Sunteți pe pagina 1din 22

HTR 102:3 (2009) XXXXX

The Cruciixion Conundrum and the

Santa Sabina Doors
Allyson Everingham Sheckler and Mary Joan Winn Leith
Stonehill College
The earliest extant public image of the cruciixion of Christ appears on a single
relief panel on the early-ifth-century wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina
on the Aventine Hill in Rome [FIGURES 1 and 2]. General scholarly consensus
dates the construction of the church to the pontiicate of Pope Celestine I (422433
C.E.) as stated in the surviving inscription on the churchs interior west wall.

Construction probably continued into the pontiicate of Sixtus III (432440 C.E.)
The authors would like to acknowledge especially the members of the Spring 2006 and
Fall 2008 Pagans and Christians Sophomore Learning Community, Stonehill College; a casual
observation during class in 2006 provided the starting point for this article. We also thank our
colleague, Anthony Celano, for sharing his Latin expertise and Jeffrey Spier, who read through an
early draft and provided valuable feedback and advice. Images for publication are expensive, so
we are grateful to William Storage for sharing his photographs of the Santa Sabina doors and to
the British Museum for its generous image rights policy. Stonehill College Dean of Faculty Joseph
Favazza found the necessary funding for the illustration rights. Finally, we thank the anonymous
HTR reader whose observations and queries helped us improve our arguments.
The inscription reads, Culmen apostolicum cum Caelestinus haberetprimus et in toto fulgeret
episcopus orbe . . . (When Celestine held the foremost and highest apostolic rank and as bishop
was illustrious in the whole world. . .). The basic studies of the Santa Sabina doors are Flix M. D.
Darsy, Les portes de Sainte Sabine. Methode danalyse formelle et de critique interne en histoire
et de lart, in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 37 (1961); idem, Recherches archologiques
Sainte-Sabine sur lAventin. Gologie, topographie, sanctuaries archaques, culte isiaque, ensemble
architectural palochrtien (Vatican City: Pontiio Istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1968) 1314;
Gisela Jeremias, Die Holztr der Basilika S. Sabina in Rom (Tbingen: Wasmuth, 1980) 15; Jean-
Michel Spieser, Le programme iconographique des portes de Sainte-Sabine, Journal des Savants
(1991) 4781; Eugenio Russo, Apparati Decorativi, in Aurea Roma. Dalla citt pagana alla citt
cristiana (ed. Serena Ensoli and Eugenio La Rocca; Rome: Bretschneider, 2000) 19199; Dina
Tumminello, La crociissione del portale di S. Sabina e le origini delliconologia della crossiissione
(Rome: Severino Tognon, 2003) 1618. Gaetano Rubbino less convincingly dates the church to the
pontiicate of Innocent I (402417 C.E.) in La basilica di Santa Sabina sullAventino. Un esempio
di classicismo nella Roma de V secolo (Genova: Ferrari, 2002) 46.
when the church was formally consecrated.
Although in the ensuing centuries the
image of the Cruciied Christthe Cruciixattained canonical status, scholars
seeking precedents for Santa Sabinas cruciixion scene have failed to determine
its pedigree satisfactorily within the Christian artistic tradition. We propose that
broadening our understanding of artistic prototypes for the Santa Sabina cruciixion
image to include both formal and theological elements allows for a more nuanced
and promising investigation.
The scarcity of cruciixion images before the early ifth century has generally been
attributed to Christian embarrassment over the shameful circumstances of Jesus
death on a cross.
Nevertheless, the Santa Sabina cruciixion could scarcely have
Louis Duchesne, ed., Liber Pontiicalis 2
(Paris: Boccard, 1955) 235.
Robin Jensen provides a judicious summary of this issue in Understanding Early Christian Art
(London: Routledge, 2000) 13337. The standard work on cruciixion is Martin Hengel, Cruciixion
in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), repr.
in idem, The Cross of the Son of God (London: SCM Press, 1986) 93185. See also the helpful entry
on cruciixion by Gerald G. OCollins in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman;
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1992). John Granger Cook summarizes inscriptional evidence for
Figure 1
Cruciixion panel on the wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
28 x 40 cm, ca. 420430 C.E.
Photo credit: William Storage and Laura Maish
materialized out of nowhere, and art historians have employed various strategies
to identify a supposedly lost Christian iconographic prototype for later images of
Christ on the cross. Dina Tumminello, for example, in her 2003 monograph
at slightly later cruciixion images and extrapolates backward to the Santa Sabina
panel. On the basis of early-seventh-century pilgrim ampullae from Palestine,

cruciixion in Envisioning Cruciixion: Light from Several Inscriptions and the Palatine Grafito,
NovT 50 (2008) 26285.
Tumminello, La crociissione.
Ibid., 3346. These pilgrim ampullae, which Vikan (see below) dates to ca. 600, are not
cruciixions; they show Jesus nimbed head or bust hovering over an empty cross (although the two
lanking thieves do hang on crosses). See Gary Vikan, Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (Dumbarton Oaks
Byzantine Collection Publications 5; Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine
Figure 2
Wooden Doors: Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
5.35 x 3.35 m, 420430 C.E.
Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.
a painted sixth-century pilgrims reliquary box,
the cruciixion painting in the
Rabulla Gospels (586 C.E.),
and a hypothetical image in the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre in Jerusalem,
Tumminello has suggested that the Santa Sabina panel
derives from an Eastern, possibly monastic, Christian artistic prototype, earlier
examples of which are now lost.
Her suggestions, however, remain speculative,
and in any case, the composition of her proposed parallels include more symbolic
and narrative elements than the relatively stark Santa Sabina scene.
In the catalog to a recent exhibition of Christian art,
Felicity Harley and Jeffrey
Spier also struggle with the puzzling rarity of depictions of the cruciixion in
Studies, 1982). Contemporary with the pilgrim ampullae, however, is a true cruciixion scene on
a Coptic magical papyrus illustrating the prayer of Jesus that he uttered upon the cross (British
Library, London Oriental Manuscript 6796), published in Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of
Ritual Power (ed. Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith; San Francisco: Harper, 1994) 292.
Originally in the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum near St. John Lateran, now in the collection
of the Museo Sacro of the Vatican. See R. Morey, The Painted Panel from the Sancta Sanctorum,
in Festschrift zum sechzigsten Geburtstag von Paul Clemen (Dsseldorf: Schwan, 1926) 15067. See
also Vikan, Byzantine Pilgrimage Art, 1819 and ig. 13a; also the color photographs in Herbert
L. Kessler and Johanna Zacharias, Rome 1300: On the Path of the Pilgrim (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 2000) 5153 and igs. 4647.
Tumminello, La crociissione, 4763. According to the catalog entry for the Rabula Gospels
(cat. no. 82) in Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 2007) 276, Massimo Bernab has determined that the cruciixion page was
removed from an earlier Greek Gospel book and inserted in the Rabula Gospel in 586 when the
Syriac gospel text was completed.
Eusebius, reporting on Constantines commissioning of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, makes
no mention of images even as he catalogues the lavishness of the churchs walls, ceilings, doors, and
furniture (Life of Constantine 3.2543). Eusebius was capable of describing images he considered
relevant; in 4.69 he reports that at Constantines death Rome honored him with dedications of his
portrait. They depicted heaven in colored paintings, and portrayed him resting in an aetherial resort
above the vaults of heaven. Translation by Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, Life of Constantine
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1999). The pilgrim Egeria, visiting the Holy Sepulchre in the early 380s, reports
ceremonies in front of the cross (24.7; 25.89). This seems to be a different cross from the much
smaller true cross, a portion of which was preserved in a silver-gilt casket and only periodically
exhibited to the faithful (37.1). In any case, she writes of a cross and not a cruciixion. In the apse
mosaic of Sta. Pudenziana (ca. 400 C.E.) the view of Jerusalem in the background is dominated by
the rock of Golgotha surmounted by a richly bejeweled cross, not a cruciix.
Tumminello, La crociissione, 6976.
Spier, Picturing the Bible.
Figure 3
Magical Amulet with Cruciixion
Eastern Mediterranean (Syria?)
late 2nd3rd century C.E.
Bloodstone, 3x2.5x0.58 cm
British Museum, Department of Prehistory and Europe London
(MME 1986.05-01.1)
Photo credit: Trustees of the British Museum
Christian art.
They consider the cruciixion conundrum especially in relation to
three early cruciixion representations in miniature from the Roman East: a magical
amulet of the late second/early third century with Jesus on the cross
and two fourth-century engraved gems
on which the cruciied Jesus is lanked
by six disciples on either side (FIGURE 4). Harley and Spier identify the amulet
as the earliest surviving representation of Jesus on the cross, and speculate that
pictures of the subject (now lost) may have been widespread even in the late second
or early third century, most likely in conventional Christian contexts.

