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The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors*

  • Allyson Everingham Sheckler (a1) and Mary Joan Winn Leith (a1)

The earliest extant public image of the crucifixion of Christ appears on a single relief panel on the early-fifth-century wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome (figs. 1 and 2). General scholarly consensus dates the construction of the church to the pontificate of Pope Celestine I (422–433 c.e.) as stated in the surviving inscription on the church's interior west wall.1 Construction probably continued into the pontificate of Sixtus III (432–440 c.e.) when the church was formally consecrated.2 Although in the ensuing centuries the image of the Crucified Christ—the Crucifix—attained canonical status, scholars seeking precedents for Santa Sabina's crucifixion scene have failed to determine its pedigree satisfactorily within the Christian artistic tradition. We propose that broadening our understanding of artistic prototypes for the Santa Sabina crucifixion image to include both formal and theological elements allows for a more nuanced and promising investigation.

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1 The inscription reads, “Culmen apostolicum cum Caelestinus haberet—primus et in toto fulgeret episcopus orbe ” (When Celestine held the foremost and highest apostolic rank and as bishop was illustrious in the whole world…). The basic studies of the Santa Sabina doors are Félix M. D. Darsy, “Les portes de Sainte Sabine. Méthode d'analyse formelle et de critique interne en Histoire de l'Art,” in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 37 (1961); idem, Recherches archéologiques à Sainte-Sabine sur l'Aventin. Géologie, topographie, sanctuaires archaïques, culte isiaque, ensemble architectural paléochrétien (Vatican City: Pontifio Istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1968) 13–14; Gisela Jeremias, Die Holztür der Basilika S. Sabina in Rom (Tübingen: Wasmuth, 1980) 15; Jean-Michel Spieser, “Le programme iconographique des portes de Sainte-Sabine,” Journal des savants (1991) 47–81; Eugenio Russo, “Apparati Decorativi,” in Aurea Roma. Dalla città pagana alla città cristiana (ed. Serena Ensoli and Eugenio La Rocca; Rome: Bretschneider, 2000) 191–99; Dina Tumminello, La crocifissione del portale di S. Sabina e le origini dell'iconologia della crossifissione (Rome: Severino Tognon, 2003) 16–18. Gaetano Rubbino less convincingly dates the church to the pontificate of Innocent I (402–417 c.e.) in La basilica di Santa Sabina sull'Aventino. Un esempio di “classicismo” nella Roma del V secolo (Genova: Ferrari, 2002) 46.

2 Louis Duchesne, ed., Liber Pontificalis (2ème; Paris: Boccard, 1955) 235.

3 Robin Jensen provides a judicious summary of this issue in Understanding Early Christian Art (London: Routledge, 2000) 133–37. The standard work on crucifixion is Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), repr. in idem, The Cross of the Son of God (London: SCM Press, 1986) 93–185. See also the helpful entry on crucifixion by Gerald G. O'Collins in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1992). John Granger Cook summarizes inscriptional evidence for crucifixion in “Envisioning Crucifixion: Light from Several Inscriptions and the Palatine Graffito,” NovT 50 (2008) 262–85.

4 Tumminello, La crocifissione.

5 Ibid., 33–46. These pilgrim ampullae, which Vikan (see below) dates to ca. 600, are not crucifixions; they show Jesus’ nimbed head or bust hovering over an empty cross (although the two flanking thieves do hang on crosses). See Gary Vikan, Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 5; Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1982). Contemporary with the pilgrim ampullae, however, is a true crucifixion scene on a Coptic magical papyrus illustrating “the prayer of Jesus that he uttered upon the cross” (British Library, London Oriental Manuscript 6796), published in Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (ed. Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith; San Francisco: Harper, 1994) 292.

