EARLY CHRISTIAN SCULPTOR, Italian
(active late 4th century in Rome)

Sarcophagus of the Three Shepherds

380-400
Marble
Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican

The front of this late 4th-century sarcophagus contains sculpted relief showing three shepherds and grape harvest.

This large sarcophagus comes from the area of the catacombs of Pretestato and is noteworthy for the fine quality of the sculptural decoration. The fact that the case is sculpted on all four sides would imply that it occupied a central location within a mausoleum. The front is marked by three figures of "kriophoros" shepherds (holding sheep on their shoulders), standing on pedestals, and on the sides there are several cupids busy harvesting among the branches of a dense vine. The rural scenes in bas-relief continue on the sides of the sarcophagus, whereas the back is decorated with a trellis, suggesting a garden fence. Although the sarcophagus comes from the area of a Christian cemetery, the decoration is inspired by bucolic representations of the Hereafter common also in the traditional Roman imagination: this has caused ongoing debate about the religious affiliation of whoever commissioned this tomb.