The amulet, however, is also inscribed with a multitude of occult names: not
only Son, Father, Jesus Christ, but also the Egyptian derived Badetophoth and
Satraperkmephthe, among others. The catalog entry concedes that the amulet could
relect the activity of a pagan magician who, like the family of Jewish exorcists
in Acts 19:1317, included Jesus name in his repertory of magical powers.
amulet might equally come from a Jewish orgiven the periods luid religious
boundariesJewish-Christian occult practitioner.
For the origin of the engraved
gems, Harley, not unlike Tumminello, looks to the East and suggests that the gems
provide rare evidence for the existence of unconventional Christian images . . . at
a relatively early date in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire (Syria?).
With regard to the amulet, it is important to recognize that magic in the Greco-
Roman world often depended on an underlying transgressive element involving
Felicity Harley, introduction to Section Five, The Cruciixion, in Spier, Picturing the Bible,
Harley and Spier, cat. no. 55 (British Museum MME 1986.0501.1) in Spier, Picturing the
Bible, 22829.
Harley, cat. no. 56 (British Museum MME 1895.1113.1) and ig. 1 (plaster cast, German
Archaeological Institute, Rome) in Spier, Picturing the Bible, 229.
Harley and Spier, cat. no. 55, Spier, Picturing the Bible, 229.
Ibid., 22829.
See David W. Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Cruciixion (Tbingen:
Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 18285. Chapman cites Talmudic debates over the legitimacy of cruciixion
articles in magic. He also mentions a suggestive, albeit later, Jewish spell from the Cairo Geniza which
speciies that a cruciixion nail be formed into a seal and engraved with magic words (183).
Harley and Spier, cat. no. 55 in Spier, Picturing the Bible, 229.
Figure 4
Engraved Gem: Cruciixion with Apostles.
Romania?, fourth century C.E.
13.5x10.5 cm
British Museum, M&LA 95,1113,1
Photo Credit: Trustees of the British Museum
demons and danger-laden materials and images.
Precisely because of its innate
ghastliness, cruciixion had a role in Greco-Roman magic, which may explain the
motivation behind the amulet image here.
In the Golden Ass, a witchs potion
requires nails covered with the lesh of cruciied men,
and Pliny cites a cross
nail and a rope from a cross in a list of ingredients for amulets and spells.
Paul on, church leaders condemned, or at least were uncomfortable with, the use
of amulets by Christians despite the fact that this practice was widespread before
and after Constantine.
This is not the place for a discussion of the knotty problem of magic. Good studies include
Graham Cunningham, Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories (New York: New York University
Press, 1999); Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1997); Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, eds., Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
The term magic, as we use it here, refers to forms and gestures considered by a societys elite to
belong in some way outside the framework of socially sanctioned religious activity. Often (but not
always) such activity occurs among the socially marginalized, such as foreigners, women, and the
very poor. Magic so understood may belong to so-called little or local traditions as described
by Robert Redield in Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), or may serve as a hidden transcript of resistance
among the powerless as argued by James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden
Transcripts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990) 14244. David Frankfurter provides
a thoughtful second wave social analysis of magic in Dynamics of Ritual Expertise in Antiquity
and Beyond: Towards a New Taxonomy of Magicians, in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic
and Ritual Power, 59178.
According to Roy Kotansky, the names inscribed on magical amulets frighten evil demons
away. By engraving both the image of the cruciied Jesus and his magic name, the fashioner of the
amulet doubly thwarted the demons (Greek Exorcistic Amulets, in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient
Magic and Ritual Power, 262). The point is that the image, like other apotropaic amuletic igures,
was frightening and dangerous, not that the image relected the Christology of early church writers.
Henry Maguire explains that late antique magic had a tendency to create devices that were powerful
in and of themselves. In other words, the devices did not represent such and such a speciic holy
power or event, but they were self-suficient. Magic and the Christian Image, in Early Byzantine
Magic (ed. Henry Maguire; Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995) 64. On the British Museum
amulet the igure of Jesus appears in a form unconnected to any early Christian discourse on the
cruciixion. Contrary to the observation of Harley and Spier (228) that Jesus nudity afirms Jesuss
spiritual power, the legs of the frontal nude igure splay painfully open over the vertical upright
of the cross and call to mind emasculation by impalement; this Jesus has more of horror than
triumph about him. He shares this posture with the second-century donkey-headed cruciixion
victim on the Alexamenos Grafito (see Figure 5); both images relect the contemporary attitude
of revulsion associated with cruciixion. On the association of emasculation with cruciixion in
Greco-Roman thought, see Stephen D. Moore, O Man, Who Art Thou?: Masculinity Studies
and New Testament Studies, in New Testament Masculinities (ed. Stephen D. Moore and Janice
Capel Anderson; Atlanta: SBL, 2003), esp. 1122.
Apuleius, Metam. 3.17.
Pliny the Elder, Nat. 28.6. In terms of Greco-Roman magic, Jesus was an aoros, one who
had died a violent death. Names of aoroi igure prominently in ancient curse tablets according to
Kimberly B. Stratton, Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology and Stereotype in the Ancient World
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 118.
For Christian amulets and spells from the fourth through seventh centuries, see Meyer and
Smith, Ancient Christian Magic; also David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation
and Resistance (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); note especially p. 277, where,
Furthermore, unlike the Santa Sabina panel, amulets (and gems
) are private
art. Amulets were created throughout the Roman world by artists/practitioners
who often may have been responding to local needs and assumptions. As in the
case of the British Museum amulet, the frequently eclectic mixture of Jewish,
Christian, Greco-Roman, and Egyptian divine names on magical amulets obscures
the religious afiliation(s) of an amulet maker or consumer or, perhaps more to the
point, suggests luid religious boundaries.
In some cases at least, the amulet artists
may have been challenged to create an unprecedented image with no extant visual
One problem with Harleys contention (above) that these earlier images
suggest the existence of unconventional Christian imagery is that despite the best
efforts of heresiologists like Irenaeus of Lyons, conventional Christianity, let
alone conventional Christian imagery, did not yet exist.
Furthermore, because so
much surviving Christian art comes from Rome, it is easy to forget that Christians
occupied the entire empire throughout which they, too, were creating images. As
Christian patronage evolved beyond an interpretatio christiana of available pagan
regarding Bishop Athanasiuss complaints in 370 about exorcisms at martyrs shrines, Frankfurter
writes, And so also in the Christian saints and leaders who killed, cursed, or crafted amulets, in
the magical spells that invoked esoteric angels, Egyptian Christianity assimilated a universe of
ambiguous powers. See also Mary Joan Winn Leith, Amulets, in New Interpreters Dictionary
of the Bible (ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 2006).
See Jeffrey Spier, Late Antique and Christian Gems (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2007).
Justin Megatt cautions that in the Greco-Roman world healing (often perceived as magical)
need not lead to the patients adoption of the healers worldview. Magic, Healing, and Christianity,
in The Meanings of Magic from the Bible to Buffalo Bill (ed. Amy Wygant; New York: Berghahn,
2006) 105. Roy Kotansky discusses the eclectic mixture of Jewish and Greek religious elements
in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris and contemporary texts and amulets in Greek Exorcistic
Amulets, in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, esp. 26177. See also Meyer
and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic, no. 25 (sixth century) and no. 26 (fourth or ifth century).
Possibly even earlier than the British Museum amulet is a privately-owned Jewish-Christian (?)
gold lamella of the early second century which calls upon Jesus, Iao Sabaoth, Gabriel, and Uriel
to protect the bearer from a demon named Gorgopa. Published by Roy Kotansky, A Cruciixion
Lamella for Headache, in Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, 3646.
Paul Corby Finney argues along these lines for the new Christian image of Jesus as a
magician in Do You Think God is a Magician? in Akten des Symposiums Frhchristliche
Sarkophage: Marburg, (ed. Karin Kirchhainer and Guntram Koch; Mainz: Zabern,
2002) 99108.
See Bart Ehrmans accessible Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We
Never Knew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Regarding the question of conventional
Christian art, note Henry Maguires cautionary observation that Christian images on early Byzantine
domestic textiles were decentralized in their production and not standardized in their iconography.
Many images were ambiguous (Magic and the Christian Image, in Maguire, Byzantine Magic,
69); see also Annewies van den Hoek and John J. Herrmann, Jr., Thecla the Beast Fighter: A
Female Emblem of Deliverance in Early Christian Popular Art, in In the Spirit of Faith: Studies in
Philo and Early Christianity in Honor of David Hay (ed. David T. Runia and Gregory E. Sterling;
SPhilo 13; Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2001) 213. We are indebted for this last reference
to the anonymous HTR reviewer.
imagery to explicitly Christian images,
a variety of bespoke Christian images
in miniature could have been created independently and in diverse locations across
the vast Roman Empire with only a few, if any, making a lasting impact on what,
after 314 C.E., would become oficial Christian art.

