Washington and Lee University
Subject Listing - Art/Art History
Advisor: Dr. Kathleen Schowalter
Saturday, Oral Session 7, Presentation 1, Owen Hall 237
THE ICONOGRAPHY OF THE SARCOPHAGUS OF JUNIUS BASSUS
The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is a prominent example of early funerary Christian art, completed in 395 CE. It was made specifically for Junius, the son of a consul who followed his father's footsteps to become prefect of Rome. Given the very Christian nature of the sarcophagus, it is curious that Junius was not baptized until he was on his deathbed. This is probably because he was in public office; most public officials were pagan at the time and so were most Romans. Most of the sarcophagus has damaged, but one of the more interesting sides remains intact. This side contains scenes from the Old Testament as well as the life of Christ. Despite the fact that this side of the sarcophagus has been highly studied, art historians have yet to clear some remaining questions about the arrangement of the scenes on this panel. I will argue that the Sarcophagus images are arranged in a pattern where like images were placed in opposition to one another. For example, the sacrifice of Isaac in the upper left panel relates directly to the sacrifice of Daniel in the lower right. Connecting these images creates a cross (X). The arrangement of the scenes in such a cross was no mistake; it has symbolic meaning for Christians as it represents the Chi in the Chi-Rho. The Chi-Rho is the symbol of Christ which is significant, particularly at the time of Junius' life. In fact, Constantine dreamt he would win a major battle if he rode under the XP. The battle was indeed won, which inspired his conversion and the legalization of Christianity. Having a Chi, and potentially Rho, as the image pattern for the sarcophagus is noteworthy. For the newly baptized Junius, it was important that his show of faith last for an eternity. The longevity of his devotion to Christianity would not only be important to him, but make an incredible statement for the religion itself.
Advisor: Dr. Kathleen Schowalter, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA