BMCR 2021.03.57

Iberische Halbinsel und Marokko. Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage, 4

, Iberische Halbinsel und Marokko. Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage, 4. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2018. Pp. 239; 69 plates. ISBN 9783954903627. €78,00.

Table of Contents

The “Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage” is a long-term project whose last two volumes were published in 2018. The first volume “Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage. Rom und Ostia” was published in 1967 (Author: Hugo Brandenburg), volume 2 “Italien, Dalmatien, Museen der Welt. Mit einem Nachtrag Rom und Ostia” in 1998 (Author: Jutta Dresken-Weiland), volume 3 “Frankreich, Algerien, Tunesien” in 2003 (Author: Brigitte Christern-Briesenick) and now “Iberische Halbinsel und Marokko”. In addition, the last volume “Konstantinopel, Kleinasien – Thracia, Syria, Palaestina – Arabia (Authors: Johannes G. Deckers, Guntram Koch) is now available. Its aim is not only to give a valid description of the single sarcophagi, but also to present the current state of research and the problems that the respective pieces offer. The series goal is to provide a good basis for research of the sarcophagus sculpture, which is of pivotal importance for the development of early Christian art.

Seeing the repertory now completed after 64 years (the project began in 1955) is very gratifying. Although good preparatory work had been done and the work for the single volumes was manageable, it is a fact in scholarship as well as in everyday life that despite good planning and preparation many things do not work as they should. Unfortunately, the volume on Spain is an example of things happening that should and must not: the author has submitted her manuscript for publication without taking into account the comments of the reviewers. This problem that she ignored her reviewers was brought to light by Achim Arbeiter at a study day dedicated to early Christian sarcophagi at the German Archaeological Institute in Rome on 8 November 2019. (“Das ‘Repertorium’ -vorerst? -vollendet. Eine Bilanz aus der Nutzerperspektive und einige Bemerkungen zum kürzlich erschienenen Hispanien-Band”). The linguistic deficiencies which remained in the text will have to be overlooked, but unfortunately the volume has other, more serious shortcomings.

Regarding the structure of the volume, it should be noted that the catalogue, which is the heart of each repertory volume, is preceded by an introduction that compiles what is already known before sections on urban Roman imports and various (according to the author) local workshops follow. The information presented there is repeated in the catalogue.

Bibliography is mostly limited to German and Spanish titles and neglects much work published since 2000, including Guntram Koch’s handbook Frühchristliche Sarkophage (Beck 2000). I only mention Verstorbenendarstellungen auf frühchristlichen Sarkophagen by Manuela Studer (Turnhout 2012) or my Bild, Grab und Wort. Untersuchungen zu Jenseitsvorstellungen von Christen des 3. und 4. Jahrhunderts (Regensburg 2010). One gets the impression that the works cited are mostly titles that deal with the respective pieces which are treated in the volume, but do not go beyond in order to embrace the complexity of iconography. Unfortunately, far too little iconographic literature that deals with the pictorial themes depicted is consulted, and many works are missing that reflect the state of sarcophagus research and currently discussed problems. This is all the more regrettable as there are various online bibliographies which could easily have been used to quickly and effectively find relevant publications. Therefore, the Repertory’s aim has, unfortunately, in this volume not been achieved.

The author also seems to be unaware of fundamental issues when she writes (p. 7) that inhumation is obligatory for Christians: The trend towards inhumation begins at the beginning of the 2nd century AD,[1] at a time when Christians had not yet left any traces in material culture and cannot be distinguished from their pagan contemporaries, whose burial customs they followed. Where and how they had themselves buried has always been their choice and that of their personal environment. The earliest sarcophagi with Christian themes appear at the end of the 3rd century.

For a lack of familiarity with early Christian iconography two examples may serve. Thus, with reference to the sarcophagus in Girona no. 55 (p. 57) (first third of the 4th century), on which among other things the Christ is shown standing on lion and basilisk, the assertion that “the instruments of triumphal iconography were not yet available” is unfortunately not true. For a such a “triumphal” iconography, which shows Christ as a supra-temporal ruler there are already earlier examples: On the frieze sarcophagi in Florence (Repertorium II, 10), Rome (Repertorium I, 241) and Arles (Repertorium III, 31), which belong to the early 4th century and have quite frequently been treated in scholarship, we see Christ with apostles kneeling before him, covering their faces as if before a ruler.

The very interesting piece no. 153, a fragment from Estremoz (Portugal) that has been lost, merits more attention. Let us leave aside that the author confuses Luke the Evangelist with Mark the Evangelist: one could have found out by simple consultation of reference works that comparable depictions of evangelists in full figure with writing instrument are only documented in the 6th century.[2] A date in the 4th/5th century, as suggested by the author, is therefore unlikely to be correct. Luke stands to the left of a framing garland of leaves, so that the relief must have continued to the left. What could have been depicted? One would assume further depictions of evangelists rather than a narrative frieze, and we may ask whether it is a fragment of a sarcophagus at all. Perhaps the piece was used as decoration on a wall. In contrast, in other volumes in the series, explicit reference is made to the problem of identification of sarcophagi fragments in unclear cases.