Paul Corby Finney has observed that there is no evidence for Christian art before
the third century.
Nor is there any evidence at all for a public representation
of the cruciixion of Christ before Santa Sabinas ifth-century paneldespite
the fact that cruciixion had been banned by Constantine a century earlier.
traditional explanation for this absence seems correct to us: Christian artists
avoided representing Christ on the cross because it was shameful.
allusions to cruciixion bear this out. Cicero, in his defense of Gaius Rabirius
asserted that
the very word cross should be far removed not only from the person of a
Roman citizen but his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. For it is not only the
actual occurrence of these things but the very mention of them that is unwor-
thy of a Roman citizen and a free man.
Paul Corby Finney, Images on Finger Rings and Christian Art, Dumbarton Oaks Papers
41 (1987) 18186.
The compositional template for the two fourth-century gems depicting Jesus on the cross lanked
by his twelve disciples is probably the traditio legis which involved a symmetrical arrangement of
igures lanking a central axis. See Jean-Pierre Caillet, Note sur la coherence iconographique des
sarcophages des dcennies 32040, in Kirchhainer and Koch, Akten des Symposiums Frhchristliche
Sarkophage, 4445. On both gems the massed groupings of apostles suggest nothing so much as a
Byzantine liturgical procession. The apostles are not present in any New Testament account of the
cruciixion, suggesting that this unhistorical composition was motivated by a speciic stimulus,
possibly the power struggle during the fourth century between church leaders and imperial authority;
bishops in particular claimed that they were the inheritors of apostolic authority, an argument that
underlies the traditio legis and may have inspired the scene on the gems that links the apostles to
Christs most important gestus.
Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1994) 99145.
Sozomenus (Historia ecclesiastica 1.8.13), writing in 440443 C.E. in Constantinople, reports
that Constantine outlawed cruciixion. Eusebius, Constantines contemporary, neglects to mention
Constantines ban on cruciixion in his accounts of the emperors good deeds, as if cruciixion
were still a taboo topic in formal history writing. As OCollins points out, Josephus the provincial
Jew reports numerous cruciixions by the Romans during the First Jewish Revolt (J.W. 5.44951)
while Tacitus, an aristocratic Roman oficial and writer, says nothing about them in his account of
the war (Hist. 5.813).
Eduard Syndicus provides a classic articulation of this position: Pictures of the Passion and
the Cruciixion did not begin until late because Christians had to be gradually educated to regard
the symbol of shame as the symbol of victory. Christian Art (trans. J. R. Foster; London: Burns
& Oates, 1962) 103 (cited in Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 205 n. 12).
Cicero, Rab. Perd. 16 [translation and emphasis ours]. See also Cicero, Verr. 2.5.165: cruciixion
is that most cruel and disgusting penalty.
Among the Roman underclass, Crux! was a common profanity,
and clearly a
relex of the dynamic underlying Ciceros admonition.
Squeamishness at the idea of cruciixion apparently extended to imperial Roman
reliefs on triumphal arches and columns depicting military victories, even though
Roman armies cruciied their opponents during sieges and rebellions.
The Romans
may have cruciied some 500 Jewish rebels during the siege of Jerusalem,
cruciixions do not appear among the images of General Tituss victory on his
triumphal arch overlooking the Roman Forum. Hengel observes, Cruciixion was
widespread and frequent, above all in Roman times, but the cultured literary world
wanted to have nothing to do with it, and as a rule kept quiet about it.
a full awareness of the cruciixion taboo in Roman society,
the malice behind the
well-known second-century donkey-headed cruciixion victim on the Alexamenos
(FIGURE 5) or the way in which the British Museum cruciixion amulet
participates in Greco-Roman societys rich vocabulary of alterity
cannot be
fully grasped.
While acknowledging the stigma associated with cruciixion, Harley sees
a contradiction between Christians putatively conscious refusal to depict the
Cruciixion and the internal focus of the early church, where the preaching
of Christ cruciied was central.
However, pace Pauls deiant assertion that
Christians proclaim Christ cruciied, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to
Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23), a palpable tension exists between text and image, between
Pauls advocacy of the wisdom of Christ cruciied and the developing Christian
iconographical tradition, which could not afford to associate the culturally offensive
image of cruciixion with the Jesus movement. Clement of Alexandria (b. ca. 150
C.E.), for example, never refers to the cross in his catalog of devices suitable for
Christian seal rings.
In the visual record even into the ifth century the cruciied
Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, 1012 with citations. Cook (Envisioning Cruciixion,
277 n. 38) cites a grafito in the Stabian baths at Pompeii that reads, Get nailed to a cross! and
suggests that this was the Roman equivalent of Go to hell!
Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, 13842 and passim.
Josephus, J.W. 5.44951.
Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God, 130.
As Hengel points out (ibid., 173), the protagonists of Hellenistic romances are often threatened
with death by cruciixion but are always rescued in one way or another; only outright evildoers
perish on the cross.
If the Alexamenos grafito had a visual prototype, it was more likely to be found in genres
maudits such as grafiti or magic than in Christian circles.
Jonathan Z. Smiths phrase in Trading Places, in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and
Ritual Power, 19.
Harley, in Spier, Picturing the Bible, 227.
Paedagogus Paul Corby Finney discusses this passage at length in Images
on Finger Rings, 18186.
Christ is all but invisible,
whereas Christian writers discussed the cross and Christs
cruciixion in a variety of contexts.
Cruciixion, in fact, was not the only mode of public humiliation and torture that
Christians avoided representing in visual media. While early Christian martyrologies
described in gruesome, if loving, detail the torments of Christians in the arena,
correspondingly graphic images of torture do not seem to appear until the fourth
century at the earliest.
Christian writers, according to Elizabeth A. Castelli,
privileged memory and words over the idolatry of material representations.

