Traditio Legis Sarcophagus

Rome, c. late 4th century 
Vatican Museums 


Until 1981, these three reliefs were considered part of a single sarcophagus. The presumed ends originally had nothing to do with the front, but, because they were appropriate in theme, they were joined together about 1590. No traces of chisel marks are visible on the backs of the two smaller carvings. Since, in antiquity, the front and ends always constituted a homogeneous box, it is improbable that these two smaller pieces belonged to the same sarcophagus. Where the end pieces meet the front, the edges of all three panels have been beveled to a forty-five degree angle so that right angles are formed. This manner of attaching the reliefs to create a sarcophagus was not usual in ancient sculpture. 
The front slab was broken into four pieces and reassembled. One break begins behind the second column in the upper left and extends to the ankles of the seated Christ, in the center; the background is broken vertically just to Christ's right; a further break runs obliquely from the feet of Christ through the figure of Peter and ends at the top, near the second column from the right. Along these breaks are many repairs, some major. Further, the heads of Pilate and of the apostle in the second niche from the left have been restored, as have both of Christ's arms, the right arm of Paul, the right hand of Pilate and the basin below it, as well as tips of noses, the front portion of the head of the lamb, Isaac's right leg, and Abraham's left hand. Abraham's sacrificial knife has been broken off. The relief on the front is divided into seven sections by eight columns, with a faceted architrave in the form of a portico. The richly ornamented columns have decorated bases, shafts encircled with grape vines or acanthus vines (the two middle ones have winged genii, as well), and Composite capitals. The architrave has beaded moldings in the central and right-hand niches, and there is a leaf cyma at the bottom. In the three central niches, the giving of the nova lex –  the New Law (or the "traditio legis") –  is represented. A youthful Christ, seated in the center, appears to be above the heavens. Christ gives the open scroll in his left hand to Peter, who receives it in his own draped hands. Christ's right hand is raised as though he were speaking (both arms undoubtedly are correctly restored). His feet are resting on a veil that Caelus spreads above himself. Christ turns to look at Paul, who approaches from the right. In the niche on the far left is the Sacrifice of Isaac (who kneels on an altar) by Abraham (who holds a knife aloft in his right hand), an allusion to the paradigm of salvation by death. As a counterpart, on the far right, the Roman Pilate is seated on a podium, and a servant standing behind him is pouring water over his hand from a jug. In front of Pilate, separated by a column, stands Christ, turned toward his judge. In the context of fourth-century thought on salvation, Pilate evokes that "felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem" (from the Exsultet of the Easter liturgy). 
The axial symmetry of the composition is apparent in the identical ornamentation of opposite pairs of columns. Narrower and wider niches alternate at the sides. In the central and end niches, Christ, Abraham, and Pilate face front, while, in the subsidiary niches, Peter and Paul appear in profile. The figures in the foreground seem almost three-dimensional, compared to the accessory figures crowded in behind them. A wealth of linear folds in the drapery makes for a certain elegance of form. A classicizing accent is unmistakable in the style, anticipating the Theodosian period—as in the reliefs on the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius in Istanbul (of 390). Legitimized by having received the Law, Peter occupies a central position in both of the smaller reliefs. In The Confession of Peter—on the left end—a narrow framing border was cut away on the right side in order to connect the panel to the front of the sarcophagus. Two rectangular holes near the top—made to hold the clamps that secured the lid when the pieces were re-used as a sarcophagus—have been repaired. The right forearm of Peter has been restored; Christ's restored right hand has again broken off. Peter is shown receiving Christ's exhortation to build the Church on the rock depicted, despite the fact that it was Peter who disclaimed him—to which the cock on the column refers. 

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016