Jesus flanked by Peter and Paul. Detail from the Roman sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Detail of a sculpture of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359 C.E. Marble, Treasury, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

This sarcophagus belonged to Junius Bassus, a Roman prefect who died in the year 359. He had recently become a convert to Christianity, which had only been legal in the Roman Empire for fifty years or so at the time.

The style and iconography of this sarcophagus reflect the transformed status of Christianity. The sarcophagus has ten scenes in two registers. Each of the scenes is contained in a classical architectural constraint of two columns and a roof. The figures all wear togas of the classical Roman upper class, but they are also starting to take on the Christian artistic style of depicting figures with larger heads and shorter bodies.

Before the time of Constantine, the figure of Christ was rarely directly represented, but here we see Christ prominently represented in a formula derived from Roman imperial art. This gesture is known as the traditio legis (“handing over the law’) and it became a classic convention of early Christian art. It displays an aspect of the deity as a lawgiver and a teacher. In Roman imperial art it was used to indicate the emperor as a lawgiver or one who was investing someone with authority. The classical tradition continued to be a recurring element in Christian art throughout the Middle Ages.