Eusebius and Augustine typically call for Christians to create, in Eusebiuss words,
an imperishable monument to sainted martyrs not by statues of stone, nor by
pictures of mingled pigments, nor by colors or images of lifeless terrestrial things,
but by the true word uttered before God.

Crosses, not cruciixes, are the rule in extant church mosaics of the fourth to sixth centuries,
for example, the loor of Hinton St. Mary, England (fourth century), and the apses of Sta. Pudenziana
(ca. 400) and of SantApollinare in Classe (549).
Jean-Marc Prieur, La croix chez les Pres (du IIe au dbut du IVe sicle) (Strasbourg: Universit
Marc Bloch, 2006).
Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2004). Castelli discusses the ekphrasis (i.e., verbal evocation of a
visual object or situation) by Bishop Asterius of Amasea (fourth century) of a series of church
panel paintings depicting in graphic detail the torture of Saint Euphemia. She cautions, however,
that the actual existence of this artwork is debated (12830). Note the similar observation by van
den Hoek and Herrmann in Thecla the Beast Fighter, 228.
Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 104.
Eusebius of Caesarea, Martyrs of Palestine (longer recension [Syriac], preface, 2) cited in
Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 104. See also Augustine, Serm. 51.2.
Figure 5
Line drawing after the Alexamenos Graitto
Second century C.E., Rome, Italy
Drawing Courtesy of Amy Bartlett-Wright,
Even images of the cross on its own do not make a signiicant appearance in
Christian contexts until Constantines adoption of the Chi-Rho as his imperial
and notably, under Constantine the irst formulation of the Nicene Creed
(325 C.E.) afirms only that Christ suffered and died, not that he died on the cross.

However, Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, did not hesitate to draw
a parallel between the imperial tropaeum and the cross of Christ.
In an ironic
turn of affairs, Tertullian (ca. 160240 C.E.) and Minucius Felix (l. 200240 C.E.)
are at pains to provide a palatable interpretatio graeca for the cross by drawing
analogies to cross-like images and objects with positive connotations in Greco-
Roman culture: a ships mast or an oared ship, a tropaeum, a person praying, even
pagan statues of gods.
Another palliating strategy was to divert the focus from
Christs cruciixion to Old Testament prophetic type-scenes such as the stories of
Moses upraised arms in the battle against Amalek (Exod 17:1112) and the brazen
serpent of Moses (Num 21:69).
Also attractive was the docetic/gnostic idea that
Jesus only seemed to suffer on the cross or even that the cross was a symbol for
something else.
While the church fathers, despite their various, even contradictory,
theological agendas, viewed the cross as a symbol of salviic power, in the words
of Jean-Marc Prieur, the apologetic preoccupation is never far, and their concern
is to make the cross comprehensible and, if possible, acceptable to the detractors
of Christianity, whether Jewish or Pagan.
An additional explanation for this disjunction between the early Christian
textual and visual record regarding cruciixion lies in the Greco-Roman rhetoric
of masculinity, in which cruciixion constituted a primary signiier of passivity
and emasculation.
Colleen M. Conway

