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The works of arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of the Cloisters have a beautiful story that gives the writer the image of its history. The imagery and the story told reflect a deep meaning to life in terms of its nature and life situations. In looking at the fragment of a marble tomb relief with Christ giving the law, every art lover will see the story of Christ through the ancient times. On the other hand the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is a marble Early Christian sarcophagus which was used for the burial of Junius Bassus, who died in 359. It has been described as "probably the single most famous piece of early Christian relief sculpture.
This paper will examine these two pieces of art in terms of their subject matter comparing them and discussing them in relation to one another.
Fragment of a marble tomb relief with Christ giving the law
Date late 300s
Dimensions Overall: 19 1/2 x 52 3/4 x 6 in. (49.5 x 134 x 15.2 cm)
Credit LineGift of Mrs. Joseph Brummer and Ernest Brummer, in memory of Joseph Brummer, 1948
The power of the Christian church rose quickly with Emperor Constantine's acknowledgment of the faith as a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313. Gradually the most powerful centers of the church were the old imperial capital, Rome; the new imperial capital, Constantinople, the New Rome; Alexandria; Jerusalem/Caesarea; and Antioch. Throughout the late fourth century, the church in Rome introduced images emphasizing the significance of Saint Peter to whom Christ had given the keys to the kingdom (Matt. 16: 18-20). Usually considered the first bishop of Rome, Saint Peter was martyred and covered up in the city. These Roman images would spread extensively among peoples all over Western Europe as they recognized the power of the Church of Rome.
One of these images, the traditio legis, Christ Giving the Law to Saint Peter, expresses Christ contributing an unfurled scroll containing the law to Saint Peter in recognition of his role as the leader of the church. To the left of Christ stands Saint Paul, also martyred in Rome, accepting the power conferred on Peter. Four other apostles endure on this relief. The scene is placed within a traditional Roman sarcophagus form, a series of niches bordered by columns ornamented with putti in vine scrolls.
Sarcophagus with scenes from the lives of Saint Peter and Christ
Date early 4th century, with modern restoration
Dimensions 26 x 84 x 22 13/16 in. (66 x 213.4 x 58 cm)
Credit LineGift of Josef and Marsy Mittlemann, 1991
Accession Number 1991.366
The sarcophagus was made about the time when Christianity was first known as a legal faith in the Roman Empire. The two renowned acts of the Miracle of Saint Peter Drawing Water from a Rock in His Jail Cell and Saint Peter's Arrest in Rome, crisply carved in authoritative, deep relief at the left, are among the original remaining images portraying Peter's special relationship with Rome. When the sarcophagus was recognized in 1879, only the lower legs, with scenes from the life of Christ on the right, lasted. Improper documentation of the figures led to inexact rebuilding of the upper portion of the scenes carved in low relief. Initially, four scenes from Christ's life ornamented the sarcophagus: the Entry into Jerusalem, the Cure of the Man Born Blind, the Multiplication of the Loaves, and the Raising of Lazarus. In the modern repair, the Cure of the Man Born Blind was not there, with the man's feet used in its place for the small, terrified child in the Entry into Jerusalem. Unevenly carved in low relief on the ends are two Old Testament scenes projecting mankind's salvation by Christ: Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace and Adam and Eve after the fall by the Tree of Knowledge. The sarcophagus was brought to America to beautify the grounds of Burrwood, an estate on Long Island.
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The carvings are in high relief on three sides of the sarcophagus, permitting for its placement against a wall. The column and many parts of the figures are carved totally in the round. The arrangement of relief scenes in rows in a columnar framework is an introduction from Asia Minor at about this time. No portrait of the dead is shown, though he is praised in lavish terms in an inscription; instead, the ten niches are filled with scenes from the New and Old Testaments, plus one, the Traditio Legis that has no Scriptural basis.
The sarcophagus in many respects displays fewer structures of the Late Antique style of sculpture characterized in the Arch of Constantine of many decades earlier: "The sculpture ignores practically all the rules obeyed by official reliefs. Some facts are represented frontally, but certainly not all, and they are not shown in a thoroughly Late Antique manner; the scenes are three-dimensional and have depth and background.... (Walter 23) hangings hangs on familiar human forms rather than being set in predetermined folds; heads are varied, depicting identifiably different people. The sarcophagus has been seen as showing a blending of late Hellenistic style with the contemporary Roman or Italian one, seen in the "robust" proportions of the figures, and their slightly over-large heads.
The setting in the niches casts the figures against a background of shadow, giving "an emphatic chiaroscuro effect" - (Richard 36) an effect much more obvious in the original than the cast shown here, which has a more uniform and lighter colour. The cast also lacks the effects created by light on polished or patinated highlights such as the heads of the figures, against the darker recessed surfaces and backgrounds.
The two carving both portrays the story of Christianity, created at a time when the Christian life was in a lot of struggle being recognized in the days. In these carvings the story of Christ is showed. The uniqueness is the creation time and the detail of information that is still visible. The carvings are in high relief on three sides, permitting for its placement against a wall. The column and many parts of the figures are carved totally in the round. The arrangement of relief scenes in rows in a columnar framework is an introduction from Asia Minor at about this time. The sarcophagus has been seen as showing a blending of late Hellenistic style with the contemporary Roman or Italian one, seen in the "robust" proportions of the figures, and their slightly over-large heads. Christ Giving the Law to Saint Peter expresses Christ contributing an unfurled scroll containing the law to Saint Peter in recognition of his role as the leader of the church. To the left of Christ stands Saint Paul, also martyred in Rome, accepting the power conferred on Peter.
The Old Testament scenes portrayed were chosen as ancestors of Christ's sacrifice in the New Testament, in an early form of typology. The cast also lacks the effects created by light on polished or patinated highlights such as the heads of the figures, against the darker recessed surfaces and backgrounds.In the end, we can only look at the various ways in which the carvings are made and sit to admire the preserving role that they play in telling the story that the bible and other religious book may need to show the full image of Christianity. The carvings have a unique story showing in many aspects the similar story and in different times.