The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus: Neofitus Iit Ad Deum

The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus: Neofitus Iit Ad Deum

by Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

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Carved for a Roman city prefect who was a newly baptized Christian at his death, the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is not only a magnificent example of "the fine style" of mid-fourth-century sculpture but also a treasury of early Christian iconography clearly indicating the Christianization of Rome--and the Romanization of Christianity. Whereas most previous


Carved for a Roman city prefect who was a newly baptized Christian at his death, the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is not only a magnificent example of "the fine style" of mid-fourth-century sculpture but also a treasury of early Christian iconography clearly indicating the Christianization of Rome--and the Romanization of Christianity. Whereas most previous scholarship has focused on the style of the sarcophagus, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon explores the perplexing elements of its iconography in their fourth-century context. In so doing she reveals the distinction between "pagan" and Christian images to be less rigid than sometimes thought.Against the background of earlier and contemporary art and religious literature, Malbon explicates the relationship of the facade's two levels of scenes depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments, the connection between the scenes on the facade with those on the lid and ends of the sarcophagus, and the integration of pagan elements within a Christian work. What emerges is a carefully constructed iconographic program shedding light on the development of early Christian art within late antique culture.

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Carved for a Roman city prefect who was a newly baptized Christian at his death, the sarcophagus is viewed as a magnificent example of the early Christian iconography. Malbon explores the elements of its iconography in their fourth-century context, revealing the distinction between thought. Includes 45 plates. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Neofitvs IIT AD Devm

By Elizabeth Strathers Malbon


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07355-2




    Junius Bassus, vir clarissimus [of senatorial rank],
    who lived 42 years, 2 months,
    in his own prefecture of the city,
    newly baptized, went to God,
    the 8th day from the Kalends of September,
    Eusebius and Hypatius, consuls [August 25, 359].

SO READS the inscription on the upper edge of the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (see fig. 1). The inscription identifies the deceased by civic class and responsibility and by Christian status and hope, as well as serving to date the sarcophagus to 359. Not much is known about Junius Bassus. He was born in June 317. His father, also named Junius (Iunius) Bassus, served as praetorian prefect in 318–331, became a consul in 331, built a basilica on the Esquiline, and may have been a Christian. Junius Bassus the son—Junius being the nomen or gentile name (the name of the gens), Bassus being the cognomen (the name of the family within the gens)—was surnamed Theotecnius. He died on August 25, 359, while holding the office of prefect of the city of Rome, a fact noted on the inscription of his sarcophagus and by the fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus. The city prefect was "the highest official residing in Rome, head and leader of the Senate." According to an inscription set up on July 18, 364, in a room of a large villa near Aqua Viva in Etruria, presumably one of the son's own villas, his career had included the offices of comes ordinis primi, vicarius urbis Romae, and praefectus urbi iudici sacrarum cognitionum. Although probably committed to the Christian faith earlier in his life, he was apparently baptized on his deathbed, a common enough practice in the fourth century. What was not so common in the mid-fourth century was for a member of a Roman senatorial family to be baptized at all. "The old senatorial families certainly remained predominantly pagan down to the latter part of the fourth century." But, as the inscription of his sarcophagus proclaims, Junius Bassus was neofitus as well as vir clarissimus and praefectus urbis. And there is a clear compatibility between his high social status and the quality of his sarcophagus in design, material, and workmanship.

Even less is known for certain about the workshop (designers, carvers, apprentices) that produced his sarcophagus. But John B. Ward-Perkins's comment about earlier sarcophagi workshops is still applicable here: "Change there was, both in content and in style; but it was change operating within a framework of continuity and of a broadly conservative workshop tradition." Thus it is the sarcophagus itself, more than its patron or its carvers, that commands attention; and the sarcophagus itself is reflective of both continuity and change. In fact, the sarcophagus is often anthologized in histories of early Christian art as an important example of characteristic scenes and stylistic change. It has, however, less often been analyzed in detail in terms of its iconographical program.

Certainly there is much to work with in terms of iconography. The marble sarcophagus (fig. 1), now in the Treasury Museum of St. Peter's, is of the "more expensive" double-register type. One of only two extant double-register columnar sarcophagi (compare fig. 2), it consists of a five-niche entablature-type register over a five-niche arch-and-gable-type register. The ten intercolumniations are filled with scenes of biblical characters: upper register, left to right—the sacrifice of Isaac, the arrest of Peter, Christ enthroned between two disciples, the arrest of Christ, the judgment of Pilate; lower register, left to right—the distress of Job, Adam and Eve in the garden, the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Daniel in the lions' den, the arrest of Paul. Old and New Testament scenes symbolically enacted by lambs, and now quite damaged, are carved on the spandrels of the lower register. These scenes may be identified as the three youths in the fiery furnace, the striking of the rock, the multiplication of the loaves, the baptism of Christ by John, the receiving of the Law, the raising of Lazarus (figs. 17–8).

