Sarcophagus of Sabinus
Rome, about 315-325
Marble Casket: 63 x 200 x 69 cm
Museo Pio Cristiano in the Vatican
The casket is well preserved, except for minor restorations in the Water Miracle scene. The upper two-thirds of the lid, to the left of the tabula, are modern. Inscriptions: on tabula : SABINO CO(n)IVGI QVI VIXIT ANN(os) XLIIII M(enses) X D(ies) XIII B(ene) M(erenti) IN PACE ("To Sabinus, the husband, who lived forty-four years, ten months, thirteen days, the man of merit, in peace"). The "IN PACE" formula refers to peace in Christ; on the upper border of the casket is the date of burial: D(epositus) VI K(alendas) MAI (= 26 April).
The lid has the typical Roman shape. At the right, hunters return with prey. At the left, the restoration is not reliable in detail, but the general theme is certain: a portrait of the deceased before a curtain, probably held by Erotes. The rectangular casket shows a balanced com-position of scenes with Christian themes. In the center is an orant female—though the inscription speaks of a man—flanked by two apostles in the background. To the right are miracles of Christ: A) the healing of the blind man (Mark 10:46-52). Christ, youthful and beardless, holds a scroll in his left hand and touches the eyes of the man with his right. The man is half size. In the background is Peter with a gesture of penitence; B) Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (Matt. 14:13-21), with six (instead of the twelve) baskets that were left, and Christ blessing bread and fish; C) the Raising of Lazarus (John 11: 1-44) with the sepulchral aedicula forming the right corner of the frieze. Christ touches the mummy's head with his staff, while the sister of Lazarus kneels before him. To the left : A) the Miracle of Cana (John 2:1-11), with the six stone water jars; B) Peter, taken prisoner by two men dressed as Roman soldiers with fur caps; and C) Peter's Water Miracle, which leads to the baptism of his guards in prison. The pattern differs from its prototype, the Water Miracle of Moses, only by the typical caps of the military guards. These last scenes are inspired by the apocryphal Acts of Peter. They were introduced into Christian art together with Peter's denial, a scene that is here contaminated with the scene of the healing of the blind man. Along the frieze heads of background figures appear, so that no space is empty. The left short side shows the Fall, with Adam and Eve, and the right, the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace. The figures are tall and mobile, tightly arranged, sometimes overlapping, their heads raised with an upward glance. The drapery folds are worked out by use of drill and chisel, and some facial features are marked by drill holes. Typical of the frieze are the marked center and corners. The reliefs of lid and both short sides are rather flat, as usual on Roman sarcophagi.
This sarcophagus is stylistically a good example of early Constantinian single frieze sarcophagi. The iconographical program, adding to the general theme of salvation the new historical and specifically Roman topic of Peter, reflects a concern that eventually led to the Church doctrine of Peter's primacy.
With regard to its Christ and Peter cycles, this sarcophagus is representative of roughly fifty sarcophagi of the Constantinian era. Sometimes the number of scenes is reduced to two: the Water Miracle and Raising of Lazarus. Both reflect the leading theme: baptism, the basis of Christian hope in resurrection, conditioning both past and future of the deceased. It is also by theological reflection that the short sides are arranged in such a way that the Fall is joined to the Water Miracle, which connotes baptism, and that the three Hebrews, saved from the fire, are joined to the Raising of Lazarus, connoting hope for resurrection.