6 Originally in the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum near St. John Lateran, now in the collection of the Museo Sacro of the Vatican. See R. Morey, “The Painted Panel from the Sancta Sanctorum,” in Festschrift zum sechzigsten Geburtstag von Paul Clemen (Düsseldorf: Schwan, 1926) 150–67. See also Vikan, “Byzantine Pilgrimage Art,” 18–19 and fig. 13a; also the color photographs in Herbert L. Kessler and Johanna Zacharias, Rome 1300: On the Path of the Pilgrim (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000) 51–53 and figs. 46–47.

7 Tumminello, La crocifissione, 47–63. According to the catalog entry for the Rabula Gospels (cat. no. 82) in Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007) 276; Massimo Bernabò, Il Tetravangelo di Rabbula. Firenze, Biblioteca medicea laurenziana, Plut. 1.56: l'illustrazione del Nuovo Testamento nella Siria del VI secolo (Folia picta 1; Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2008). Bernabò has determined that the crucifixion page was removed from an earlier Greek Gospel book and inserted in the Rabula Gospel in 586 when the Syriac gospel text was completed.

8 Eusebius, reporting on Constantine's commissioning of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, makes no mention of images even as he catalogues the lavishness of the church's walls, ceilings, doors, and furniture (Life of Constantine 3.25–43). Eusebius was capable of describing images he considered relevant; in 4.69 he reports that at Constantine's death Rome honored him “with dedications of his portrait. They depicted heaven in colored paintings, and portrayed him resting in an aetherial resort above the vaults of heaven.” Life of Constantine (trans. by Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall; Oxford: Clarendon, 1999). The pilgrim Egeria, visiting the Holy Sepulchre in the early 380s, reports ceremonies “in front of the cross” (24.7; 25.8–9). This seems to be a different cross from the much smaller “true cross,” a portion of which was preserved in a silver-gilt casket and only periodically exhibited to the faithful (37.1). In any case, she writes of a cross and not a crucifixion. In the apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana (ca. 400 c.e.) the view of Jerusalem in the background is dominated by the rock of Golgotha surmounted by a richly bejeweled cross, not a crucifix.

9 Tumminello, La crocifissione, 69–76.

10 Spier, Picturing the Bible.

11 Felicity Harley, introduction to Section Five, “The Crucifixion,” in ibid., 227.

12 Harley and Spier, cat. no. 55 (British Museum MME 1986.05–01.1) in ibid., 228–29.

13 Harley, cat. no. 56 (British Museum MME 1895.11–13.1) and fig. 1 (plaster cast, German Archaeological Institute, Rome) in ibid., 229.

14 Harley and Spier, cat. no. 55, in ibid., 229.

15 Ibid., 228–29.

16 See David W. Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 182–85. Chapman cites Talmudic debates over the legitimacy of “crucifixion articles” in magic. He also mentions a suggestive, albeit later, Jewish spell from the Cairo Geniza which specifies that a crucifixion nail be formed into a seal and engraved with “magic words” (183).

17 Harley and Spier, cat. no. 55 in Spier, Picturing the Bible, 229.

18 This is not the place for a discussion of the knotty problem of magic. Good studies include Graham Cunningham, Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki; Leiden: Brill, 1995). The term “magic,” as we use it here, refers to forms and gestures considered by a society's elite to belong in some way outside the framework of socially sanctioned religious activity. Often (but not always) such activity occurs among the socially marginalized, such as foreigners, women, and the very poor. Magic so understood may belong to so-called “little” or “local” traditions as described by Robert Redfield in Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), or may serve as a “hidden transcript” of resistance among the powerless as argued by James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990) 142–44. David Frankfurter provides a thoughtful “second wave” social analysis of magic in “Dynamics of Ritual Expertise in Antiquity and Beyond: Towards a New Taxonomy of ‘Magicians,’ ” in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, 59–178.

