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The Constanza Carnelian and the Developm.pdf


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Harley-McGowan
religious function. It can be argued that this is confirmed in the
iconography. The depiction of Jesus crucified in the presence of
the Apostles is extremely unusual by comparison to
developments in the representation of the subject in the 5th
and 6th centuries ad, where Jesus is customarily depicted
hanging on the cross in the presence of his mother and John
the Evangelist and often the two thieves. Nevertheless, when
seen within the broader context of Christian iconography at
this period, it can be linked directly with contemporary
pictorial trends for the representation of Jesus among his
Apostles.
In the course of the 4th and early 5th centuries ad, a range
of pictorial formats for the depiction of Jesus among his
Apostles was developed and popularised across a variety of
media in Christian art. Invariably explored within and
understood to be set in a celestial context, this theme placed
especial emphasis on Jesus’ authority as well as his victory over
death in the resurrection (Pl. 3). Hence Jesus could be
portrayed in one of a number of guises: teacher, thaumaturge,
heavenly King, philosopher or giver of the new law.14 Yet
regardless of the role he assumed, and whether he was
presented standing, seated or enthroned as he fulfilled that
role, Jesus was always shown at the centre of the composition,
presiding over the assembly of his Apostles who flanked him in
strictly symmetrical and hieratic compositions. The Apostles
themselves could be shown seated in discussion, or standing
and processing ceremonially towards Jesus – sometimes with
one arm raised in a gesture of acclamation. In certain
iconographic formats, the iconic figure of Jesus was
complemented by the figure of a lamb beneath his feet (as
witnessed on the Nott gem). In other formats he was
substituted by an aniconic symbol: a throne (as on the front
panel of the Pola ivory casket, where it is combined with the
lamb as well as the four Rivers of Paradise);15 or the symbolic
monogram of the cross-trophy, containing the triumphant
cross of the Crucifixion surmounted by a victory wreath (Pl. 4).

A subsequent variant on the theme evolved: the apostolic
veneration of the cross, an iconographic type that appeared in
the late 4th century ad on the sculpted reliefs of a small group
of Roman sarcophagi known as ‘star-and-wreath’. The entire
front of sarcophagi in this group is devoted to the single
composition, with twelve Apostles, shown wearing pallia as on
the Constanza gem, processing slowly and simultaneously
towards the central cross-trophy, the crux invicta, which they
venerate and with which Jesus is associated and identified.
Stars appear between the heads of each Apostle, and each is
crowned with a wreath representing the Crown of Life (Rev.
2.10). In certain examples, such as that now in Arles (Pl. 5),16
the Apostles extend their arms to touch the wreathed cross.17
Hence as Bianca Kühnel has argued, on the sarcophagi the
symbol of the cross and the figure of Jesus became
interchangeable, the substitution of the figure making no
significant change in the general meaning of the scene.18
As with contemporary manifestations of the theme of
‘Christ amongst the Apostles’ in other media, these ‘veneration’
scenes can be regarded as directly related to the iconographic
variant preserved on the gems, where the aniconic symbol of
victory, the wreathed cross, is replaced with the figure of
Christ, crucified yet simultaneously resurrected in triumph.
Jesus, in figural or aniconic form, was understood to be the
conqueror of death and thus shown receiving the victorious
crown of martyrdom, or gestures of veneration, from the
Apostles in heaven. In a rare version seen on a sarcophagus
previously in the Vatican, both the resurrected Christ
(appearing to the two women in the garden) and the victorious
cross are shown (Pl. 4). In the composition found on the Nott
gem, the figure of Jesus evokes the shape of the victorious cross
with his body, raised above the Apostles – two of whom touch
the base of the cross just as they touch the arms of the victory
wreath in other versions (Pl. 5). In the Constanza design,
although the cross itself is shown, and ties at Jesus’ wrists
indicate he is actually attached to it, scale rather than posture

Plate 3 Christ Teaching the Apostles / Giving the New Law, mosaic, probably late 4th century AD, Chapel of S. Aquilino, Basilica of S. Lorenzo, Milan

216 | ‘Gems of heaven’