Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus


Junius Bassus was the son of Junius Annius Bassus, who became prefect of Rome. Because he was in public office, and most of Rome still practiced pagan beliefs, Junius was not baptized only when he was on his deathbed. Although the sarcophagus was carved almost 50 years after the Edict of Milan, that established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire, Junius kept his Christianity a secret.

In the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus , the iconography of the figures are very similar to those of the Roman polytheistic Gods. The Christian figures are in high relief, enrobed in flowing Roman garments. These reliefs are some of the first representations of Christians, with Jesus being in the centre upper register- he is depicted as a youthful and almost philosophical, with a scroll in his left hand. With facial characteristics that would familiar viewers as belonging to the idealized portraits of Apollo or Achilles. Christ appears as an enthroned emperor, between Saints Peter and Paul. The iconography of what we might know Jesus to look like (older, with a beard) had not yet been in place yet. This work of art shows the Late Antiquity’s expressions of Christ- as the artist takes bits and pieces from Roman art- such as the capitals on the columns and the contraposto poses of the figures. The heads of the figures are slightly enlarged, and the bodies are somewhat squished, fitting into the frames of the arches- giving notion to what will come in the style of Christian artwork. The pillars and arches separate each scene, which becomes ever more popular in future Christian artwork. Before Constantine, Christ was hardly ever represented, and already the figures of Jesus’ disciples were establishing their known characteristics-


Already at this early period, artists had articulated identifiable formulas for representing St’s Peter and Paul. Peter was represented with a bowl haircut and a short cropped beard, while the figure of Paul was represented with a pointed beard and usually a high forehead.

The sarcophagus is a great example how the interplay of traditional pagan iconography was used to depict Christian biblical scenes.

I think culturally & socially, the artist was acquainted with Roman & Greek symbolism for the means of telling a story. For example, putting Jesus’s foot right on top of the Roman God-Cellus, shows how Christ is now the conqueror of the pagan gods, ruler of the universe. Jesus is even depicted seated, similarly to what Caesar’s throne would look like. Creating these assimilations between Greek and Roman Gods, and Roman Emperors, helped smoothly introduce Christianity to the Romans. On all levels, the only way to tell a story was visually- through frescos, sculptures, and mosaics. The fact that Christ was depicted embodying the familiarities of the divine Greek and Roman Gods, allowed these sculpture reliefs to be easily translatable.

The entire life, and passion of Christ is depicted on the sarcophagus, each story told through the 10 registered compartments, with biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Jesus death, and resurrection. Junius Bassus probably had hoped for a similar resurrection, as he shared the story of Christ in his own sarcophagi.

Works Cited:

“Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.” – Smarthistory. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014


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