The sarcophagus was carved about the time when Christianity was first recognized as a legal faith within the Roman Empire. The two legendary scenes of the Miracle of Saint Peter Drawing Water from a Rock in His Jail Cell and Saint Peter’s Arrest in Rome, crisply carved in powerful, deep relief at the left, are among the earliest surviving images depicting Peter’s special relationship with Rome. When the sarcophagus was identified in 1879, only the lower legs, with scenes from the life of Christ on the right, survived (see image). Incorrect identification of the figures led to inaccurate restoration of the upper portion of the scenes carved in low relief.
Originally, four scenes from Christ’s life decorated the sarcophagus: the Entry into Jerusalem, the Cure of the Man Born Blind, the Multiplication of the Loaves, and the Raising of Lazarus. In the modern restoration, the Cure of the Man Born Blind was omitted, with the man’s feet used instead for the small, frightened child in the Entry into Jerusalem. Roughly carved in low relief on the ends are two Old Testament scenes foretelling mankind’s salvation by Christ: Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace and Adam and Eve after the Fall by the Tree of Knowledge.
The sarcophagus was brought to America to decorate the grounds of Burrwood, an estate on Long Island.
#2820. Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ
Credit Line:Gift of Josef and Marsy Mittlemann, 1991
The boldly carved, dramatic scenes from the life of Saint Peter on the face of the sarcophagus identify it as one of the group of approximately fifty surviving Early Christian examples that combine narrative events from the apocryphal life of the saint with those from the life of Christ. The carvings date to the early fourth century, the era in which the Roman emperor Constantine established Christianity as a legal religion within the empire. Since the Petrine scenes foreshadow the future importance of Peter in the Latin West as the symbol of the primacy of Rome, the sarcophagus is a critical addition to the Museum's collection of works that document the origins of Christian art. Recently rediscovered and identified, it is the only work of its type in the Americas.
Five scenes may be identified on the sarcophagus, as it exists today: Peter Drawing Water from a Rock and the Arrest of Peter, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, and the Raising of Lazarus. The boldly projecting narrative images in the Petrine scenes are original to the sarcophagus, as are the lower third sections of the Christological scenes, which include the legs of the figures, the base, and the back. That the upper portions of the three Christological scenes to the right are restorations is underscored by the mistakes introduced, such as the depiction of Christ as a bearded man, a practice not current in the fourth century, and the presence of a frightened child before Christ in the Entry into Jerusalem. The child was included to explain a pair of small feet in the original portion of the sarcophagus that were turned away from the events portrayed in the Entry composition. When compared to other surviving sarcophagi of the type, it is clear that the feet were those of the Man Born Blind Being Cured by Christ; this last scene, originally the fourth one on the face of the sarcophagus, was situated between the Entry into Jerusalem and the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. On the ends of the sarcophagus are Old Testament scenes considered to be significant precursors of events recounted in the New Testament: Carved in low relief on the right end are Adam and Eve Covering Themselves by the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3:6-24) and on the left end the Three Hebrews Standing in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3:21-27).
In profile, the closely packed, dense layers of original carving project boldly from the surface of the sarcophagus into the viewer’s space, with the heads of the figures extending well beyond the rim. As such, the figures function like actors in a dramatic play, drawing the viewer into the story of man's salvation. While details of the surviving images are worn away as a result of the sarcophagus's use as a garden ornament both in Rome and in America, their original force is fully visible in the heads carved in low relief in the background of the Petrine scenes, which were protected from wear by the overhanging rim. The expressive faces are mad more dramatic by the drill holes at the edges of the eyes--a device used to enhance the play of light and shadow that is typical of Constantinian art.
The sarcophagus became known initially from engravings published in 1879, which showed it in its damaged state. Later scholars continued to publish the engravings in conjunction with iconographical studies, with Becker the first to note, in 1909, that the location of the work was no longer known. A surviving photograph and a painting from early in this century of Burrwood, the Walter Jennings estate in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, prove that the sarcophagus was imported into the United States to decorate the lawn and later a hidden garden there. By the time the sarcophagus was installed at Burwood, it had been restored; subsequent damage at Burrwood is responsible for the loss of a portion of the lower right edge of the work.
From Villa Felice (formerly Carpegna), Rome
; Walter Jennings, Cold Spring Harbor, NY (1909?–1949); The Brooklyn Home for the Blind, Cold Spring Harbor, NY (1949-198?); Josef and Marsy Mittlemann, Cold Spring Harbor, NY (until 1991)
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