The ends of the sarcophagus (figs. 29 & 31) are given over to representations of putti, seemingly in the traditional scenes of seasons sarcophagi. But the division of space is confusing when considered in light of this tradition, in which the four seasons are usually personified or represented by four distinct scenes. Here the two compartments of the left end are allotted to putti harvesting grapes (usual for autumn); the upper compartment of the right end to putti harvesting grain (usual for summer); and the lower compartment of the right end is given over to six putti with, respectively, olives (usual for winter), a hare and a shepherd's crook, flowers, a lizard and grapes, a bird, and a dish of water for the bird (so unusual that art historians disagree on their interpretation).

On the tabula of the lid "a fragmentary inscription honors, originally in eight distiches, the official functions of Bassus and records the dignified funeral." To the left and right of the central inscription were carved reliefs. Because so little remains of the left side of the lid, the left relief scene cannot be identified (fig. 37). An additional fragment recognized and put in place in 1979 confirms the right relief scene as a kline (Greek: couch) meal, that is, a meal of the dead (fig. 37). The half-remaining mask of Luna, the moon, at the right end of the lid presumably complemented a mask of Sol, the sun, at the left (see fig. 1). The back of the sarcophagus remained undecorated (see diagram 1–1).

The ten intercolumnar scenes, six spandrel scenes, four end scenes, two lid scenes, plus some significant ornamental details, would seem enough to overwhelm the viewer. But the systematic division of space—the careful mapping out of images—tends, rather, to stimulate thought. Despite its multiple scenes, the piece presents a certain visual unity.

The iconographical significance of that multiplicity and unity is the focus of this study. The goal is an understanding of the iconographical program of the work—overall and in detail. As a foundation for such an understanding, we must look carefully at the work itself and look around at its contexts. In this introductory chapter we will first look carefully—by noting the compositional cues the work gives the viewer who seeks to understand the iconographical program. Then we will look around—by investigating in summary fashion some contemporary conventions of early Christian funerary art. In the second chapter we will look especially at the interpretations of the iconographical program of the sarcophagus presented by four art historians, questioning whether these interpretations are consistent with what we have observed of the work's compositional cues and contemporary conventions.

Compositional Cues

If we wish to "read" the iconography of the sarcophagus we might well begin by attending to the cues given by its very composition. Some compositional cues are so obvious as hardly to require stating; others are more subtle or even ambiguous. To begin with, the size of the work (almost eight feet long, about six feet high, with the lid, and nearly five feet deep), the quality of the white marble, and the fineness of the carving—especially of the facade—indicate an expensive work crafted with care. It would not be unreasonable to assume that care also went into the overall planning and arrangement of scenes.

Three major sets of scenes are differentiated by placement, content, and style, as well as compositional elements. The ten intercolumniations of the facade are filled with scenes of biblical characters in dignified poses, finely carved in high relief and smoothly polished. The two scenes of the lid—of which only fragments remain—probably presented stylized secular scenes with biographical references; they are somewhat less deeply carved and somewhat less finely polished. The four scenes of the ends depict allegorical or symbolic putti in agricultural settings or occupations and are carved in shallow relief and not smoothly polished. Thus three major areas are marked off in the overall composition: facade, lid, ends. The spandrel scenes of the facade, depicting biblical scenes symbolically enacted by lambs, serve almost as decoration, but their combination of biblical scenes (like the intercolumniations) and symbolic figures (like the ends) provides an interesting link between these groups of images. An interpretation of the iconography must deal with these three major (and one minor) sets of scenes; it must make sense of them both separately and together.

The architectural elements of the facade cue the viewer to attend to certain interrelationships between individual scenes of this dominant set. The two rows of columns clearly demarcate ten major facade scenes, five on each register; and each of these scenes occupies approximately the same amount of space. On the more common double-register frieze sarcophagi of the fourth century, for example, the Two Brothers sarcophagus (fig. 3), scenes crowd together, taking up more or less space depending in part on the number of figures and objects involved; and scenes are not clearly lined up vertically. Here, however, two central scenes, upper and lower, are linked and given special importance by being framed by vine columns rather than strigilated columns. Since there is an odd number of scenes on each register, the alternating arches and gables of the lower register present a symmetrical arrangement: the middle scene, under an arch, is framed by the second and fourth scenes, under gables, and then by the first and fifth scenes, under arches. The entablature and inscription of the upper register span the upper five scenes as the spandrel scenes do the lower five. An interpretation of the iconography of the facade must not contradict these compositional cues that signal a symmetrical reading and an overall unity.