19 According to Roy Kotansky, the names inscribed on magical amulets frighten evil demons away. By engraving both the image of the crucified Jesus and his magic name, the fashioner of the amulet doubly thwarted the demons (“Greek Exorcistic Amulets,” in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, 262). The point is that the image, like other apotropaic amuletic figures, was frightening and dangerous, not that the image reflected the Christology of early church writers. Henry Maguire explains that late antique magic had a tendency to create “devices that were powerful in and of themselves. In other words, the devices did not represent such and such a specific holy power or event, but they were self-sufficient.” See “Magic and the Christian Image,” in Early Byzantine Magic (ed. Henry Maguire; Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995) 64. On the British Museum amulet the figure of Jesus appears in a form unconnected to any early Christian discourse on the crucifixion. Contrary to the observation of Harley and Spier (228) that Jesus’ nudity affirms “Jesus's spiritual power,” the legs of the frontal nude figure splay painfully open over the vertical upright of the cross and call to mind emasculation by impalement; this “Jesus” has more of horror than triumph about him. He shares this posture with the second-century donkey-headed crucifixion victim on the Alexamenos graffito (see Figure 5); both images reflect the contemporary attitude of revulsion associated with crucifixion. On the association of emasculation with crucifixion in Greco-Roman thought, see Stephen D. Moore, “ ‘O Man, Who Art Thou?’: Masculinity Studies and New Testament Studies,” in New Testament Masculinities (ed. Stephen D. Moore and Janice Capel Anderson; Atlanta: SBL, 2003) esp. 11–22.

20 Apuleius, Metam. 3.17.

21 Pliny the Elder, Nat. 28.6. In terms of Greco-Roman magic, Jesus was an ἄωρоς, one who died a violent death. Names of ἄωρоι figure prominently in ancient curse tablets according to Kimberly B. Stratton, Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology and Stereotype in the Ancient World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 118.

22 For Christian amulets and spells from the fourth through seventh centuries, see Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic; also David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); note esp. p. 277, where, regarding Bishop Athanasius's complaints in 370 about exorcisms at martyrs’ shrines, Frankfurter writes, “And so also in the Christian saints and leaders who killed, cursed, or crafted amulets, in the magical spells that invoked esoteric angels, Egyptian Christianity assimilated a universe of ambiguous powers.” See also Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Amulets,” in New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 2006).

23 See Jeffrey Spier, Late Antique and Christian Gems (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2007).

24 Justin Megatt cautions that in the Greco-Roman world healing (often perceived as magical) need not lead to the patient's adoption of the healer's worldview. “Magic, Healing, and Christianity,” in The Meanings of Magic from the Bible to Buffalo Bill (ed. Amy Wygant; New York: Berghahn, 2006) 105. Roy Kotansky discusses the eclectic mixture of Jewish and Greek religious elements in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris and contemporary texts and amulets in “Greek Exorcistic Amulets,” in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, esp. 261–77. See also Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic, no. 25 (sixth century) and no. 26 (fourth or fifth century). Possibly even earlier than the British Museum amulet is a privately-owned Jewish-Christian (?) gold lamella of the early second century which calls upon Jesus, Iao Sabaoth, Gabriel, and Uriel to protect the bearer from a demon named Gorgopa. Published by Roy Kotansky, “A Crucifixion Lamella for Headache,” in Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, 36–46.

25 Paul Corby Finney argues along these lines for the “new” Christian image of Jesus as a magician in “Do You Think God is a Magician?” in Akten des Symposiums “Frühchristliche Sarkophage:” Marburg, 30.6.–4.7. 1999 (ed. Karin Kirchhainer and Guntram Koch; Mainz: Zabern, 2002) 99–108.

26 See Bart Ehrman's accessible Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Regarding the question of “conventional” Christian art, note Henry Maguire's cautionary observation that “Christian images on early Byzantine domestic textiles were decentralized in their production and not standardized in their iconography. Many images were ambiguous” (“Magic and the Christian Image,” in Maguire, Byzantine Magic, 69); see also Annewies van den Hoek and John J. Herrmann, Jr., “Thecla the Beast Fighter: A Female Emblem of Deliverance in Early Christian Popular Art,” in In the Spirit of Faith: Studies in Philo and Early Christianity in Honor of David Hay (ed. David T. Runia and Gregory E. Sterling; SPhilo 13; Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2001) 213. We are indebted for this last reference to one of the anonymous HTR reviewers.

