Panel with Bust of Christ
Ostia, end of 4th century
Opus sectile, 40 x 30 cm
Museo Ostiense in Ostia Antica
Against a porphyry background edged on three sides by narrow red and white marble bands is a large bust of Christ composed of inlaid polychrome marbles, which nearly fills the rectangular panel. Christ is nimbed, has a forked beard (made of a single piece of marble), long curly hair, and wears a tunic with a clavus over the right shoulder. His body is turned slightly to the right, but his face looks directly at the beholder as he raises his right hand in benediction. The pupils of the eyes and the eyebrows, which may originally have been in glass paste, are lost, as is the upper part of the nose and other small fragments; some large pieces of marble have been broken into smaller pieces, but otherwise the figure is remarkably well preserved. While it is relatively crude in execution, considerable skill has been used in fire-tinting the yellow marble of the flesh tones to give the effect of shading.
The inlay technique lends a certain abstract quality to the image that is unusual at this early date. The type of Christ, with long hair and beard, is less frequent than the youthful, beardless type—especially in Rome—but it has many parallels in art of the late fourth century; it anticipates the image known later as the Christ Pantocrator. The unusual stippling of the beard is reminiscent of the drillwork on sarcophagi of Theodosian date.
Discovered in 1959 in the ruins of an unfinished building outside the Porta Marina at Ostia that can be dated on numismatic evidence to the end of the fourth century, the panel comes from the splendid revetment of a room whose walls were sumptuously decorated in opus sectile. The decoration was predominantly ornamental, consisting of elaborately inlaid panels with geometric motifs as well as a variety of friezes (e.g., interlocking circles and an exquisite acanthus rinceau); there were also large panels, each with a lion or tiger attacking a hart. Only one other human figure occurs, the bust of an unidentified youth. The room's identification as a Christian cult room is based on the presence of this nimbed bust of Christ and a few fragments of a jeweled intarsia cross. Relatively few figured mural decorations in opus sectile have survived, even though the technique was widespread in late antiquity. While the Christ figure at Ostia is less skillfully executed than the animal and ornamental panels in the Guild Hall, the work as a whole is of high quality.