has observed that, barring the passion
accounts, the much-vaunted focus on the cross in the New Testament has been
exaggerated. For example, she observes of Paul that outside Galatians and 12
Corinthians direct references to the cross are not as ubiquitous as the strong
R. H. Storch, The Trophy and the Cross: Pagan and Christian Symbolism in the Fourth and
Fifth Centuries, Byzantion 40 (1971) 10517, esp. 11112.
A complicated story, most easily accessible in Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What
Christians Believe and Why it Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2005) 34 and passim.
Apology 1.150.
Tertullian, Apology 12.3, 16.68; Minucius Felix, Octavius 29.2, 67.
Jean-Marc Prieur, La croix chez les Pres, 62, notes that in the pagan world the Hebrew Bible
enjoyed the prestige of antiquity and of being a text in the collection of the library of Alexandria.
I.e., in the Acts of Peter, 37, standing before his own cross, Peter instructs his hearers, For you
which hope in Christ, let not the cross be this which appeareth; for it is another thing, different from
that which appeareth, even this passion which is according to that of Christ (emphasis ours).
Jean-Marc Prieur, La croix chez les Pres, 197 (our translation). A sculptural case in point is
the so-called Passion Sarcophagus, dated ca. 350 (Vatican inv. 31525; Spier, Picturing the Bible,
cat. no. 46, pp. 21920) where the central empty cross has morphed into a Chi-Rho labarum
topped by a victory wreath, patently an image of triumph. In the left register Christ carries his
cross over which hovers a similar victors wreath, as if Jesus march to Golgotha constituted an
imperial triumph.
Stephen D. Moore, O Man, Who Art Thou? 11.
hermeneutical tradition of his theology of the cross would suggest.
When Paul
speaks explicitly of the cross in Galatians and 12 Corinthians, he is defending
himself against accusations of weakness or lack of authority.
He parries these
charges by resorting to a philosophical ideal popularized in Hellenistic Stoicism,
that the highest degree of manliness accrues to one who willingly suffers and dies
on behalf of others.
Accordingly, Paul asserts that while extrinsically Jesus death
on the cross might appear humiliating, in actuality his suffering and vicarious death
demonstrated the heroic self-sacriice of a true man.
In these letters Paul aligns
his own apparent weakness (the feminine quality par excellence) with the nobility
of Christs passive endurance.
Tellingly for our argument, Conway asserts that the concept of the noble,
manly death and the emasculating cruciixion are not ideas that are easily held
together in the gendered ideology of the irst century. The gendered implications
of both images are like similar poles of a magnet, repelling rather than attracting
one another.
Early Christian writers could control the discourse of the cross by
providing any number of culturally acceptable interpretations for the cruciixion
of Christ. Visual representations, on the other hand, like movies today, were fair
game for interpretation by anyone with eyes to see. Early Christians could not risk
associating themselves with an image from which the majority of their neighbors
would avert their eyes.
Any attempt to understand the background to the Santa Sabina panel requires
a willingness to work with, rather than against, this tension between text and
image. Our research supports Robin Jensens proposal that there is, in fact, a
complete absence of cruciixion imagery in Christianity.
We are interested in
following up on her admonition that if narrative subjects functioned symbolically
or metaphorically in addition to broadly illustrating particular narratives, new
possibilities emergesome of which might be subtle or veiled references to the
It is with this perspective in mind that we should reconsider the Santa
Sabina cruciixion.
Colleen M. Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2008) 70. Conways chapter on Paul and the Pauline tradition argues that in the
deuteropauline epistles the cruciied Jesus recedes before the exalted resurrected imperial Christ
(83). In Col 2:14, not Christ but the sinners decree of accusation is nailed to the cross, while in
Col 1:20 the blood of the cross brings peace with no suggestion of suffering. The Pastoral Epistles
avoid mention of the cross, according to Conway, because they are interested in refuting early-
second-century accusations of Christian shamefulness (87).
Ibid., 75.
Ibid., 70.
Ibid., 73.
Ibid., 73.
Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 137.
Ibid., 137.
The Santa Sabina Panel and Roman Christian Iconography
First, because the Santa Sabina cruciixion relief hails from Rome, it is important
to consider it within its Roman Christian context. Whereas the nationality of the
Santa Sabina sculptor is not relevant to our question of the formal model for this
image, art produced in Rome during the fourth and ifth centuries is. The only
Roman cruciixion scene contemporary with the Santa Sabina doors appears on
one of four narrative panels of the so-called Maskell ivories (420430 C.E.) in the
British Museum (FIGURE 6).
Of particular interest on this privately commissioned
Roman pyxis is the narrative ivory relief of the cruciixion, which clearly shows
both the entire cross and Christ. While both the Santa Sabina wooden relief and
the ivory relief depict cruciixions, however, many differences are apparent. The
Santa Sabina panel is public whereas the ivory casket is a private work of art; the
ivory shows both the full cross and Christ hanging on it, while on the wooden door
panel Christ seems to stand on the ground with the cross itself barely visible. In
addition, unlike the stark Santa Sabina panel, the ivory has a complex narrative
composition involving not only the cruciixion but the suicide of Judas and, more
importantly, the Virgin Mary and John, as well as the centurion.
British Museum website, Panel from an Ivory Casket: The Cruciixion of Christ, http://www.
and Felicity Harley, Ivory Plaques with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ (the Maskell
Ivories), in Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. no. 57, 22932.
Figure 6
Panel from an Ivory Casket: The Cruciixion of Christ (Maskell Ivories)
c. 420-430 C.E., Rome, Italy
Photo Credit: Trustees of the British Museum
Both images do show compositional innovations, albeit different ones. The
ivory juxtaposes the ignominiously dead and hanging Judas with an open-eyed
Christ triumphantly alive on the cross; the wooden door panel, on the other hand,
shows a frontal Christ alive between the two thieves with only the barest hint of
a cross visible behind each of the three igures. In fact, all three igures appear to
be standing sturdily rather than hanging. In both works, the artists are grappling
with a new scene, the cruciixion, and have brought two very different solutions
to the compositional problem. On the ivory relief the artist has chosen to omit the
two thieves and instead has juxtaposed two separate narrative moments of the
passion. Here the cross is a fully articulated part of the scene; the viewer is in no
doubt that this is Christs cruciixion and is encouraged to meditate on the irony
of Judas hanging dead on a living tree while the living Christ hanging on a dead
tree triumphs over death.
If the Santa Sabina panel has no visual precedents in earlier Christian
representations of the cruciixion, where then should one turn to ind a model for
its cruciixion composition? Because the panel is a Roman work of art, it makes
sense to examine Christian Roman art from the preceding two centuries,
and the
two most fruitful sources of Christian art from the third and fourth centuries are
catacomb paintings and sarcophagi. In our search for a theoretical prototype for
the Santa Sabina scene, we developed a basic template consisting of:
three standing frontal male igures
igures with outstretched arms
an iconographic context of salvation.
With this template in hand, it was a relatively simple matter to ind a familiar
scene with all the necessary characteristics, and that scene appears both in catacomb
paintings and on sarcophagus reliefs: the Three Boys in the Fiery Furnace from
Daniel 3. These images exactly matched all the requisite formal and iconographic
criteria. For example, the Three Boys fresco in the early-fourth-century Velatio
chamber of the Catacomb of Santa Priscilla
provides a striking parallel to the Santa
See Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God, 99145, who explains why Christian art only
appeared in the third century, and Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 911, for a discussion
of the late emergence of cruciixion images and how Christian subject matter drew on earlier
decorative and pagan imagery and biblical stories. Investigating prototypes or formal templates
for cruciixion compositions is a methodology employed by Jas Elsner in Pharaohs Army Got
Drownded: Some Relections on Jewish and Roman Genealogies in Christian Art, (The Estelle
Shohet Brettman Lecture delivered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 6, 2008). Along the
same lines, van den Hoek and Herrmann identiied Daniel in the lions den as the iconographical
prototype for representations of Theclas miraculous preservation from wild beasts (Thecla the
Beast Fighter, esp. 22829).
As dated by Norbert Zimmermann, Werkstattgruppen rmischer Katacombenmalerei (Mnster:
Aschendorff, 2002) 165. An earlier dating (late second to early third century) is found in Jensen,
Understanding Early Christian Art, 79, and C. Dagens, A propos du Cubiculum de la <velatio>,
Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 47 (1971) 11920. Despite Zimmermanns later dating of the fresco,
Sabina cruciixion (FIGURE 7A/B). This scene remained popular in both catacomb
decoration and Christian sarcophagi throughout the fourth century C.E.
Before turning to a detailed comparison between the Three Boys images and the
Santa Sabina cruciixion panel, it is important to consider the panels composition.
The Santa Sabina cruciixion panel shows the larger standing frontal Christ igure in
the center lanked by the two smaller thieves who are similarly frontal and standing.
The facial features of all three igures are rudimentary at best, although their eyes are
manifestly open. Christ, however, has long hair and a beard, while the two thieves
appear short-haired and clean shaven. All three igures have outstretched arms and
wear identical loincloths. Behind the igures is a wall of rectangular stones. Each
igure is separated from the other by a vertical wooden pier that supports a wooden
triangular pediment above his head. Both thieves heads are below the pediment
while Christs head extends into and is framed by the triangular pediment. In the
pediment above the thief on Christs proper right is a small arched window.
While this is clearly a cruciixion scene, the only indications of a cross are small
rectangular blocks behind the hands of the igures, the nails in the hands, and a
bit of the cross barely extending above each thiefs head. All three igures stand
squarely on the bottom edge of the panel with only the suggestion of a supedaneum
sculpted in the center of each igures feet. Except for his height and his long hair,
Christ and the two thieves are almost identical.
A comparison of the Santa Sabina panel with the Three Boys fresco from the
Santa Priscilla Velatio chamber reveals striking similarities. For instance, the
general composition of both images contains three standing, identically-clothed
male igures with arms stretched out in the horizontal orant position. A prominent
difference between the images is the greater size accorded on the Santa Sabina
panel to the central igure of Christ, which creates a visual disruption across the
image, especially because the arms and hands of the igures are now at different
levels; even so, as noted above, all three igures in the cruciixion scene look
remarkably alike. Located in the dark upper-left corner of the door and with no
actual cross distinguishable in the scene, the Santa Sabina cruciixion panel can
easily be mistaken for a Three Boys in the Fiery Furnace image until one notices
the lack of lames.

