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NEOFITUS, HE WENT TO GOD
The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
LINDA MØSKELAND FUCHS
The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, who died August 25, A.D. 359, is one of the best preserved, most finely carved and most iconographically rich examples of fourth-century Christian funerary art. As John Walford observed, "Telling stories through relief carving was an invaluable artistic legacy of classical antiquity to the Church." The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, like much of early Christian art, draws imagery from Old and New Testament narratives for commemorative purposes. Its innovative development and arrangement of subjects imply thoughts of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. It is designed to edify the viewer. The scenes highlight Christ's glorification and majesty and exult in his victory over death, which offers reconciliation to God and resurrection to each one who follows Christ.
Roman burial customs had begun a significant change near the beginning of the second century: interment in a costly stone coffin began to replace the custom of depositing the deceased's cremated remains in funerary urns. A sarcophagus (meaning "flesh eater") was prepared by carving out the interior of a marble block and embellishing the exterior with carved imagery and/or inscriptions. The city of Rome became the center for sarcophagus carving in the western half of the Roman Empire, and held this position until the middle of the fourth century. It was from the milieu of Roman wall painting and sarcophagus carving that Christian art developed, drawing on Roman principles of visual organization and some Roman motifs.
Late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria recommended choosing motifs meaningful to Christians when selecting a signet ring in the marketplace. Similar thoughtful choices were made in the first half of the third century when some Christians selected sarcophagi with shepherds. Distinctively biblical motifs appeared in catacomb wall and ceiling painting in the first half of the third century before these motifs were carved in stone in the second half of the third century. The horizontal format of sarcophagi (not tall, but wide) and the desire to embellish the space with figures (taller than wide) led to a filling of the space with multiple scenes in lateral succession — inviting rich combinations of episodes for commemorative and/or theological purposes. However, less than ten sarcophagi (or fragments) with multiple biblical themes have been found at Rome and cataloged in the period before the Peace of the Church (A.D. 313).
Third-century images that were distinctively Christian were drawn primarily from the Old Testament, reflecting an engagement by Christian writers with the broader Roman culture that perceived older, more venerable religious traditions as inherently more valid than newer ones. Christian art began as an inadvertently subversive art, for Christianity was not a legally protected religion in the Roman Empire until the Edict of Milan declared tolerance for all religions in A.D. 313.
The second and third quarters of the third century were politically unstable, with many military coups: twenty-six emperors "for life" ruled within fifty years. This instability affected the quantity and artistic quality of some art produced at that time. For Christians, political uncertainly was compounded by occasional threats of persecution in particular locations. The visual motif of three Hebrews in the fiery furnace became a timely encouragement to those who faced a choice between worshiping the one they perceived to be the true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and obeying the laws of their government. In general, early Christian art motifs proclaimed a positive message of hope in the face of death.
The third-century Christian preference for Old Testament images over New Testament images reflects the influence of the contemporary theological climate on creative decisions. Therefore, it is appropriate to examine not only the Bible but also the writings of second- and third-century Christian writers to interpret the figures shown.
Artists of this period reflect ties between the Hebrew Old Testament and New Testament writings, including prophetic links. Jesus referred to his own death, time-limited three-day burial, and resurrection as the "Sign of Jonah." Jonah motifs predominate in Christian art ante pacem (before the Peace of the Church). Resurrection is therefore the dominant theme in third-century funerary art, and other motifs should therefore be examined in its light.
This pattern of one thing in the Old Testament standing for another thing in the Christian era — typology — was used not only by Christian writers but also by artists, as a viable image-creation strategy to convey abstract theological concepts through the depiction of material objects and persons. Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac, one of the motifs on the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, was recognized by many Christians as a "type" of the sacrifice of God's Son on the cross.
Also basic to understanding Christian art is another principle of biblical hermeneutics, that one should interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. For example, Noah (not featured on this sarcophagus) may serve as a visual cue to concepts rich with abstract resonance, such as baptism, salvation, or resurrection, because Peter named Noah in a discussion of these ideas.
