Friday, 8 May 2015

Robin Jensen: Representations of Teachers and Disciples on Third and Fourth-Century Roman SarcophagiRepresentations of Teachers and Disciples on Third and Fourth-Century Roman Sarcophagi

The depiction of a man reading from a scroll and accompanied by a “muse” or a teacher among his disciples was a familiar figure on third-century Roman sarcophagi. Commonly categorized under the general heading of “philosopher sarcophagi,” art historians often describe these as signifying a growing interest in representing the deceased as an idealized, cultured intellectual. The central figure – the learned man – was usually depicted wearing a tunic and pallium, as well as the beard, commonly associated with portraits of philosophers. A version of this figure appears regularly on later, Christian sarcophagi, sometimes transformed into a depiction of Christ among his apostles, but occasionally as part of compositions dominated by episodes from scripture or joined by the good shepherd or female orant. In addition, standing figures holding scrolls appear are incorporated into certain biblical narratives, including the scene of John baptizing Jesus. This paper will briefly review standard art historical interpretations of the “philosopher” type on non-Christian sarcophagi, and then explore the possible significance of its adaptation on Christian monuments from the late third through the mid fourth century, in particular proposing that the image no longer alludes primarily to the virtues of the secular, intellectual life, but rather that it presents Christianity as alternative paideia in which the evangelist is the teacher and knowledge is as much a matter of witness as it is of cultivated reading.

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