Christians and pagans

b) Sculptors, craftsmen and designers

c) Patrons, occupants and viewers

d) Christian sarcophagi

e) Classical and pseudo-classical nomenclature

5. Plan of the text

II. Elements of Context

Chapter 1. The sarcophagus as a material and economic object

1. Size

2. Substance and supply

a) Characteristics

b) Sources

3. Production and “mass production”

a) Division of labour and specialization

b) Standardization

c) Scale and workshop concentration

d) Conclusion

4. Cost

a) Evidence and methodology

b) Cost of material


c) Cost of labour

d) Funerals

e) Conclusion

Chapter 2. The Christian sarcophagus population of Rome

1. The population of Rome

2. Status and Wealth

3. Christians

a) Christian number

b) Income stratification

4. The Roman dead

5. Conclusions

6. Addendum: Ex-Jews among the Christians

Chapter 3. The death of the viewer?

1. The challenge

2. The evidence

a) Placement of Christian sarcophagi

b) The opportunity to view

c) Visual stimuli

d) Images on the inside

e) Fronts, backs and sides

3. The resurrection of the viewer

III. Jonah

Chapter 4. The Jonah sarcophagi

1. The corpus

2. Dating

Chapter 5. Why Jonah?

1. Biblical Jonah

a) Old Testament Jonah

b) Typological Jonah

[vi] 2. Jewish Jonah

a) Jewish sarcophagi?

b) Jewish images

c) Jewish texts

d) Liturgy, scripture and antiquity

3. Pagan Jonah: the myth of Endymion

a) Form

b) Knowledge

c) Meaning

4. Idyllic Jonah

a) Pastoral Jonah

b) “Soft salvation”

5. Refrigerium interim

a) Words

b) Images

6. Other facets

a) Primal Jonah

b) Naked Jonah

c) Political Jonah

7. Conclusion

IV. Traditio legis

Chapter 6. The invention of the traditio legis

1. Terminology and definition

2. Corpus and dating

a) Monuments

b) Dating

Chapter 7. Meaning and reception

1. The three men

2. The Lord’s right


a) Paul

b) Christ

3. The Lord’s left

a) Christ

b) Peter

c) The book

4. “Scenery” and context

a) Surroundings

b) Diminutive figures

c) Symbols

5. Synthesis

a) Left and right

b) This world or the next

c) Eschatological, Apocalyptic, apocalyptic

d) Conclusion

V. Conclusion

1. Turning away

a) Roman religion and mythology

b) Everyday life

2. Turning towards

a) Narratives and ideas

b) The Christian imaginaire of Christian death



–  –  –

Table 1.1 – Mean Exterior Dimensions of Roman Christian sarcophagi Table 1.

2 – Correlation of mean dimensions Table 2.1 –Income levels in the Roman Empire c. 150 CE Table 2.2 – Sarcophagus population – Impact of income redistribution and reduction of per capita income Table 2.3 – Sarcophagus population of Rome as a percentage of Roman residents (low base assumption) Table 2.4 – Sarcophagus population of Rome as a percentage of Roman residents (high base assumption) Table 2.5 – Sarcophagus population of Rome Table 2.6 – Christians in the Roman Empire Table 2.7 – Christian sarcophagus population of Rome Table 2.8 – Christian deaths in the sarcophagus population of Rome Table 4.1 – Taxonomy of Jonah sarcophagi Figure 1.1 – Dimensions of sarcophagi – time series Figure 4.1 – Number of Jonah sarcophagi by date Figure 4.2 – Probability distribution of Jonah sarcophagi by date Figure 6.1 – Number of Roman traditio legis sarcophagi by date Figure 6.2 – Probability distribution of Roman traditio legis sarcophagi by date

–  –  –

Eutropos grave plaque. Museo Lapidario, Urbino, Inv. 40674. From Gori and Luni, eds., 1.

1756-1986: il Museo archeologico di Urbino, fig. 71-b.

Sarcophagus of Sabina. Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican. Rep. I.6. From the Index of 2.

Christian Art.

Ivory diptych leaf. British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum.


The “Jonah Sarcophagus.” Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, inv. 31448. Rep. I.35. (a) Full 4.

chest. Photograph from Spier, Picturing the Bible, 207 (cat. 39). (b) Detail of the ship scene, (c) Detail of Jonah at rest. Author’s photographs.