The need for Christians to present their faith in ways that adapted to the sensibilities of the dominant non-Christian culture diminished after Christianity became a legal religion of the empire in 313, when the administration in power increasingly affiliated with Christian ways of thinking. Accordingly, a shift emerged in the visual repertoire. Jonah scenes were favored in the third century in part because Jonah could represent the resurrection of Christ obliquely, but they comprise a small proportion of Christian imagery after the Edict of Milan in 313, when covert images became unnecessary. As Christian sarcophagi began to flourish as an art form in the fourth century, New Testament motifs were increasingly emphasized. The apostles Peter and Paul, visible on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, were considered patrons of the city of Rome, and were portrayed often. Jesus was openly portrayed, and the visual language developed to serve Roman emperors was borrowed to give him honor: magi from the East bow before the infant; Jesus rides into Jerusalem with the welcome due a sovereign, but humbly, on a donkey; Jesus is shown frontally enthroned, as emperors had occasionally mirrored depictions of Zeus; and Christ's victory over death is symbolized by a round trophy wreath hanging on a cross stand framing his monogram, XP (chi rho, the first letters for Christ in Greek).
Just one generation after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, a prominent second-generation government official was buried in an elegant monument that displayed carefully developed Christian theology. This funerary monument visually exalts Jesus Christ, the Savior in whom the deceased, Junius Bassus, placed his hope of resurrection and fellowship in the afterlife. Junius Bassus was born in 317, a year before his father, Junius Annius Bassus, began lengthy service as a senior official under Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Junius Annius Bassus served as praetorian prefect of Italy (318–331) and as consul when he built a secular basilica on the Esquiline Hill in Rome in 331.11 Junius Bassus the younger became praefectus urbi of the city of Rome under the administration of Constantine's son and successor, Constantius II. As urban prefect, the responsibilities of Junius Bassus for administration of the city were broad, similar to those of a mayor. It is the sarcophagus of this younger Junius Bassus that remains today the only fourth-century Christian sarcophagus elaborately carved with figures that is also dated by its inscription. As such, it serves as a stylistic benchmark for the dating of other sarcophagi. A lid fragment discovered in the twentieth century, inscribed with an epitaph, suggests that Junius Bassus was given a public funeral, a distinction uncommon for people outside the imperial family, but sometimes used to honor urban prefects who died in office.
It is unusual to have recovered a largely intact sarcophagus for an official high in the imperial administration. To have a personalized witness to the Christian faith of such a person is rare indeed.
Questions of iconographic design in early Christian sarcophagi remain an issue of debate among scholars. The careful iconographic arrangement and high quality of execution of some sarcophagi, such as that of Junius Bassus, suggest thoughtful planning, while others seem to copy elements of previous sarcophagi with a less coherent plan. Scholars debate the relative contributions of patron and workshop to a finished design. Some Christian sarcophagi with uncarved central portrait faces may have been prepared on speculation in a workshop for any ready buyer. Others, such as the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, have unique features that set the work apart as likely to have been specially commissioned.
The façade of the Junius Bassus sarcophagus features ten scenes in two rows. Across the top row, from left to right, are: Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac; Peter flanked by two unarmed men in knee-length clothing; Christ enthroned above a personification of the heavens and attended by two robed men; Christ standing before Pilate (who is in the next scene); and Pilate seated, washing his hands. Across the lower row, from left to right, are: Job seated on a dung heap and facing his wife; Adam and Eve; Christ's entry into Jerusalem; Daniel with lions (and two men with scrolls); and the arrest of Paul.
These ten scenes are organized within two stories of columns. On both the upper and lower levels, the outer pairs are enriched by spiral fluting, a common embellishment on Asiatic sarcophagi. On the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, the fluting of the outer pairs descends toward the center of the sarcophagus. On the inner pairs of spiral-fluted columns, the direction is reversed, with flutes rising upward toward the center. When repeated on two levels, this generates a sense of movement up and down, appropriate to artwork that deals with concepts of moving from the realm of earth to the heavens. The most elaborately carved columns on the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, the central pairs, are covered with grapevine scrolls inhabited by putti — bare infants that in the broader Roman culture suggest general joy and festivity. The vine scroll columns highlight the central scenes between them, and, within the Christian context, imply Eucharistic associations.