the Santa Priscilla Catacomb is one of the earliest of the Roman catacombs, having been converted
for Christian use during the third century (Spier, Picturing the Bible, 175).
See Josef Engemann, Zur Interpretation der Darstellungen der Drei Jnglinge in Babylon
in der frhchristlichen Kunst, in Akten des Symposiums frchristliche Sarkophage Marburg
30.64. 7. 1999 (ed. Karin Kirchhainer and Guntram Koch; Mainz: Zabern, 2002) 8191 for an
excellent summary and evaluation of the literature on the Three Boys images. Carlo Carletti, I tre
giovani ebrei di babilonia nellarte Cristiana antica, Quaderni di Vetera Christianorum 9 (1975)
provides the most complete catalog of the Three Boys images, including patristic sources as well
as paintings and reliefs.
We accept that the current location of the cruciixion panel in the upper-left corner of the
door was consciously intended in order to reduce its visibility. Tumminello suggests that the current
location is probably not original but proposes no alternative (La crociissione, 20). See Wolfgang
Figure 7a
Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace
Catacomb of Santa Priscilla, Velatio Cubiculum
Late second to early third century C.E., Rome, Italy
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, N.Y.
Figure 7b
Santa Sabina Cruciixion Panel
Photo Credit: William Storage and Laura Maish
Both the catacomb artist and the sculptor of the door panel chose not to include
additional narrative attributes that would more easily identify the story in question.
For example, while some other contemporary images of the Three Boys include
a prominent furnace (an example of which is found in the same Santa Priscilla
the Velatio chamber image does not include a furnace (only lames),
so that the three boys stand on the ground. So, too, does the sculptor of the Santa
Sabina panel downplay the crosses because, similarly, Christ and the two thieves
stand on the ground line.
For both the Santa Priscilla Velatio chamber image of the Three Boys and the
Santa Sabina cruciixion relief the artists followed the biblical text to illustrate the
Old and New Testament stories. The Velatio chamber Three Boys image shows
three fully-clothed male igures standing in lames, the essentials of the story in
Daniel 3. Similarly, the Santa Sabina cruciixion image also relies on the biblical
text for its visual iconography. All three of the synoptic gospels describe Jesus
cruciied between two criminals (Matt 27:44; Mark 15:32; Luke 23:3943). In the
panel, however, the artist simply shows two cruciied men lanking the cruciied
central igure of Jesus. At this early point in time, the artist has no interest in
depicting narrative details such as the distinction between the good and bad thief,

