Unexpected Meetings #5: Facing the Afterlife

For our fifth instalment of this series of posts on unexpected juxtapositions in the Imagining the Divine exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Maria Lidova is struck by two very different objects in the first gallery that tackle similar themes of death and marriage.

Near the beginning of the Imagining the Divine exhibition is one of the best examples of early Christian gold glass in the Ashmolean Museum’s collection. In late antiquity, gold glass vessels – vessels containing gold leaf designs fixed between two layers of glass – were widely used in a funerary context. Adherents of various religions, especially Jews and Christians living in Rome, would commission them for commemorative banquets and fix them on the walls beside tombs in the catacombs. Most of the vessels were intentionally broken before they were attached to the walls, leaving only the bases bearing representations that were often religious in content.

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Detail of a gold glass fragment showing busts of a married couple, 4th century AD. AN2007.13. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Notwithstanding its modest dimensions (9.4 cm diameter), the golden design on the fourth-century glass fragment in the exhibition is nuanced and easy to read. The centre is occupied by a family portrait: a woman in rich patrician clothes, portrayed frontally and holding a scroll, stands behind her husband’s shoulder. The gazes of two figures are directed towards each other and create a sense of intimate interaction. Nearby Latin transliterations of the Greek toasts ‘pie (Drink!) and ‘zeses’ (Live!) probably refer to the original function of the vessel at commemorative banquets.

Around the central medallion is a band consisting of five narrative compositions taken from the Old and New Testament. Miracles described in the Gospels – Christ healing the paralytic, and the Raising of Lazarus – are followed by scenes from the Old Testament: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses striking water from the rock. Remarkably, the figure of the male protagonist – be he Jesus, God the Father, Moses, or Abraham – appears identical in every scene. The man committing the action is always represented in the same manner: clad in a voluminous garment and holding a wand, an instrument historically associated with magicians. This deliberate confluence of various identities into one image conveys the idea that every significant event was the result of divine will and intervention. The scene amalgamates scriptural narratives into a single story running from right to left – from the creation of man, to the patriarchs of the Jewish people, and finally to Christ. The uninterrupted movement of the viewer’s gaze along the circular rim enforced the suggestion of everlasting time, in which all events were interlinked and God’s presence was perpetual.

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The gold glass fragment showing miracles of Christ and Old Testament figures, 4th century AD. AN2007.13.  Image © Maria Lidova

On the other side of the gallery to the gold glass, on a very different scale, is a third-century marble sarcophagus (see also this blog post), at the centre of which is a medallion bearing a male portrait bust. Just as the couple’s portrait on the gold glass, this medallion fulfils a commemorative purpose and links the artwork to a particular individual and a family commission – personalising the object. However, the religious content is quite different. The idea of matrimonial love and family concord is evoked also, but here not through the portrait, but rather with the help of Dionysiac scenes. Dionysos stands on a chariot at the far left side of the relief while his consort Ariadne is shown in a similar position at the right end. The two parts of a feast cortege led by centaurs and satyrs are directed towards each other and symmetrically flank the image of the owner of the tomb – literally incorporating his portrait into the entourage of a joyful marriage procession.

Sarcophagus with Dionysiac scenes. 3rd century AD. Ashmolean Museum AN1947.279. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

With the arrival of Christianity, the myths and exploits of Roman gods and heroes were substituted with Biblical events and Christ’s miracles, thus creating a new religious setting for what had been for centuries a central Roman cult and funerary practice – the veneration of ancestors via their portraits. Often these portraits, like the gold glass, also emphasis marital harmony, such as this marble funerary relief on display in the main galleries of the Ashmolean.

Funerary portrait of Claudius Agathemerus and his wife Myrtale. 1st century AD. Ashmolean Museum, ANMichaelis.155. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Although distinct in their religious content, both the gold glass fragment and the sarcophagus in Imagining the Divine demonstrate the incredible power of images in visualizing the profound human aspiration for immortality and ways of interaction with the divine in hope of a reward in afterlife.

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