Büchsenschütz also does not seem to be familiar with fundamental developments in the genus of sarcophagi. She states that “Typologische und ikonographische Entwicklungen vollziehen sich auf Deckeln deutlich langsamer” “typological and iconographic developments take place much more slowly on lids” (for example p. 42, 155, 177), but it is exactly the other way round: in the late 3rd century Christian scenes appear more often on lids than on the walls of sarcophagi, so lids are “faster” and more innovative than coffins.[3] Lids are often a few centimetres longer than the boxes, either because they were created by other craftsmen or because they broke when they were removed for subsequent burials. So sometimes they can look a little bit different from coffins. To speak of an “Urtypus des christlichen konnotierten Deckels” “archetype of the Christian-connoted lid” (p. 42), as the author does, suggests very strange ideas about the emergence of an early Christian art. We do not know two sarcophagi which are identical; Christian iconography starts slowly and is produced in a multitude of different workshops.

The author develops unconvincing theories about workshops: she assumes, for example, that urban craftsmen emigrated from Rome to Spain and made sarcophagi in a workshop there. The author is of the opinion that special iconographic requests could not have been communicated to Rome; according to the author, “no realistic scenario of communicating such an order to Rome can be drawn up” (p. 11, 48). Yet we know that people and goods travelled all over the oikumene, that sample books (for other genres) have survived, and that people corresponded with each other by letter. Her central argument for the presumed existence of these local workshops is “ikonographisches Sondergut” (“iconographic special material”). In this way, the client was able to influence the iconography and realize his own ideas, “so that the final product cannot be described as genuinely ‘Roman’”. Here, too, one wonders what the author means by the term “iconographic special material”: the term suggests that there is a standard iconography and a special iconography and that these are consciously applied. After all, it is precisely one of the strengths of the sarcophagus workshops to respond to customer wishes and to create something new. Depictions of the deceased are a good example of this, which are brought into sarcophagus iconography in different ways (cf. the work of Manuela Studer, Verstorbenendarstellungen, cited above).

Sometimes unusual iconography has been preserved only in a single case. This is true, for example, of the sarcophagus of Berja (no. 73, pp. 52-54), which shows a unique depiction of Peter and Paul before Nero: it is precisely because of this unique iconography that the author assigns it to a workshop of craftsmen from Rome in Spain, without further argument.

Sarcophagus showing Peter and Paul before Nero from Berja
Saints Peter and Paul before the Emperor Nero. Sarcophagus from Berja (Madrid, Museo Arquelogico Nacional). Detail

On a purely factual level, therefore, we note that the one or more persons who were buried in this sarcophagus have chosen an unusual iconography, or it had been chosen for them. The choice of an unusual pictorial theme does not allow us to assume that it was made in a local workshop. One would also like to know what the author understands by the “primacy of imagery from the city of Rome”. As a rule, one assumes that the same pictorial themes are depicted in both East and West, and innovative and unusual iconographies can be found throughout the entire Roman Empire. Further examples of terminological ambiguities do not correspond to the current state of research and are all too common. I limit myself to one example: a figure of Christ which has a book in his left hand and has raised the other in the gesture of speech is identified as “Christus doctus” (p. 189): the point of the very familiar image in early Christian art is that Christ is teaching his disciples.

Errors in listing the locations where comparable pieces are stored call into doubt the reliability of other information in the volume. For example, the strigillated sarcophagus Repertorium II No. 96 is not located in Opatija in Croatia (p. 118) but is kept in San Clemente a Casauria in the Abruzzo region. It is compared to a sarcophagus in Barcelona (no. 5), which has in Büchsenschütz’ view been produced in the same workshop. The hypothesis that a sarcophagus workshop operated in San Clemente a Casauria (a small village in the mountains of the Abruzzi) and produced two Christian sarcophagi, one of which was exported to Spain, does not seem to be convincing at all.

Important topics like the meaning and function of the images, ideas of the afterlife of both clients and buried persons, the reception of the images, and the relevance and meaning of sarcophagi—questions like this which help to understand why the study of sarcophagi is relevant and important—have unfortunately been left out. Regrettably, an opportunity has been missed here to reliably and critically examine the sarcophagi of Spain. The one clear virtue of this publication is the plates, which collect the material in a single volume.


[1] Schrumpf, S., Bestattung und Bestattungswesen im Römischen Reich. Ablauf, soziale Dimension und ökonomische Bedeutung der Totenfürsorge im Römischen Reich, Bonn 2006, pp. 70–77.

[2] See for example Minasi, M., Article “Evangelisti”, in F. Bisconti (Hg.), Temi di iconografia paleocristiana, Città del Vaticano 2000, pp. 174–177.

[3] Dresken-Weiland, J., “Bilder im Grab und ihre Bedeutung im Kontext der Christianisierung der frühchristlichen Welt”, Antiquité tardive 19, 2011, pp. 63–78, here p. 66 tab. 2.