The Door Panels of Santa Sabina

Bill Storage
Photos by Bill Storage and Laura Maish
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The Church of Santa Sabina (chiesa di S. Sabina) on the Aventine Hill in Rome is famous for its cypress door, which may date to the early 5th century when the church was built. One panel contains a scene that is thought by some to be the first depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus. All but one of the other panels depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, although some have minor departures from the related story in scriptures. The door has been the subject of papers and books by Wiegand (1900), Dewald (1915), Soper (1938), Morey (1942), Kantorowicz (1944) and Delbrueck (1949, 1952). These authors reached widely varying conclusions about the meanings and origins of some of the scenes. I'll attempt to expand upon this existing collection with a new look at several of the panels.

The door has been heavily restored and reconstructed. Some of the original panels are missing, and the order of those that remain has been altered. Richard Delbrueck [1] provides a very detailed analysis of the door's ornamentation. He concluded that it was originally made for a different doorway, and that it is of Greco-Mesopotamian origin, noting a strong similarity to carvings on a first century temple in Palmyra. Ernst Kantorowicz [2] judges it to be of Italo-Gallic origin, as does Alexander Soper [3] and Johannes Wiegand [4]. Delbrueck observes that some of the clothing shown in the scenes is incorrect for the character wearing it. He also argues convincingly that clothing cannot be used to identify the location where the door carvings were made, primarily because the clothing portrayed - while wrong for the scene - was still common to many different parts of the empire.

At least two distinct artistic styles are present, suggesting that more than one set of artists may have worked on the panels. Most of the New Testament scenes reflect eastern artistic trends, while most of the Old Testament scenes are executed in the Hellenistic style. Some scenes contain elements of both styles. If different artists were at work, it is possible that the panels could differ greatly in age. I can find no record of an attempt to carbon-date the wood of the panels. An early date for most of the panels seems reasonable, based on the selection of biblical scenes and the details of the images. That does not rule out the possibility of a later artist reproducing an earlier scene to replace a worn panel, and then altering specific details of the scene. Nor does it rule out the possibility of a later artist carving in the style of a much earlier one in order to maintain stylistic harmony, to conceal a restoration, or to refine the message of an image.

The present arrangement of the panels is shown in figs. 1 and 2 below.

Fig. 1 - Top twelve panels

Fig. 2 - Bottom six panels


We can be reasonably certain that the scene in fig. 3 is related to the execution of Jesus, e.g. Mark 15. In this scene nails penetrate Jesus's hands. However, the obvious reference to crucifixion in this scene warrants some additional analysis.

Jesus is shown between two other males; their reduced size likely indicating their secondary importance. Rendering secondary characters as smaller is common an ancient Christian art, but the small characters in this scene seem to have childlike features as well. Their faces are round and they are beardless. Nevertheless, the closest match to this image in Christian writings is the gospels' climactic scene of execution on the stauros. All three figures are in loincloths and stand in the classic orant posture, indicating they are engaged in prayer. Some writers have claimed that the structures behind them represent gallows of some sort, but a window in the leftmost structures eliminates that possibility, unless the wooden frames are meant to be seen as foreground and the bricks as background. Segments of vertical beams are visible behind the heads of the two smaller figures. Horizontal beam segments cannot be seen across the figure's back sides (on a horizontal line between their hands). We see only small blocks directly behind some - but not all - of the hands. The boards behind Jesus's hands clearly do not extend horizontally between his arms, behind his back. Nails are visible in most of the hands. Their feet may be bound, but their body weight is clearly supported on their feet; they appear to stand on the ground.

One problem with the obvious interpretation of the scene is that no form of crucifixion really works with a body in the orant posture. Clearly, the figures' arms in the image are not bearing any load - if so the torsos would be much lower. Any style of crucifixion or hanging consistent with a swift death (as described in the gospels) would require that the arms be loaded by body weight, in order to induce strangulation or suffocation. Ancient texts are consistent with this obvious physiological requirement for crucifixion, describing hands anchored so that arms are outstretched (classic Christ crucifix scene), or on beams at 45 degree angles (as shown in some medieval Christian artwork) or with no crossbeam and arms anchored overhead [5]. While crucifixes do not appear in the earliest Christian iconography, writings of the era suggest that early Christians did in fact envision a t-shaped cross, however [6].

A simple explanation for this peculiar crucifixion scene is worth considering. I suggest that the artist/designer, seeing a visual parallel between crucifixion on a Latin cross and the position of body and limbs of an orant, designed this scene with intentional ambiguity or with intentional double meaning. The figures are clearly in orant posture, not suffering on a cross or stake. But their nudity, and the arrangement of Jesus with two secondary figures, virtually ensures a reference to the gospel execution scene. In that sense the artist implied crucifixion without needing to show the men hanging on crosses or stakes. The small size of the two other figures surely indicates their lesser importance, but their childlike appearance may further symbolize their being initiates into Christianity, being recently "born to Christ" by acknowledging that Jesus was lord [7].

