Sarcophagus from the Via Salaria with Good Shepherd 

Rome, 3rd quarter 3rd century 
White marble, 69 x 238 x 73 cm
Museo Pio Cristiano at Vatican City


This tub-shaped frieze sarcophagus has been reassembled from several large fragments and is much restored. The lid is not preserved, and a new base has been provided. The carving suggests the pre-dominant use of the chisel; drilling, as seen in the hair, has been kept to a minimum.
In the center, standing between two olive trees, is a figure dressed in the traditional shepherd's costume of belted tunica exomis, boots, and shepherd's purse. He carries a ram on his shoulders, and two others graze at his feet. The shepherd turns to an orant. Flanking these two figures are two groups, each defined by a slightly enlarged seated figure. To the left, holding a scroll, is a bearded and barefoot man dressed as a philosopher, and standing to his sides are two similar figures, who appear to engage him in discussion. Behind the left man is a sundial on a column. The corresponding group to the right comprises a woman seated beside a capsella and, behind her, a standing woman, both similarly dressed, with their pallia drawn over their heads. The seated woman holds a closed scroll in one hand and (if correctly restored) makes a speaking gesture with the other, suggesting that the two women are participating in a discussion with the three men to the left. The frieze is flanked at the ends by oversize crouching rams. 
The style is classicistic. The figures are well modeled and well proportioned, and the draperies are naturalistic, with positive, plastic folds. This style either suggests the direct influence of imported Eastern sarcophagi (possibly from Asia Minor) or more likely betrays the hand of an Eastern sculptor working in Rome. In a general sense, the style can be related to the classicistic revival of the Gallienic period (A.D. 253-268). The tub shape and flanking rams place it within the traditions of the city of Rome. 
The significance of the figural program has been variously interpreted. The two seated figures most likely represent a deceased husband and wife, posed as two disputing intellectuals according to an Eastern iconographic type that was well integrated into the sarcophagus repertory of the West. The orant probably alludes to the deceased's prayers for salvation and the shepherd to the fulfillment of these prayers in paradise. If the frieze has an overall theme, it is that through the contemplation and study of religious philosophy one attains salvation. When it occurs in such a sarcophagus program, the ram-bearing shepherd has traditionally been given the specifically Christian interpretation of the Good Shepherd—a "substitute" image for Christ as Savior of his flock. Indeed, the occurrence of the Good Shepherd and orant together as a compositional unit was a hallmark of Early Christian funerary imagery, and they are to be found on unmistakably Christian sarcophagi of the period. However, their exclusively Christian usage in all contexts has been questioned, and it appears likely that the late pagan as well as the Early Christian communities employed these images, imbuing them with similar salvational meanings. 
It was discovered in 1881 on the Amante property near the Via Salaria in Rome.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016