London Jonah sarcophagus. British Museum, inv. MLA 1957.10-11.1. Rep. II.243. © 5.

Trustees of the British Museum.

Copenhagen child’s sarcophagus. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, inv. 832. Rep. II.7. From the 6.


Sarcophagus. Museo Nazionale Romano, inv. 106900. Rep. I.794. From the 7.


Jonah thrown from the ship. Fragment of a sarcophagus lid. Rome, Villa Doria 8.

Pamphili. Rep. I.960. From the Repertorium.

Sarcophagus. Saint-Pierre, Aire-sur-l’Adour. Rep. III.18. (a) Full chest and lid. (b) Detail 9.

of lid, Jonah vomited up by the ketos. ©compostela-images.com.

“Clothed Jonah.” Sarcophagus, Catacomb of Praetextatus. Rep. I.591. From Provoost, 10.

Vroegchristelijke Beeldtaal, 2.75.

Jonah thrown from the ship. Statuette (Table base). Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv.


77.7. From Museum web site.

Sarcophagus. Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, inv. 31535. Rep. I.44. From Index of 12.

Christian Art (full front) and author’s photograph (detail of Jonah).

Sarcophagus. Musée départemental Arles antique, Arles, inv. FAN 92.00.2505. Rep.


III.40. From the Repertorium.

–  –  –

Cristiano, Vatican, inv. 31472. Rep. I.23. Author’s photograph.

Sarcophagus. Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, inv. 31489. Rep. I.52. (a) Full chest and lid.


(b) Detail of three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace. Author’s photographs.

Sarcophagus. Duomo, Osimo. Rep. II.185. (a) Front and lid. (b) Detail of right side of 16.

lid, Jonah cycle with Noah. From the Repertorium.

Chludov Psalter. Historical Museum, Moscow. Cod. 129, folio 157. From Index of 17.

Christian Art.

Jonah cycle. Sarcophagus detail. Museo Nazionale Romano, inv. 59672. Rep. I.778.


From Artstor.

Sarcophagus lid, detail of Jonah cycle. Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, inv. 31533. Rep.


I.145. Author’s photograph.

Sarcophagus lid. Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, inv. 31484. Rep. I.11. (a) Complete lid.


(b) Detail of Jonah sleeping. Author’s photographs.

Conclamatio sarcophagus. British Museum, inv. 1805.0703.144. ©Trustees of the 21.

British Museum.

Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus. Rep. I.747. From Spier, Picturing the Bible, 102 (fig.



Endymion sarcophagus. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 24.97.13. (a) Full 23.

front. (b) Detail of sleeping Endymion with Selene. From Sichtermann, Die mythologischen Sarkophage, plate 48.1 and 50.2.

Ariadne sarcophagus, detail. Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano.


Author’s photograph.

Dionysus under the vine, Campana terracotta, Musée du Louvre. From Stommel, 25.

“Problem,” plate 8a.

Reclining deceased, sarcophagus in Carrara, Villa Dervillé. From Amedick, Vita privata, 26.

plate 4.5.

Berlin Jonah sarcophagus. Bode Museum. Rep. II.241. From the Repertorium.


Sarcophagus. Chiesa Santa Maria Bianca, Lucca. Rep. II.91. From the Repertorium.


–  –  –

Museum web site.

Endymion Sarcophagus. Cimitile. From Sichtermann, Die mythologischen Sarkophage, 30.

plate 76.1.

Sarcophagus. Museo Nazionale e Civico di San Mateo, Pisa. Rep. II.90. Front and short 31.

sides. From the Repertorium.

Red Sea Sarcophagus. Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles. Rep. III.119. From the 32.


Red Sea wall painting in the Dura-Europos synagogue. Image at 33.


Brescia lipsanoteca. Front and rear with Jonah scenes. Photographs courtesy of La 34.

Compagnia di Santa Giulia, Brescia.

Jonah at rest. Gold glass. Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican Museums, inv. 60714.


Author’s photograph.

Jonah at rest. Intaglio, finger-ring. British Museum, inv. 1856,0425.9. © Trustees of 36.

the British Museum.

Jonah thrown from the ship. Gold glass. Musée du Louvre, inv. S2053. From Museum 37.

web site.

Sarcophagus. Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican. Rep. I.46. From Index of Christian Art.


Sarcophagus. Museo Civico, Velletri. Rep. II.242. From the Repertorium.


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