Early Christian iconography : pre-Constantinian sarcophagal sculpture and its eschatological value
Russo, Thomas E.
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The way in which a society disposes of its dead is often a neglected factor in the reconstruction of that society's cultural fabric. Art of a funerary nature has the -potential to reveal to us today the psychological disposition of a past society concerning its vision of death and the place of man in the space-time continuum of existence. The focus of this thesis is the eschatological meaning conveyed by early Christian funerary sculpture on pre-Constantinian sarcophagi. In opposition to the line of thought which contends that no images of eschatological value concerning Christ's role as Redeemer can be found in the archaeological evidence of early Christian life before 313 AD, I have directed my attention to the divine intervention images found on pre-Constantinian sarcophagi and demonstrated how, through a prefigurative interpretation (a method commonly employed by the early Church Fathers), they can indeed be understood as images of eschatological value concerning Christ's role as Redeemer. Further, I have sought to clarify the concept that these images functioned in a manner comparable to the prayer for the dead known as the commendatio animae by analyzing their iconography in relation to the idea of the reactualization of sacred time. Customarily, these divine intervention images have been interpreted in view of their obvious resurrectional meaning; however, I suggest that at a deeper level of communication they may be understood as images of baptismal significance. If this view is accepted, these scenes of divine intervention become examples of a nascent iconographic program of early Christian theology underscoring the necessity of baptism as the agent for salvation.