27 Paul Corby Finney, “Images on Finger Rings and Christian Art,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987) 181–86.

28 The compositional template for the two fourth-century gems depicting Jesus on the cross flanked by his twelve disciples is probably the traditio legis which involved a symmetrical arrangement of figures flanking a central axis. See Jean-Pierre Caillet, “Note sur la cohérence iconographique des sarcophages des décennies 320–40,” in Kirchhainer and Koch, Akten des Symposiums “Frühchristliche Sarkophage,” 44–45. On both gems the massed groupings of apostles suggest nothing so much as a Byzantine liturgical procession. The apostles are not present in any New Testament account of the crucifixion, suggesting that this “unhistorical” composition was motivated by a specific stimulus, possibly the power struggle during the fourth century between church leaders and imperial authority; bishops in particular claimed that they were the inheritors of apostolic authority, an argument that underlies the traditio legis and may have inspired the scene on the gems that links the apostles to Christ's most important gestus.

29 Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 99–145.

30 Sozomenus (Hist. eccl. 1.8.13), writing in 440–443 c.e. in Constantinople, reports that Constantine outlawed crucifixion. Eusebius, Constantine's contemporary, neglects to mention Constantine's ban on crucifixion in his accounts of the emperor's good deeds, as if crucifixion were still a taboo topic in formal history writing. As O'Collins points out, Josephus the provincial Jew reports numerous crucifixions by the Romans during the First Jewish Revolt (J.W. 5.449–51) while Tacitus, an aristocratic Roman official and writer, says nothing about them in his account of the war (Hist. 5.8–13).

31 Eduard Syndicus provides a classic articulation of this position: “Pictures of the Passion and the Crucifixion did not begin until late because Christians had to be gradually educated to regard the symbol of shame as the symbol of victory.” Christian Art (trans. J. R. Foster; London: Burns & Oates, 1962) 103 (cited in Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 205 n. 12).

32 Cicero, Rab. Perd. 16 [translation and emphasis ours]. See also Cicero, Verr. 2.5.165: crucifixion is “that most cruel and disgusting penalty.”

33 Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, 101–2 with citations. Cook (“Envisioning Crucifixion,” 277 n. 38) cites a graffito in the Stabian baths at Pompeii that reads, “Get nailed to a cross!” and suggests that this was the Roman equivalent of “Go to hell!”

34 Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, 138–42 and passim.

35 Josephus, J.W. 5.449–51.

36 Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, 130.

37 As Hengel points out (ibid., 173), the protagonists of Hellenistic romances are often threatened with death by crucifixion but are always rescued in one way or another; only outright evildoers perish on the cross.

38 If the Alexamenos graffito had a visual prototype, it was more likely to be found in genres maudits such as graffiti or magic than in Christian circles.

39 Jonathan Z. Smith's phrase in “Trading Places,” in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, 19.

40 Harley, in Spier, Picturing the Bible, 227.

41 Paedagogus 3.57.1–3.60.1. Paul Corby Finney discusses this passage at length in “Images on Finger Rings,” 181–86.

42 Crosses, not crucifixes, are the rule in extant church mosaics of the fourth to sixth centuries, for example, the floor of Hinton St. Mary, England (4th c.), and the apses of Santa Pudenziana (ca. 400) and of Sant'Apollinare in Classe (549).

43 Jean-Marc Prieur, La croix chez les Pères (du IIe au début du IVe siècle) (Strasbourg: Université Marc Bloch, 2006).

44 Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). Castelli discusses the ἔκφρασις (i.e., verbal evocation of a visual object or situation) by Bishop Asterius of Amasea (4th c.) of a series of church panel paintings depicting in graphic detail the torture of Saint Euphemia. She cautions, however, that the actual existence of this artwork is debated (128–30). Note the similar observation by van den Hoek and Herrmann in “Thecla the Beast Fighter,” 228.