The positions of the figures in the ten intercolumniations suggest additional relationships. On the upper register the second and fourth scenes are composed of three draped standing figures, with the central figure looking to the right. The first and final scenes of the upper register also contain three figures each—two standing and one nonstanding, with two figures looking to the left—as well as carved backgrounds. On the lower register the second scene features an animal (a snake) between two nude standing figures, who look down; and the fourth scene features—or did originally (see chapter 3 below and figs. 14 & 15)—one nude standing figure, who looks up, between two animals (lions). In the first and final scenes of the lower register, three draped figures interact, and the most important figure in each looks to the right. At the corners of the facade, the first scene of the upper register and the last scene of the lower register each present three figures—the most important of whom is standing and looking or moving outward, that is, away from the center of the piece; the last scene of the upper register and the first scene of the lower register each present two standing figures and one who is seated and looking or turning inward, toward the center of the facade. At the center are depicted two views of the seated Christ. These compositional links suggest that an appropriate interpretation of the iconography must consider not only connections between scenes set out symmetrically on each register but also vertical connections between scenes and between the two registers of scenes (see diagram 8–1).

Important compositional cues are also given in the four scenes of the ends. The upper and lower scenes of the left end are well matched compositionally: all the putti are of the same scale; they are nude—although some are draped with mantles; and they have wings. No wings appear on the first upper putto or the second lower one, however; and no mantles appear on the second or third lower putti, perhaps because upraised arms and the basket were in the carver's way, so to speak. All of the putti of the left end are involved in harvesting grapes. The putti of the right end are not so well matched in terms of either content or composition. While the six putti of the lower scene of the right end are almost in scale with those of the left end (they are somewhat taller in their space), the three putti of the upper scene are noticeably larger in scale than any other putti on the sarcophagus. But the three putti of the upper scene of the right end are all nude, winged, and with mantles—like the putti of the left end—while the six putti of the lower scene of the right end are all wingless, and one is fully clothed. In addition, the three putti of the upper scene are involved in a harvest (grain), similar to the (grape) harvest of the left end. The lower scene is distinctive—and problematic—in this regard: the first putto (clothed) appears to be harvesting olives, but the remaining five (nude, one with a mantle) are holding various objects but do not seem engaged in a single activity. Thus compositional cues indicate that, although each end is divided into two sections, both sections of the left end depict a single harvest scene, the upper section of the right end represents a second harvest scene, and the lower section of the right end may be unevenly divided between an abbreviated third harvest scene and a fourth scene that is initially somewhat unclear. Again, an interpretation of the iconography must come to terms with these compositional cues.

The symmetry of the lid is clearly signaled, even by the remaining fragments—mask/relief scene/inscription/relief scene/mask—and serves to reinforce the symmetry of the facade of the box. Only the lower portion of the lid was known when the sarcophagus was discovered in 1597; prior to the discovery and placement of the three fragments of the inscription table in the 1940s and the additional fragment of the right relief in 1979, the lid was frequently ignored by viewers and commentators. It certainly would not have been ignored originally. In relative size the complete lid would have been proportionately higher than the lid of the double-register sarcophagus of Adelphia (fig. 4); the viewer would have taken in three levels of carving, not two. The figure style of the lid reliefs would have fit with that of the facade; its "pagan" or secular scenes would have coordinated with those of the ends. Thus the lid was a more important part of the whole than its fragmented remains may at first suggest. An interpretation of the iconography of the sarcophagus must not ignore the compositional cues given by even the fragments of the lid.

The rules—actually hypotheses—for correlating compositional and iconographical patterns are largely conventional. Because of the symmetry of the human body, some symmetrical arrangements may be widely used by artists and craftspeople and widely perceived by patrons and viewers, but to begin to interpret symmetrically arranged scenes one must investigate the conventions contemporary with the work in question.

Contemporary Conventions

Late antique pictorial art, particularly when it was religious, was an allusive art: for its interpretation it depended upon a context of allusions shared by maker and viewer; for that reason it is often an elusive art for twentieth-century viewers. This allusive quality is most obvious in relation to works presenting a series of scenes. It has been observed, for example, of both the frescoes of the synagogue at Dura-Europos and early Christian sarcophagi. "The narrative is in both cases of secondary interest," writes Fritz Saxl, "and the interconnection between scenes is such that an uninstructed though attentive observer could hardly guess the underlying meaning. The worshipper himself [or herself] has to bring an understanding of their unity to the apparently disconnected scenes in Dura and on the Christian tombs."


Excerpted from The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus by Elizabeth Strathers Malbon. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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