The general format of the Junius Bassus sarcophagus is drawn from column sarcophagi that were first developed in Asia Minor. However, the lavish use of two stories of columns on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus was repeated only once on a Christian sarcophagus. The columnar framework on the front of the Junius Bassus sarcophagus has often been approached as a grid into which ten scenes are inserted, not unlike characters before a scenae frons, a stone stage set building used for Greek theaters. Initially, writers describing early Christian sarcophagi sought to identify individual scenes. In the twentieth century, scholars began to build on these identifications by seeking meaning in the relationship of various motifs.
The Junius Bassus sarcophagus is one of the first two examples of a group of about twenty mostly single-story column sarcophagi known as "passion sarcophagi." Passion sarcophagi depict events leading up to the death of Christ on the cross, but the actual crucifixion of Christ does not appear until the fifth century. Passion sarcophagi are characterized by the inclusion of several figures that appear with varying frequency — Christ, Pilate, Peter and Paul.
Roman figured sarcophagi of the third and fourth centuries were most commonly composed in one of two formats: The iconography was arranged either in narrative sequence from left to right (as in Roman frieze sarcophagi and Latin writing), or symmetrically around a strong central axis. The sequential left-to-right mode does not suit the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, for a left-to-right reading in the upper register would place Christ's trial before Pilate after his glorification in heaven (which is at center). In the lower register, a left-to-right reading would incongruously have Job preceding Adam and Eve, and Christ's entry into Jerusalem before Daniel. The second arrangement, with a strong central axis, is a better strategy for reading the Junius Bassus sarcophagus.
This composition's central axis features two scenes of Christ's kingship: his entry into Jerusalem and his eternal enthronement in heaven. In the lower level, Christ rides a donkey and is acclaimed by people gathering branches to strew on the road before him. The story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Triumphal Entry, is characterized in all four Gospels as the approach of a king. Erich Dinkler and others have observed that depictions of Christ's entry into Jerusalem resemble adventus ("arrival") iconography of Roman art that depicts the formal entrance of an emperor into a city. After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire, the Christian visual repertoire increasingly included imperial iconography, which became a useful means of conveying the dominion of God.
Above this scene of Jesus assuming kingship on earth, he exercises kingly dominion in heaven as he sits enthroned above Caelus, a personification of the sky. Christ enthroned above Caelus is an uncommon scene. Of six known examples on sarcophagi (all from the second half of the fourth century), only one preserves both Christ and Caelus. That sarcophagus, Lat. 174, seems on stylistic grounds to be later than the Junius Bassus sarcophagus. Marilyn Stokstad's statement that the Junius Bassus sarcophagus contains what may be the first instance of Christ enthroned in majesty above the heavens may very well be correct, but there is a precedent for the authoritative seated frontal pose of Christ. On a polychrome funerary plaque fragment from the second half of the third century, which is now in the Terme Museum of Rome, Jesus is seated frontally like an enthroned Zeus (with long hair and bared chest) and seems to be teaching small figures seated before him, perhaps illustrating the Sermon on the Mount. Caelus on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus may be drawn from the breastplate of the statue of Augustus of Primaporta, near the neck. The youthful, beardless Christ above Caelus holds a scroll and is flanked by two bearded male attendants, the one at left holding a rolled scroll. The men on either side of Christ have sometimes been identified as Peter and Paul. However, the figure identified as Paul, to the right of Christ, does not have the high forehead or balding head commonly associated with Paul, and evident on the figure of Paul in the lower right niche of the sarcophagus.
To the right of Christ in heaven, two niches portray Jesus apprehended and his trial before Pilate. The trial before Pilate suggests the death of Jesus — the sacrifice of his life for the sin of all people — in a way that eschews violence. This avoidance of depicting his death may reflect respect for the Lord, or sensitivity to the killing of some Christians for their faith as recently as the previous generation, or deference to the sensibilities of the recently bereaved. Pilate appeared on the "Two Brothers" frieze sarcophagus, perhaps as early as the second decade of the fourth century, and on column sarcophagi in the second half of the fourth century.