45 Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 104.

46 Eusebius of Caesarea, Martyrs of Palestine (longer recension [Syriac], preface, 2) cited in Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 104. See also Augustine, Serm. 51.2.

47 R. H. Storch, “The Trophy and the Cross: Pagan and Christian Symbolism in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries,” Byzantion 40 (1971) 105–17, esp. 111–12.

48 A complicated story, most easily accessible in Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2005) 34 and passim.

49 Apology 1.150.

50 Tertullian, Apology 12.3, 16.6–8; Minucius Felix, Octavius 29.2, 6–7.

51 Jean-Marc Prieur, La croix chez les Pères, 62, notes that in the pagan world the Hebrew Bible enjoyed the prestige of antiquity and of being a text in the collection of the library of Alexandria.

52 I.e., in the Acts of Peter, 37, standing before his own cross, Peter instructs his hearers, “For you which hope in Christ, let not the cross be this which appeareth; for it is another thing, different from that which appeareth, even this passion which is according to that of Christ” [emphasis ours].

53 Jean-Marc Prieur, La croix chez les Pères, 197 [translation ours]. A sculptural case in point is the so-called “Passion Sarcophagus,” dated ca. 350 (Vatican inv. 31525; Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. no. 46, pp. 219–20) where the central empty cross has “morphed” into a Chi-Rho labarum topped by a victory wreath, patently an image of triumph. In the left register Christ carries his cross over which hovers a similar victor's wreath, as if Jesus’ march to Golgotha constituted an imperial triumph.

54 Stephen D. Moore, “ ‘O Man, Who Art Thou?’ ” 11.

55 Colleen M. Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 70. Conway's chapter on Paul and the Pauline tradition argues that in the deuteropauline epistles the crucified Jesus recedes before the exalted resurrected imperial Christ (83). In Col 2:14, not Christ but the sinner's decree of accusation is nailed to the cross, while in Col 1:20 the blood of the cross brings peace with no suggestion of suffering. The Pastoral Epistles avoid mention of the cross, according to Conway, because they are interested in refuting early-second-century accusations of Christian shamefulness (87).

56 Ibid., 75.

57 Ibid., 70.

58 Ibid., 73.

59 Ibid., 73.

60 Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 137.

61 Ibid., 137.

62 British Museum website, “Panel from an Ivory Casket: The Crucifixion of Christ,” and Felicity Harley, “Ivory Plaques with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ (the ‘Maskell Ivories’),” in Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. no. 57, 229–32.

63 See Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God, 99–145, who explains why Christian art only appeared in the third century, and Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 9–11, for a discussion of the late emergence of crucifixion images and how Christian subject matter drew on earlier decorative and pagan imagery and biblical stories. Investigating prototypes or formal templates for crucifixion compositions is a methodology employed by Jas Elsner in “ ‘Pharaoh's Army Got Drownded’: Some Reflections on Jewish and Roman Genealogies in Christian Art,” (The Estelle Shohet Brettman Lecture delivered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 6 April 2008). Along the same lines, van den Hoek and Herrmann identified Daniel in the lion's den as the iconographical prototype for representations of Thecla's miraculous preservation from wild beasts (“Thecla the Beast Fighter,” esp. 228–29).

64 As dated by Norbert Zimmermann, Werkstattgruppen römischer Katakombenmalerei (Münster: Aschendorff, 2002) 165. An earlier dating (late second to early third century) is found in Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 79, and C. Dagens, “ ‘À propos du Cubiculum de la <velatio>,’ ” Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 47 (1971) 119–20. Despite Zimmermann's later dating of the fresco, the Santa Priscilla Catacomb is one of the earliest of the Roman catacombs, having been converted for Christian use during the third century (Spier, Picturing the Bible, 175).

