EARLY CHRISTIAN SCULPTOR, Italian
(active mid-3rd century in Rome)

Sarcophagus

c. 270
Marble, 59 x 218 cm
Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

The present mid-3rd century sarcophagus is from Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome. It was undoubtedly made to serve as the tomb of a relatively prosperous third century Christian. The relief at the front shows a combination of Christian and pagan motifs. These are, from left to right the whale from the story of Jonah; Jonah in the shade of the gourd; a woman praying; a philosopher; the Good Shepherd; and the baptism of Christ.

Situated in the Forum Romanum, at the foot of the Palatine Hill, Santa Maria Antiqua is an early medieval church inserted into a pre-existing complex of classical buildings. The original structure, dated by brick stamps to the late years of the emperor Domitian (reg AD 81–96), comprised an atrium, a vaulted quadriporticus, and three chambers beyond. Its precise function remains uncertain, although it was presumably related to Domitian's palace on the hill above, to which it was connected by a ramp. At some point, probably in the second half of the 6th century, the site was converted for use as a church, served by Greek-speaking clergy. Columns were substituted for the four brick pilasters on the long sides of the quadriporticus, and an apse was cut into the end wall.

In about 300 years of continuous use the church walls received successive layers of decoration, which constitute a vast treasury of early medieval painting.