The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus: How a Coffin Defeated the Gods
Bacchus into Jesus. This is a topic seen many times before and its relevance continues here. As mentioned in a previous article, the attributes of the Greco-Roman god of wine, transformation and ecstasy—called Dionysus or Bacchus—were borrowed from in the early days of Christian worship in and around the city of Rome. Scholars believe associating the old with the new allowed for an easier transition to the new religion. The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (c. 359 AD), is one of the earliest instances in which Christian images and narratives are definitively depicted without obvious reference to Bacchus. One would only know of the pagan influences if one was familiar with symbols of Bacchus' worship—grapes/wine, youthful yet a sage, bearded appearance, an entourage of faithful followers and, of course, a wise older figure always by his side. (For Bacchus, this figure was Silenus; for Jesus, it is usually Peter.)
Detail of Jesus on Junius Bassus’ sarcophagus. (Steven Zucker/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Junius Bassus’ Transition
The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus once spoke volumes to its audience. Not only was it among the earliest visuals of Jesus of Nazareth in the newly Christian world, but it is also special because it provides Christian scenes on a coffin.
Bacchus was often associated with death; the transformative qualities of his character usually referred to one's mental state (due to alcohol) and one's physical state (as Bacchus himself is a twice-born god). Christianity has a similar emphasis on the afterlife. The use of a sarcophagus as an early medium for Christian visuals would therefore still speak to both religious sects, though with the former quite obviously on the way out the door.
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‘Bacchus’ by Caravaggio. (Public Domain)
Junius Bassus was a Roman politician serving under Constantine I, the latter the emperor who allowed Christianity to become one of the official religions of Rome. Both Constantine and Bassus made the decision to convert to Christianity, though neither made the decision before reaching their deathbeds. This also indicates the importance of a sarcophagus as an early medium for Christian depictions: what eventually gave Christianity sway over the pagan religions was the promise—the guarantee—of life after death. Thus, the sarcophagus—in both imagery and shape—was meant to represent not only Bassus' transition to the Christian faith but the empire's as well.
Significant Images on the Sarcophagus
The coffin depicts scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, furthering the new emphasis on Christianity. Both forms of the primary religious text are valued as a "timeline" of Christian ideology carved into an object that would last forever. In a way, one could argue this "timeline" is another instance in which the Romans furthered themselves from their old faith; the narrative from Genesis alone would have rewritten the origin stories from the pagan faith.
Further, the value of grapes and wine is "rewritten" on the sarcophagus as well. To understand more of the Bacchant mythology incorporated into Christian thought, please read the author's previous article here. For the purposes of this article, attention must be drawn to the depiction on the sarcophagus of Jesus riding a donkey.
Detail on Junius Bassus’ sarcophagus showing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. (Steven Zucker/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
This moment symbolizes Jesus of Nazareth's return to Jerusalem, just as Bacchus triumphantly returned to Rome (or Greece) from his eastern adventures. Here, this once pagan moment is made definitively Christian. Similarly, Bacchus' infamous attribute—grapes—litter the exterior of the coffin in a cornucopia of vines, ivy leaves, and thick colorless grapes.
The heavy association between the Christian images and the imagery of wine is intended to cement the beverage as a reminder of Jesus' transubstantiation of water into wine, and later, of flesh into bread. This moment, called the Eucharist in Christian and Catholic circles, is a primary facet of Christian worship. Once again, Bacchus' most prized attribute has become almost wholly supplanted into the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth instead.
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Jesus transforms water into wine. Detail of ‘The Marriage at Cana’ by Marten de Vos, c. 1596 (Public Domain)
Combining Old and New
On Bassus' sarcophagus, one of the first definitive instances of this transition can be seen in the art world. This sarcophagus thus becomes the bridge between these two religions in many ways, blatantly highlighting their similarities in a time when the faiths were both known. During the 4th century AD, Christianity had only recently become formally recognized and the old pagan ways had not yet died out. In time paganism was outlawed, the worshippers persecuted, and Christianity took its place at the forefront of society.
Rather than hiding the similarities of these two faiths, Bassus chose to illustrate them, allowing for further understanding of this new religious cult. By replacing the relationship between Bacchus and Jesus with depictions of Christian narratives—both like and unlike those of the past—Bassus appears to have (whether intentionally or not) contributed to the widespread transition from pagan to Christian religion.
Adam and Eve on Junius Bassus’ sarcophagus. (Steven Zucker/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Top Image: The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. Source: It’s Artalicious!
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