Close examination of the panel indicates that it may have been recarved, possibly to conform to later crucifixion imagery. For example, the hand and beam at the right edge of the panel extends into the plain border around the panel scene. While this is also the case on a few of the other door panels, in this case the portion that extends into the border is much more crudely cut than the remainder of the panel. It appears that a restorer's workmanship was crude compared to that of the original artist. It is possible that the nails in hands of the figures, and possibly the blocks behind their hands, are later additions by an inferior artist. This artist, in a time when the orant was no longer a key element of Christian art (e.g. medieval), probably meant to solidify the crucifixion imagery with no sensitivity to the initial artist's double meaning. The restorer may have seen this as a nice piece of art, but one that needed a bit of improvement in nailing down its primary message.

Classicist Nick Stavrinides proposes another intriguing possibility. He considers that this scene along with others showing a brick background may not have been meant to directly depict scriptural events, but were references to an early passion play, possibly one performed outside the city walls[8]. This would explain the peculiar brick (or block) background of many of the scenes. Author Jay Raskin supports this, noting that the narrative jumps in the gospel passion scenes make for poor literature but are squarely in the realm of Roman mime theater, which specialized in short scenes of gory violence, irony, satire and sarcasm[9].

The next panel (fig. 4) shows the empty tomb scene from the Gospel of Matthew, where Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" (Matthew 28:1) see an angle of the Lord, or possibly Luke (24:1) where the women visit the tomb. These differs slightly from the same scenes in Mark Chapter 15 where Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), and Salome visit the tomb, and John 20:1, where it is only Mary Magdalene who visits the tomb. This panel also shows signs of significant damage and restoration.


Fig. 3 - Orant/crucifixion
(click image to enlarge)

Fig. 4 - Crucifixion detail

Fig. 5 - The Empty Tomb

Fig. 6 - Adoration of magi

If the panel showing the adoration of the magi (fig. 5) refers directly to an ancient text, it cannot be any of the canonical gospels. Instead, it might refer to the apocryphal "Protoevangelium" of James, possibly late second century), or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, though the latter is only known from manuscripts dated later than the door panels. In these books Jesus is two years old when the magicians finally arrive with their gifts. Mary - inconsistent with any known ancient text - sits on a chair atop six steps. She holds young Jesus, who has a full head of hair, in her lap. While the Protoevangelium indicates the place of Jesus's birth was a cave, this image shows a brick wall as a background. Alexander Soper saw this as evidence of an Italo-Gallic origin for the door panels, noting that similar walls were common in art of that region and absent elsewhere.

In Fig. 6 Christ, presumably resurrected, stands between a haloed, balding man, presumably Paul, and another haloed apostle or disciple, assumed to be Peter based on similar scenes of Christ, Peter, and Paul on sarcophagi. In several related Roman sarcophagi scenes, Christ, usually standing upon the firmament, hands a scroll (the New Law) to Peter and Paul. In the door panel scene, Christ holds what appears to be an egg or an oversized pearl. Delbrueck interprets this object as a pearl, noting that egg symbolism is virtually nonexistent in all forms of Christianity except Mandaeism. Wiegand sees the object as a loaf of bread. But bread loaves are prevalent in early Christian art, and none of them look remotely similar to this object. The obvious symbolism of the pearl in Christianity is the tenets of Christian belief, which should not be thrown before swine (Matthew 7:6). Other scriptures provide bases for other interpretations, e.g., eternal life in Matthew 13:46, a topic examined by Cyprian of Carthage in his Treatise (No. 8), On Works and Alms. Eternal life might be the message more likely intended by the sculptor, given the context of the scene.


Fig. 7 - Peter, Jesus and Paul

Fig. 8 - Miracles of Jesus

The tall panel showing the miracles of Christ (fig. 7) is a rather standard depiction, having parallels on many sarcophagi of the fourth century. Jesus uses a wand to resurrect Lazarus, multiply loaves and fish, and turn water into wine. There are seven loaves and seven vessels of wine. Another tall panel (fig. 8), also using horizontal bands to separate scenes, shows Moses in the desert, feasts of quail and manna, and the miracle of the rock. Moses is clearly the subject of all four scenes. While Peter commonly performs a similar water miracle on sarcophagi, Peter isn't shown as a wand-bearing miracle worker on the door panels.