the centurion, Mary and John at the foot of the cross, or other bystanders.
The translation of the three orant igures in the iery furnace into the three
cruciied igures has its roots in early Christian theological typology. As early as the
mid-second-century letter concerning the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, Christian
writers perceived a parallel between orant prayer and cruciixion.
In the third
century Tertullian of Carthage wrote of the orant gesture: We, however, not only
raise our hands, but even expand them; and taking our model from the Lords
Kemp, Christliche Kunst. Ihre Anfnge, ihre Strukturen (Munich: Schirmer-Mosel, 1994) 22330
and 224 for a chart illustrating his proposed coniguration of the door panels. In Kemps chart the
cruciixion is moved lower on the door and to the extreme right of the left door panel, making it
more readily visible. Jeremias also suggests another location (Die Holztr der Basilika, 10810).
Also see Jean-Michel Spieser, Le programme iconographique des portes de Sainte-Sabine, Journal
des Savants (1991) 4781, esp. 7478, where he suggests that the current location of the passion
scene may be the original one. Regardless of its original position, the cruciixions relegation to
one of the smaller panels suggests reticence with regard to the image.
Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. nos. 5A and B, 17576.
The story occurs only in Luke (23:3943). We do not agree with Tumminello, who detects
indications of a good and bad thief in the doors depiction. She identiies the good thief as the taller
of the two lanking igures, the igure on Christs left (La crociissione, 14). Flix M. D. Darsy also
points out the good and bad thief and identiies the good thief as the taller of the two thieves. Santa
Sabina (Rome: Edizioni Roma, 1961) 74. As we argue, the artist of this panel is uninterested in such
ine distinctions. In any case, the artistic convention as early as the sixth-century Rabula Gospels
was to place the good thief at Christs right.
The original letter dates to 177 C.E. Eusebius quotes the letter in which the writer compared
the martyr Blandina, as she prayed in the arena of Lyons, to one hanging on a cross (Hist. eccl.
passion, even in prayer we confess to Christ.
Likewise Minucius Felix (also third
century) describes the cross: We assuredly see the sign of a cross, naturally, in
the ship when it is carried along with swelling sails, when it glides forward with
expanded oars; and when the military yoke is lifted up, it is the sign of a cross; and
when a man adores God with a pure mind, with hands outstretched.
In view of
such conscious comparisons of orant igures to Christ on the cross, the borrowing
of the Three Boys image as a prototype for the irst public Roman cruciixion scene
is not surprising.
Moreover, considered thematically, the Three Boys motif, like the cruciixion
scene, is an image of salvation and thus the reliance on the Three Boys composition
for the irst public image of Christs cruciixion makes sense both formally and
iconographically. The earlier painting has all the elements necessary for a cruciixion
scene: a torture motif (lames), three male igures standing and facing forward, and
orant arms. In addition, both images are based on the biblical text, and we know
that the early church fathers used the image of the Three Boys as a basic type of
Christian martyrdom and salvation.
The Three Boys as a type scene of Christian martyrdom appears irst in 1
Clement (late irst century), where the author describes the ordeal of the Three
Boys in the context of Gods saving power.
Tertullian follows this trend in the
third century when he describes the Three Boys refusal to worship the idol of King
Nebuchadnezzar: There is no necessity for our making answer to this command
of yours. For our God whom we worship is able to deliver us from the furnace
of ire and from your hands.
Indeed, in the representation of the Three Boys
from the Velatio chamber of Santa Priscilla, the inclusion of a dove with a piece
of foliage in its beak conirms, according to Marilyn Stokstad, that the lames are
incapable of harming believers.
On Christian sarcophagi, the frequent pairing of
the Three Boys with Noah heightens the signiicance of salvation for both images.
Robin Jensen suggests that both scenes emphasize rescue as resurrection, rather
than the salvation of the righteous alone. . . . The story of the three children in the
furnace is a demonstration of the preservation or resurrection of the physical body
and seen along with Noah in his ark, both images serve as typologies of baptism
(which itself contains the promise of physical resurrection).