65 See Josef Engemann, “Zur Interpretation der Darstellungen der Drei Jünglinge in Babylon in der frühchristlichen Kunst,” in Akten des Symposiums früchristliche Sarkophage Marburg 30.6–4. 7. 1999 (ed. Karin Kirchhainer and Guntram Koch; Mainz: Zabern, 2002) 81–91 for an excellent summary and evaluation of the literature on the Three Boys images. Carlo Carletti, “I tre giovani ebrei di babilonia nell'arte Cristiana antica,” Quaderni di Vetera Christianorum 9 (1975) provides the most complete catalog of the Three Boys images, including patristic sources as well as paintings and reliefs.

66 We accept that the current location of the crucifixion panel in the upper-left corner of the door was consciously intended in order to reduce its visibility. Tumminello suggests that the current location is probably not original but proposes no alternative (La crocifissione, 20). See Wolfgang Kemp, Christliche Kunst. Ihre Anfänge, ihre Strukturen (Munich: Schirmer-Mosel, 1994) 223–30 and 224 for a chart illustrating his proposed configuration of the door panels. In Kemp's chart the crucifixion is moved lower on the door and to the extreme right of the left door panel, making it more readily visible. Jeremias also suggests another location (Die Holztür der Basilika, 108–10). Also see Jean-Michel Spieser, “Le programme iconographique des portes de Sainte-Sabine,” Journal des savants (Janvier-Juin, 1991) 47–81, esp. 74–78, where he suggests that the current location of the passion scene may be the original one. Regardless of its original position, the crucifixion's relegation to one of the smaller panels suggests reticence with regard to the image.

67 Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. nos. 5A and B, 175–76.

68 The story occurs only in Luke (23:39–43). We do not agree with Tumminello, who detects indications of a good and bad thief in the doors' depiction. She identifies the good thief as the taller of the two flanking figures, the figure on Christ's left (La crocifissione, 14). Félix M. D. Darsy also points out the good and bad thief and identifies the good thief as the taller of the two thieves. Santa Sabina (Rome: Edizioni Roma, 1961) 74. As we argue, the artist of this panel is uninterested in such fine distinctions. In any case, the artistic convention as early as the sixth-century Rabula Gospels was to place the good thief at Christ's right.

69 The original letter dates to 177 c.e. Eusebius quotes the letter in which the writer compared the martyr Blandina, as she prayed in the arena of Lyons, to one “hanging on a cross” (Hist. eccl. 5.1–3).

70 Tertullian, Or. 14.

71 Minucius Felix, Oct. 29.

72 1 Clement 45:7

73 Tertullian, Scorp. 8.

74 Marilyn Stokstad, Medieval Art (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004) 12.

75 Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 82; Engemann, “Interpretation der Darstellungen,” 81–91; and Carletti, “I tre giovani ebrei,” 96–102.

76 See Elizabeth Malbon, The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990) 72–90 for a complete discussion of the spandrel scenes.

77 Ibid., 73–76.

78 Ibid., 76–77.

79 Ibid., 77.

80 See, for example, Vatican, Museo Pio Cristiano, 31471, 31472 and 31489. See also “Sarcophagus Lid with Noah and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace,” in Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. no. 42, p. 210, a sarcophagus from the Musei Capitolini-Centrale Montemartini, Rome (M.C. 68).

81 See Orazio Marucchi, La basilica papale del cimitero di Priscilla ritrovata ed in parte ricostruita dalla Commissione di Archeologia sacra (Rome: Libreria Spithöver, 1908) esp. 22–33.

82 See ibid., 61–89 for discussion of papal inscriptions and 34–40 for tomb locations. See also Francesco Tolotti, Il Cimitero di Priscilla. Studio di topografia e architettura (Vatican City: Società “Amici delle Catacombe,” 1970) 237–57 and esp. 252–57, where he argues for the location of the papal burials in an octagonal room of the catacomb and not in the basilica of St. Sylvester as originally thought by the early excavators of the catacomb, Giovanni Bernardo de Rossi and Orazio Marucchi.

