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Fragment of a Frieze Sarcophagus
In the slow and cautious development of the visual type of Christ, the well-known version with long hair and a beard did not dominate until the fifth century. In the fourth century, artists typically portrayed Christ as represented on the right of this sarcophagus fragment: beardless, with short curling locks, and looking more like an idealized youth than the adult implied in the Gospel accounts of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. (The scene is identifiable by the cylindrical container beneath Christ’s hand—actually one of the baskets of bread—and by comparison with intact sarcophagi that depict the same story.) Both this youthful type of Christ and the choice of a miracle story may have derived from pagan equivalents of the preceding centuries. Youthful mythological heroes such as Meleager or the Dioskuri were often depicted on sarcophagi, performing the superhuman deeds that earned them eternal fame, if not eternal life. The miraculous multiplication of the bread both reassured Christians of the miraculous power of Christ and reminded them of the Eucharist. This heroic type, combined with his frontal pose and the faraway look in his eyes, promoted the earthly narrative into a visual creed.
The style of the carving, characteristic of the period around the time of Constantine I (reigned 306–337), is typified by oversized, soft faces, and summary carving of the drapery folds accomplished by cutting grooves with a hand-powered drill. This efficient method was used on modest works such as the sarcophagi of private citizens, as well as grand imperial monuments, including, most notably, Constantine’s triumphal arch in Rome. It is one of many stylistic developments that suggest a changing taste in Rome around 300, one that increasingly valued symbolic representation over sculptural realism.
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G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Washington, D.C., 1995), 25-28, no. 12, pl. 12.
A. Kirin, J. N. Carder, and R. S. Nelson, Sacred Art, Secular Context : Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. A. Kirin, exhibition catalogue, Georgia Museum of Art, (Athens, Ga., 2005), 119-121, no. 58.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 38, pl. p. 39.
Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks, "Selections of Sculpture from the Early Byzantine Period," Nov. 1995 - Aug. 1996.
Athens, GA, Georgia Museum of Art, “Sacred Art, Secular Context: Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss,” May 15 – Nov. 6, 2005.
Purchased from Hesperia Art, Philadelphia by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC, July, 1959.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.