These themes of salvation come together in an extraordinary example: the
sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, securely dated by its inscription to 359 C.E. In
the spandrels of the lower register are small biblical scenes (badly damaged,
unfortunately) in which lambs surprisingly substitute for human actors. The three
Tertullian, Or. 14.
Minucius Felix, Oct. 29.
1 Clement 45:7
Tertullian, Scorp. 8.
Marilyn Stokstad, Medieval Art (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004) 12.
Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 82; Engemann, Interpretation der Darstellungen,
8191; and Carletti, I tre giovani ebrei, 96102.
lambs in the iery furnace appear on the outer left spandrel and are matched with the
spandrel scene on the outer right, the raising of Lazarus.
Because this sarcophagus
dates after 312 C.E., we can surmise that the lambs are a symbol of Christ, the Lamb
of God, and may also stand for the Christian community.
On the sarcophagus the
pairing of the three youths/lambs with the resurrection of Lazarus communicates
salvation themes and ultimately leads the viewer to understand the scenes as types
of Christs resurrection.
According to Malbon, the three youths and the raising of
Lazarus symbolize for Christians the salvation from the lames that threaten life
[and] preigure salvation from the tomb that marks the end of life.
Surely, then,
the Three Boys images effectively serve as a prototype for the ultimate Christian
scene of martyrdom and salvation, Christs cruciixion.
Technical Similarities
Another similarity between some of the Three Boys sarcophagus reliefs and the
Santa Sabina cruciixion panel lies outside the formal, iconographic, and theological
ties already discussed. It is, instead, a technical or functional link. When examining
the cruciixion panel, we understood the abbreviated, almost shorthand, wooden
squares behind the hands of all three igures as simply a result of the artists
reluctance to show an entire cross. While this is probably true, a close inspection
of several of the Roman sarcophagus reliefs (FIGURE 8a) suggested to us a
technical reason for the strange Santa Sabina wooden blocks. The sculptors of the
sarcophagus reliefs solved the problem of bringing the boys raised hands forward
to the same plane as their fuller bodies by leaving a small stone block behind the
Braced in this manner, the hands were less likely to break off, and they
were more realistically in line with the igures bodies.
This technical solution to a sculptural problem found on some of the Three Boys
sarcophagi has perhaps been grafted onto the Santa Sabina cruciixion panel. In other
words, the sarcophagus brace has become the indication for the cross (FIGURE
8b). Perhaps the sculptor of the cruciixion relief also sculpted sarcophagi. Even
if he did not, he was surely familiar with the Three Boys sarcophagus scenes that
used this technical method to brace the igures hands.
See Elizabeth Malbon, The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1990) 7290 for a complete discussion of the spandrel scenes.
Ibid., 7376.
Ibid., 7677.
Ibid., 77.
See, for example, Vatican, Museo Pio Cristiano, 31471, 31472 and 31489. See also Sarcophagus
Lid with Noah and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, in Spier, Picturing the Bible, cat. no. 42,
p. 210, a sarcophagus from the Musei Capitolini-Centrale Montemartini, Rome (M.C. 68).
Papal Patronage?
Not only are there formal, theological, and technical reasons for the use of the
Three Boys as a template for the Santa Sabina cruciixion panel, but it is worth
considering the question of patronage as well. Pope Celestine, during whose
pontiicate Santa Sabina was constructed, had close ties to the cemeterial basilica
erected by Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314335 C.E.) over the catacomb of Santa
In fact, Celestine, like Sylvester and three later pontiffs (Liberius,
352366 C.E.; Siricius, 385399 C.E.; and Vigilius, 537555 C.E.), was originally
buried at Santa Priscilla.
The sacredness of the Santa Priscilla location predates
even the erection of Pope Sylvesters cemeterial basilica at Santa Priscilla because
two earlier popes, Marcellinus (296304 C.E.) and Marcellus (308309 C.E.) were
already buried here.
Because so many early pontiffs chose burial here, the early
excavators proposed that Santa Priscilla had a connection to the place where St.
See Orazio Marucchi, La basilica papale del Cimitero di Priscilla ritrovata ed in parte ricostruita
dalla Commissione di Archeologia Sacra (Rome: Libreria Spithver, 1908) esp. 2233.
See ibid., 6189 for discussion of papal inscriptions and 3440 for tomb locations. See
also Francesco Tolotti, Il Cimitero di Priscilla. Studio di topograia e architettura (Vatican City:
Societ Amici delle Catacombe, 1970) 23757 and esp. 25257, where he argues for the location
of the papal burials in an octagonal room of the catacomb and not in the basilica of St. Sylvester
as originally thought by the early excavators of the catacomb, Giovanni Bernardo de Rossi and
Orazio Marucchi.
For Marcellinus see Orazio Marucchi, Il sepolcro del papa Marcellino nel cimitero di
Priscilla, Nuovo Bulletino di archeologia Cristiana (1907) 115 and following. For Marcellus see
Louis Duchesne, ed., Liber Pontiicalis, 2
(Paris: Boccard, 1955) 164; Marucchi, La basilica
papale del Cimitero di Priscilla, 6167, and Tolotti, Il Cimitero di Priscilla, 25257.
Figure 8a
Detail: The Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace
Relief on a marble sarcophagus,
Sarcophagus 31471
Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican Museums,
Vatican State
Photo Credit: Vanni/Art Resource, N.Y.
Figure 8b
Detail: Santa Sabina Cruciixion Panel
Photo Credit: Bill Storage
and Laura Maish
Peter, traditionally the irst pope, was known to have preached and baptized, making
this cemetery a suitable resting place for later pontiffs.
Additional visual evidence of the papal connection to Santa Priscilla and,
presumably, its decoration, is a now-lost mid-fourth-century fresco in the Santa
Priscilla catacomb that depicted the apostolic succession, the traditio legis, Christ
giving the law to St. Peter. This fresco was often cited as visual evidence for St.
Peters early ties with this location.
In a recent study Linda Sue Galate mentions
the lost fresco and then suggests that the fresco scenes in the Velatio chamber in
Santa Priscilla illustrate episodes from the second-century Acts of Peter.
the seated male igure in the Velatio fresco is St. Peter or not, the igure is shown
in a position of authority, seated on a throne-like chair. This is the same chamber
that contains the Three Boys image discussed above, which so strikingly resembles
the composition of the Santa Sabina cruciixion. It is certainly conceivable that
Celestine, a pope who chose to be buried in the same sacred locationSanta
Priscillawhere previous pontiffs were interred, would have been familiar with
the images in the catacomb.
Although no archaeological or archival evidence
exists to substantiate this proposal, it is not unreasonable to imagine that Celestine
himselfintimately familiar with both the catacomb of Santa Priscilla and the
Marucchi, La basilica papale, 90113.
See ibid. for an extensive discussion of Peters connection to Priscilla. See Tolotti, Il Cimitero
di Priscilla, 33940, for the location and discussion of the lost traditio legis fresco.
Linda Sue Galate mentions the lost fresco and suggests that the chamber at the catacomb of
Santa Priscilla where the Velatio is located is another instance in which miracles of Peter narrated
in the second-century Acts of Peter are depicted. She proposes that the two lanking scenes are
depictions of resurrection miracles performed by St. Peter. According to Galate, the scene on the
left depicts the resurrected senator and his mother bringing offerings to Peter (Acts of Peter 28).
The suckling mother and child scene on the right she interprets as the talking baby episode in the
Acts of Peter 15 (The Apostle Peter in Rome? Archaeology Online News, 10 January, 2002: For other interpretations of the Velatio imagery,
see Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers (Boston: Beacon, 2007) 7579 and 85, who suggests that
interpretations of the Velatio images as either a marriage ceremony or the consecration of a church
virgin are incorrect. She proposes that the image on the left shows the deceased woman in the act
of reading before a bishop, an act the woman wanted to portray because it was both learned and
pious (85). Dagens identiies the depictions as the irst representation of a Christian marriage
(129). Marucchi identiied the seated male church igure depicted on the left of the veiled orant
woman as a pope and used this image as well as other incised grafiti of a cathedra to propose
a connection between Peter, according to tradition the irst pope, and Santa Priscilla (La basilica
papale del Cimitero di Priscilla, 1089).
Celestine himself is known to have commissioned paintings depicting the Council of Ephesus
at St. Sylvesters cemeterial basilica over Santa Priscilla. De Rossi irst mentioned the paintings
in an article published in 1880 in the Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 3d ser., 5 (1880) 4346.
See Tolotti, 31819, who does not discount the existence of paintings commissioned by Celestine
in the cemeterial basilica and recorded in the letter of Pope Hadrian to Charlemagne. See also
Marucchi, Guida del cimitero Priscilla (Paris: Descle, 1903) 106. Darsy points out that the irst
two lines of the Santa Sabina inscription (see n. 1, above) allude to the Council of Ephesus, called
by Celestine and at which he succeeded in securing the primacy of Rome over the other bishops
(Santa Sabina, 9596).
Church of Santa Sabinachose the iconographical prototype of the Three Boys
for the Santa Sabina cruciixion panel.
The search for a single iconographic prototype behind the various, and quite
different, representations of the cruciixion of Christwhether on a magical amulet
from Egypt, a door panel of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome, a small ivory
box, or the Syrian Rabula Gospelsis essentially based on the false premise of a
homogeneous Christianity, a seductive ideal dating back to the earliest Christian
centuries, with which New Testament and church historians have only begun to
come to terms in recent decades. There was, of course, a general trajectory toward
a Christian textual canon, a constant alertness on the part of each Christian faction
for what they would consider heresy in others, and, with the Peace of the Church
in the fourth century, an imperial policy to organize the church and bring its
various factions into line. Nevertheless, if we include, as we surely must, visual
representations of the cruciixion in the body of what Averil Cameron has called
Christian discourse, then, to paraphrase Cameron, we must avoid giving a false
impression of Christian unanimity if we wish to do justice to the spread of that

The fact that the earliest surviving Christian art is concentrated in Rome can
also create a distorting lens through which to contemplate Christian imagery when
artistic traditions in other areas of the empire have not survived to any great extent.
In other words, there were probably a number of different inspirations, rather than
some single lost tradition, for the images of the cruciixion that start to appear
in the early ifth century, including the Santa Sabina cruciixion.
Even in Rome,
as we have seen, two ifth-century cruciixion scenes have different inspirations.
The Maskell Ivory version probably relects learned theological rhetoric about the
cruciixion, perhaps a homily that drew a parallel between Jesus good death and
Judass bad one. On the other hand, the prototype for the Santa Sabina panel was
a widely known, popular image of salvation, the Three Boys in the Fiery Furnace.
With no established convention for the cruciixion scene, artists and patrons
were faced with the challenge of creating a new composition almostbut not
quitefrom scratch.
Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian
Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 41. This comment is propos of the
irst and second centuries, but applies to the third through ifth centuries as well.
As for the sixth- and seventh-century cruciixion images presented by Tumminello, Vikans
work on pilgrimage art suggests that Eastern examples arose in connection with pilgrimage to
the Holy Land.
Why the Santa Sabina and Maskell Cruciixions appear in Rome when they do is a subject
we will be investigating further.