period. Dated to the late third century and usually identified as an example of early Christian relief sculpture, this large marble coffin bears an imposing ram's head on each end and a central frieze of images that have religious, but not obviously Christian, signification. In the centre a shepherd figure stands with a ram over his shoulders. To his left a man sits reading a scroll, and to his right is a seated woman holding a rolled scroll. Both the man and woman have companions, one of them in the posture of prayer. Such religiously ambiguous iconography might have come from artisans' workshops, with a limited catalogue of motifs, which were patronised by pagan and Christian clients.
By the mid-third century, however, many of these more universal images were joined by narrative scenes from the Christian Old and New Testaments. Some stories are far more common than others. Initially figures from the Old Testament outnumbered scenes from the New Testament in both wall painting and relief carving. Among these are representations of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Noah, Moses, Daniel, the three youths in the fiery furnace and Jonah, who was the most popular of all. Although some of these scenes seem to have no clear pre-Christian prototypes and so to have been invented de novo, others are clearly influenced by particular pagan models. Daniel, for example, is almost always portrayed nude, like such classical heroes as Hercules or Meleager. In illustrations from the gospel stories of Jesus working such wonders as changing water to wine, he holds a wand, the widely recognised attribute of a magician.16
The iconography of Jonah offers another example of a borrowed and adapted classical prototype. Jonah reclining nude under the gourd vine strikes a pose identical to that of the mythical Endymion on pagan sarcophagi. Endymion was cursed - or blessed (depending on your point of view) - with both eternal youth and everlasting sleep, and visited each night by Selene, the moon goddess who bore him fifty daughters. Instead of an allusion to his disobedience or humiliation, when Jonah is portrayed in the same posture, he symbolises the hope of eternal and blissful repose (fig. ii, below, p. 580). However, since the story also calls to mind the 'sign of Jonah' as a figure of Christ's death and resurrection (Matt 12:39-40), his iconography may have a soteriological significance. Additionally, Jonah's nudity, watery plunge and re-emergence from the belly of a sea creature may allude to the Christian ritual of baptism, thus adding a sacramental dimension to the symbolism.
In addition to holding a wand, when Jesus appears in scenes of healing or wonderworking, he normally appears as a beautiful and beardless youth.
16 Mathews, Clash of gods, 54-91.
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