Fig. 9 - Life of Moses

Fig. 10 - Ascension of Christ

Another tall panel is generally agreed to show the ascension of Christ (fig. 9). A bearded Christ is pulled upward by bearded angels - Syrian angels, says Ernest Dewald [10]. The style of the artwork is decidedly Hellenistic, however. This panel uses somewhat more sophisticated compositional elements and arrangements of figures than the other door panels.

The last panel in the second row of the current arrangement is one of the two enigmatic panels investigated in detail by Kantorowicz (fig. 10). It shows three figures at the bottom, gazing upward, past the sun, moon and five stars (the known planets), at Christ in a circle with alpha and omega symbols. The problem addressed in most attempts at interpreting the scene has been the identification of a small region above the head of the female figure in the middle. There are other peculiarities in the image, including a curved line on the moon, and a small iconic representation of the sun (common in medieval crucifixion scenes) within a larger, more realistic representation of the sun. Delbrueck [11] suggests that, having five rays, this icon may represent the hand of God the Father pointing down at Mary, the female figure in the bottom center.

The object that caught the attention of several writers in the early to mid 20th century appears to be comprised of a hoop with a circular cross-section (raised circlet), the remains of a damaged horizontal bar within the hoop, and a vertical rod of circular cross-section, bounded by the outer diameter of the hoop on the bottom but extending about 1.5 diameters above the hoop. This vertical rod reduces in relief above the hoop, so that it gradually blends into the background as it approaches a six-pointed star. The horizontal beam is damaged to the point where it is unclear whether it was originally round or rectangular in cross-section. The two male figures each extend a straight arm up toward the hoop, which is directly above the female. Kantorowicz suggested that the men are Peter and Paul and that the woman is Mary, despite the fact that in no early Christian text is Mary present at the ascension. Both arms clearly pass behind the hoop. The hand on the left side of the image appears to reach toward, or point at, the vertical rod. The hand on the right is not visible. Many different accounts of these shapes have been given. It isn't clear whether all the shapes were meant by the sculptor to represent physical objects. For example, some or all of the shapes could represent a nimbus.

Ernest Dewald appears not to have seen the segment of the vertical rod above the hoop, the part Kantorowicz jokingly calls the handle. Dewald's omission of this portion of the image in his drawing of the panel is a bit surprising. Granted, it does not fit his interpretation of the entire object as a spoked nimbus, common in Byzantine art; but the rest of his analysis is thorough, with great attention paid to small detail. His accurate drawing of the panel does not show this handle at all. We cannot rule out the small possibility that for some unknown reason the panel was altered, perhaps through an error in restoration, after Dewald saw it sometime before 1915.

Dewald concludes the image on this panel was a minor variation of the ascension image in the Rabula Gospel. But a careful reading of his article reveals that he does not claim that the image symbolizes the ascension. He addresses only the compositional elements: "we certainly have in it an adaptation of the Ascension in the Rabula Gospel, and one which retains its symbolic paraphernalia and chief iconographic peculiarities." He adds that he is uncertain of the meaning of "this curious scene". Other early 20th century scholars did, however, interpret this scene as the ascension.

Fig. 11 - Ascended Christ

Fig. 12 - Mystery object

Kantorowicz agrees with Charles Morey [12] that this scene does not make sense as an ascension because the ascension is clearly featured in another panel (fig. 9). He sees it instead as indicating the second coming, being paired with the other enigmatic panel (fig. 16), which he interprets as the king's advent. Kantorowicz sarcastically dismisses the hypotheses that this object is a lamp hanging from the heavens or a globe with equatorial and meridial bands (or an equinocteal cross). The idea of a globe, however, warrants at least some consideration, given the number of later paintings that include Christ with the celestial globe of creation. These paintings are perhaps better known now days than they were in Kantorowicz's time; they have become staples of UFO enthusiasts, who see the globes as evidence of ancient astronauts. One such fresco by Ventura Salimbeni in San Pietro in Montalcino depicts the trinity at work with the globe, where Christ and God the Father touch wands to a the globe [13]. While the Santa Sabina door panel could possibly be seen as showing a globe and a wand, this interpretation does not fit well with the three people and their outstretched arms, despite the presence of the sun, moon, and stars.