The proximity of the two scenes of Christ before Pilate to the central scene of Christ enthroned may affect how these scenes are interpreted. The civil trial before Pilate followed a trial by Jewish religious authorities in which Christ "kept silent." When the high priest continued questioning him, saying, "I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God," Jesus replied, "You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see 'the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'" Christ's self-identifying statement before the Jewish leaders appears to be combined in the upper central scene of the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Art as Spiritual Perception"
Copyright © 2012 James Romaine.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations 9
Mentoring Eyes: Hans Rookmaaker and John Walford Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
You Will See Greater Things than These: John Walford's Content-oriented Method of Art History James Romaine
1 Neofitus, He Went to God 41
The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus Linda Møskeland Fuchs
2 Gothic Architecture and the Pure and Naked Seeing of Divine Reality" Chartres Cathedral 59
Rachel Hostetter Smith
3 Heaven Come to Earth 75
The Limbourg Brothers' January (from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)
Matthew Sweet Vanderpoel
4 Academia's "Religious Turn" 91
The Brancacci Chapel Matthew Milliner
5 The Shape of Place 109
Joachim Patinir's Landscape with Saint Jerome Henry Luttikhuizen
6 The Perception of Spirituality 123
Hans Holbein's The French Ambassadors William Dyrness
7 A Localized Providence 137
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Hunters in the Snow Rachel-Anne Johnson
8 Space, Symbol, and Spirit 151
Pieter Saenredam's Interior of the Church of Saint Odulphus at Assendelft Jan Laurens Siesling
9 Categories for art Historical Methodology 165
Antoine Watteau's The Dance (Les Fetes Venitiennes) Calvin Seerveld
10 Departing Light 181
Caspar David Friedrich's Tetschen Altar (Cross in the Mountains) Kaia Magnusen
11 Remember Thy Creator 193
John Constable's Dedham Vale Anne Roberts
12 What the Halo Symbolized 207
Vincent van Gogh's Sower with Setting Sun James Romaine
13 Evolving A "Better" World 225
Piet Mondrian's Flowering Apple Tree Graham Birtwistle
14 Spiritually Charged Visual Strategy 239
Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm Linda Stratford
15 The Liberating Myth 255
Joseph Beuys's I Like America and America Likes Me James Watkins
A Portrait of E. John Walford Joel Sheesley
What People are Saying About This
“Over many years, John Walford has been an extraordinary and energetic scholar, writer, teacher, and artist. This festschrift is a fitting tribute to a man whose life has touched so many and in such profound ways.”
—Jeremy S. Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology, Duke Divinity School; author, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music
“Over the course of his distinguished career as an art historian, John Walford has given generations of students the gift of sight. Professor Walford has enabled us to perceive in the visible world the spiritual meanings inherent within works of art. This collection of essays displays the fruit of his labors through the work of scholars who have received his artistic insights and share his passion for close readings of visual imagery, clear expressions of doctrinal truth, and joyful experiences of aesthetic delight.”
—Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College; author, Loving the Way Jesus Loves
“Art as Spiritual Perception is a rich kaleidoscope of art historical essays all centered around one common theme of increasing importance today—the way in which artists’ views of the world, not least their religious beliefs, shape artistic perception and meaning. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to the impressive work and legacy of John Walford.”
—Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, coauthor, Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts; former senior member in philosophical aesthetics, the Institute for Christian Studies
"It is with great delight that I herald the arrival of Art as Spiritual Perception in honor of Dr. Walford. James Romaine and his fellow scholars have created a fitting work in tribute to Walford and—perhaps more importantly—have added a significant new volume to the select canon of books on art and faith. This is a fantastic book. The chapter on van gogh alone is worth the price of admission.”
—Ned Bustard, editor, It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God; illustrator, The Church History ABCs
“This wide-ranging collection of essays by current colleagues and former students will be an encouragement and inspiration to all who love art and love God. It is a fitting testimony to the career of John Walford, whose life and work have been characterized by faithfulness to his guild, faithfulness to his students, faithfulness to his college, and above all, faithfulness to God.”
—Lisa DeBoer, Professor of Art, Westmont College