This sarcophagus was produced in the workshop of the artist known as ‘the dogmatic’ because his scenes refer to the dogmas pronounced at the Nicene Council (325). The sarcophagus of Martos consists of a box and a lid, and it is only carved on one side.
The lid, of which only one-third is preserved, presents a central vignette supported by two winged genies, and two lateral scenes from the Old Testament: to the right Jonah and to the left the Jews and the fiery furnace of Babylon (Recio 1969; Sotomayor 1975). The interpretation of the lid is made more difficult because of its bad state of preservation.
The front of the box is divided into seven spaces separated by columns. Each vignette represents a scene from the New Testament. The spandrels at both ends are decorated with pagan symbols: Triton, godly messenger from the deep, who controls the sea and the waves by blowing into a seashell. In the earliest descriptions of the sarcophagus, this character is labelled an angel. Triton appears on several sarcophagi found in Baetica, and also on other sarcophagi found elsewhere: for example, one in Leiden (Holland); three, with columns, in Arles (France); one in Nimes (France); and one in Geneva (Switzerland) (Garcia 2012). The rest of the spandrels are decorated with laurel leaves, another element that was used to decorate sarcophagi before the arrival of Christianity. As pointed out by J.M. Sotomayor (1973), these were originally intended to divinise the deceased; for Christians, the laurel began to represent the crown of victory.
Six of the scenes represent Jesus’s miracles from the New Testament; the seventh depicts Peter’s denials. The miracles, from left to right, are as follows:
- the raising of the son of the widow of Nain,
- the curing of the blind man,
- the curing of the woman with haemorrhage,
- the denial of St Peter or the scene of the cockerel,
- the curing of the crippled man,
- the miracle of the five loaves and two fish,
- the miracle of the wedding at Cana.
In these scenes, Jesus is represented as curly haired and beardless – an iconographic transition between the so-called ‘station type’ and the ‘page type’, in which the curls are made to look messy. In all scenes, Jesus is accompanied by an apostle (Sotomayor 1975).
The sarcophagus was discovered in 1896 during the excavation of a water cistern in the courtyard of an olive-oil mill in Martos. The landlady, the person responsible for the preservation of the sarcophagus, was Doña Josefa Castilla Escobedo, although the literature generally only mentions her husband, Francisco Muñoz Valenzuela. Near the sepulchre, according to the description provided at the time, were ‘some structural remains of little import’ and an altar which supported an inscription: ‘to Junió, 23 years old, and an incomplete headstone with a Latin inscription’. The sarcophagus also contained a skeleton which, according to the report filed many years later, in 1923, ‘must have been very tall, and several ceramic vases, approximately 15 cm in diameter at the base and 10 cm tall, with a narrow neck and well-developed rims, as the attached drawing indicates’.
Historical and social context
From an early date, Christianity had a hold on Roman urban aristocracies and developed strong links with the political and economic elites, especially when support from Constantine (305-337), who declared freedom of worship, and Theodosius l (380-391) who declared all other religious illegal, was provided.
Christians organised discreet independent communities: each community chose its own bishop, who was conferred with personal, religious and political authority. Bishops could be clerics and monks, but also laymen, as long as they were official members of the church. The candidate’s birth (importance of the family within the community) and wealth were of increasing importance, and thus the bishopric soon became a step in the political career of urban aristocrats. Many of these aristocrats were married and never had to renounce their wives.
These factors contributed to the rapid spread of Christianity among Roman elites, which by the 4th century had abandoned their pagan cultural features (buildings, the Graeco-Latin literary milieu, etc.) in order to assume the Christian symbols wholesale, but especially in funerary contexts. This is logical, given the importance of death and resurrection in Christian doctrine.
It seems likely that this sort of sarcophagus, the function of which was to be admired, was located in special locations in the cemetery, maybe even a chapel or under an arcosolium. These sorts of objects were used as a public display of faith, and acted as a ‘book in stone’ for the illustration education of the illiterate population, playing the role that Romanesque sculpture was to play several centuries later.
Cazaban, A. (1923): "El sarcófago latino-cristiano, de Martos" Don Lope de Sosa, 132, Diciembre, 360-361.
Recio, A. (1969):"El sarcófago paleocristiano de Martos, España." Extractum exAntonianum, año XLIV, fasc. 1. 93-136. Segunda Edición.
Sotomayor, M. (1975): Sarcófagos romano-cristianos de España. Estudio Iconográfico. Facultad de Teología. Granada.
Sotomayor, M. (1973): Datos históricos sobre los sarcófagos romanos-cristianos de España. Universidad de Granada. Granada.
V.V.A.A. (2016): "Sarcófago. Martos (Jaén)" en El Museo de Jaén y el Proyecto Europeo CEMEC. Jaén. 34-39.
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