EARLY CHRISTIAN SCULPTOR, Italian
(active around 340 in Rome)

"Dogmatic" sarcophagus

c. 340
Marble
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican

This large sarcophagus, created for an eminent figure in the Roman Church, buried in St. Paul's Basilica around 340, is a masterpiece of early Christian art. Its name originates from the three figures involved in the Creation of Eve (the scene at the top left), in which it is suggested that the first depiction of the divine Trinity may be recognised. More generally, the iconographic structure seems to reflect the doctrinal climate that followed the Council of Nicaea in 325, which resulted in the first formulation of the trinitarian "Creed".

The close relationship between the biblical narratives of the Old and New Testaments also explains why the sarcophagus is also referred to as being "of the two Testaments". Indeed, the Creation scene in the upper register recalls the event of the Redemption.

The medallion in the centre contains the unfinished portraits of the deceased. At the right it there are the three miracles that emphasise the creative power of Christ (the wedding at Cana, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the resurrection of Lazarus, in part lost).

In the lower register are scenes from the iconographic cycle of Peter: the prediction of the denial, the arrest of the Apostle and the miracle of the fount (the last two episodes are taken from the apocryphal Acts of Peter). In the centre, below the medallion, Daniel among the lions prefigures the passion and resurrection of Christ along with the Pauline hope of the salvation of the faithful.