83 For Marcellinus see Orazio Marucchi, “Il sepolcro del Papa Marcellino nel cimitero di Priscilla,” Nuovo Bulletino di archeologia cristiana (1907) 115 and following. For Marcellus see Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, 164; Marucchi, La basilica papale del Cimitero di Priscilla, 61–67, and Tolotti, Il Cimitero di Priscilla, 252–57.

84 Marucchi, La basilica papale, 90–113.

85 See ibid. for an extensive discussion of Peter's connection to Priscilla. See Tolotti, Il Cimitero di Priscilla, 339–40, for the location and discussion of the lost traditio legis fresco.

86 Linda Sue Galate mentions the lost fresco and suggests that the chamber at the catacomb of Santa Priscilla where the Velatio is located is another instance in which miracles of Peter narrated in the second-century Acts of Peter are depicted. She proposes that the two flanking scenes are depictions of resurrection miracles performed by St. Peter. According to Galate, the scene on the left depicts the resurrected senator and his mother bringing offerings to Peter (Acts of Peter 28). The suckling mother and child scene on the right she interprets as the talking baby episode in the Acts of Peter 15 (“The Apostle Peter in Rome?” Archaeology Online News, 10 January, 2002: For other interpretations of the Velatio imagery, see Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers (Boston: Beacon, 2007) 75–79 and 85, who suggests that interpretations of the Velatio images as either a marriage ceremony or the consecration of a church virgin are incorrect. She proposes that the image on the left shows the deceased woman in the act of reading before a bishop, an act the woman wanted to portray because it was both “learned and pious” (85). Dagens identifies the depictions as the first representation of a Christian marriage (129). Marucchi identified the seated male church figure depicted on the left of the veiled orant woman as a pope and used this image as well as other incised graffiti of a “cathedra” to propose a connection between Peter, according to tradition the first pope, and Santa Priscilla (La basilica papale del Cimitero di Priscilla, 108–9).

87 Celestine himself is known to have commissioned paintings depicting the Council of Ephesus at St. Sylvester's cemeterial basilica over Santa Priscilla. De Rossi first mentioned the paintings in an article published in 1880 in the Bullettino di archeologia cristiana , 3d ser., 5 (1880) 43–46. See Tolotti, 318–19, who does not discount the existence of paintings commissioned by Celestine in the cemeterial basilica and recorded in the letter of Pope Hadrian to Charlemagne. See also Marucchi, Guida del cimitero Priscilla (Paris: Desclée, 1903) 106. Darsy points out that the first two lines of the Santa Sabina inscription (see n. 1, above) allude to the Council of Ephesus, called by Celestine and at which he succeeded in securing the primacy of Rome over the other bishops (Santa Sabina, 95–96).

88 Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 41. This comment is à propos of the first and second centuries, but applies to the third through fifth centuries as well.

89 As for the sixth- and seventh-century crucifixion images presented by Tumminello, Vikan's work on pilgrimage art suggests that “Eastern” examples arose in connection with pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

90 Why the Santa Sabina and Maskell Crucifixions appear in Rome when they do is a subject we will be investigating further.

* The authors would like to acknowledge especially the members of the Spring 2006 and Fall 2008 “Pagans and Christians” Sophomore Learning Community, Stonehill College; a casual observation during class in 2006 provided the starting point for this article. We also thank our colleague, Anthony Celano, for sharing his Latin expertise and Jeffrey Spier, who read through an early draft and provided valuable feedback and advice. Images for publication are expensive, so we are grateful to William Storage for sharing his photographs of the Santa Sabina doors and to the British Museum for its generous image rights policy. Stonehill College Dean of Faculty Joseph Favazza found the necessary funding for the illustration rights. Finally, we thank the anonymous HTR readers whose observations and queries helped us improve our arguments.

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Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
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