Statuette of Christ
Eastern Mediterranean (?), about 370-380
White marble, 72 cm
Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome
This statuette consists of two separate pieces, the figure of Italian marble and the chair-base of Greek. The figure's right forearm, his left index finger, and part of his scroll have broken off. Other minor damages include part of the right foot and chips in the hair and drapery. The youthful, beardless Christ is seated on a draped chair, holding a partially opened scroll and, presumably, making a speaking gesture. He wears a short-sleeved tunic, pallium, and sandals, and his long, loosely curled hair falls to his shoulders.
Although the identity of this unusual statuette has been questioned, the iconography compares favorably with many early seated Christ figures in relief sculpture and painting. Such representations usually portray Christ as a philosopher seated among apostles, saints, martyrs, or deceased Christians, for, according to Early Christian doctrine, Christ was the Teacher of the True Philosophy, a belief carried over from Roman interest in pagan philosophy. The Christ statuette, moreover, alludes to the tradition of seated deity statuary, since the chair has been draped with a cloth of honor. This philosopher-deity type was later to develop into the Christ in Majesty.
The statuette often has been dated to about 350-360 by comparison with the Christ figure on the Junius Bassus sarcophagus. However, the slightly elongated body parts, the round pupils, and the drapery passages that cling to the legs and chest and fall in soft or crisp folds depending on the drapery tension are all hallmarks of the Theodosian style. Whether the statuette is best seen as a Western work inspired by this late fourth-century Eastern classicism or as an Eastern import is still debated. The best comparisons, however, are with Eastern sculptures, such as the Prince's sarcophagus, Istanbul, the Theodosian obelisk base, Istanbul, and the Scholastikia statue, Ephesus.
The place of origin and original function of the statuette are unknown. It may have been used in a Christian tomb or as part of church decoration, either alone or in a group composition. A precedent for its possible use within a church is suggested by the Liber Pontificalis, which mentions a Constantinian donation to the Lateran basilica of life-size silver statues of Christ the Teacher and his apostles, which were found under a silver fastigium. Nevertheless, the paucity of three-dimensional Christian sculpture, due in part to the Judeo-Christian fear of idolatry, makes it difficult to interpret correctly this unique piece.