Kantorowicz interprets this object as a cross with a crown of light, being thrust down from heaven to earth. Delbrueck accepts this interpretation. Kantorowicz sees the presence of sun, the moon, and the four beasts of the apocalypse as supporting his interpretation of it as a second coming. He also sees the hands of the two men as receiving the object, rather than holding it up. That argument is unconvincing, as both hands extend to the top part of the ring. Regardless of that detail, Kantorowicz's interpretation is still problematic; both the proportions of the cross and the image of a cross with halo/nimbus (or the Ionic/Celtic cross which may be related) are unlike anything seen in Christian art of its day. He defends the inverted cross, on the basis that angels are often depicted as plunging down to earth headfirst. A cross, representing a crucifix, upside down, would be less likely to have been an acceptable image in the fifth century, being already associated with Peter's cruel torture, and possibly having anti-Christian implications. Kantorowicz also simply assumes that the sign of the cross that would precede Christ in the second coming, according to ancient writings he cites, would look like a crucifix. This is by no means a sure bet. Strong cases have been made by many modern scholars that in those days the sign of the cross would look like either a solar cross or the chi-rho symbol.

Kantorowicz proposes that the two enigmatic panels (figs. 11 and 20) are a pair, one with an ascending cross and the other with the cross descending. If the artist had intended these two images as contrasting parallels, it seems likely he would have be more explicit about the parallelism; i.e., the crosses would look more alike. The cross in the acclamation panel (fig. 16) is very similar to other crucifix images dated at early fifth century, including the apse mosaic in Santa Pudeziana, and the cross shown on the so-called dogmatic sarcophagus.

Walter Lowrie [14] sees the straight arms of the two men, which he sees as Peter and Paul, as representing the structure of a church, which thereby stands for The Church. Lowrie suggests their identification as Peter and Paul would preclude the woman's identification as Mary, since having Paul meet Mary would be an anachronism that no early Christian could tolerate. Thus he sees the woman as a personification of the church and her orant posture as representing the faith of Christians. Lowrie also finds the "handle" curious and describes it as "like a tongue of flame [pointing] to Christ in glory.

The strange object in fig. 10 seems to be unique in art of its era, so we must avoid leaping to conclusions about its meaning. Given the number of elements in the panel that do have close parallels in other art, it makes sense to analyze the rest of the scene, and allow the possibility that this strange object is a familiar one that for some unknown reason is rendered differently. And there is a wealth of content for such comparisons. As mentioned above Dewald sees this scene as being closely related to the ascension miniature in the Rabula Gospels; and indeed there is (fig. 13).

The argument by Morey and Kantorowicz that this panel cannot represent the ascension because another panel in the door does so is not convincing. While stylistic similarities exist in all the panels, two different sizes of panels are present in the door, and therefore may have been collected for reuse at Santa Sabina from two earlier installations. But more important is the fact that the meanings of the two possible ascension panels are very different. The other ascension (fig. 16) shows Christ in the act of ascending. This panel (fig. 10) shows a static Christ, already ascended, in glory. The lower register of this scene shows three figures who may or may not be observing the second coming. They are gazing upward, but this could simply show worship of the ascended Christ. Christ shows no evidence of, as Kantorowicz states, "coming down at the Second Coming; hurtling to earth in from of him is his cross." Nor does he appear to be on the verge of such a trip [15]. Also, Kantorowicz does not supply any reason why those witnessing the second coming would reach up to grab the hurtling cross preceding Christ. This would not seem to be a natural reaction or one indicated by Christian literature.

The scene bears strong similarities with many other "ascension" - or, more accurately, "ascended Christ" - scenes, to which have been assigned the label, "ascension". Second coming scenes are almost totally absent even in Byzantine art. The Codex Amiatinus, (7th /8th century) and the Farfa Bible (11th century) are noted - and late - exceptions. But images of the ascended Christ like the one in the Rabula Gospel (fig. 13) are common. And Christ in heaven is often accompanied by the four beasts. While these are featured in apocalyptic texts like Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelations, by the 5th century they were well established as symbols for the four primary evangelists of the New Testament [16], appearing often in non-apocalyptic scenes, such as the mosaic at Santa Pudenziana (fig. 14). Kantorowicz is reaching when he identifies the mystery object as a descending cross. The centrality of the woman in the bottom half of the panel suggests that a symbolic or figurative coronation is occurring. The men are crowning her with a wreath/crown that doubles as a nimbus. This treatment of Mary is seen on 3rd century sarcophagi, and is close enough to that in the panel image to establish a connection. Thus this scene probably depicts the same thing depicted by other images with all the same narrative elements, the ascended Christ in Heaven and the glorification of Mary or the church on earth. On some Roman sarcophagi, something that could be a wreath or crown is held above Mary's head, although by a magus (fig. 15). We know that this object is not the gift of gold, because young Jesus is accepting that from the magus's other hand. The object may indicate a conflation of the star of the magi and the epiphany-light that fills the otherwise black cave after Jesus' birth, as described in the Protoevangelium. Wreaths are also sometimes held by the hand(s) of God above the heads of disciples on the "stars and crowns" style of sarcophagus (fig. 16), although these wreaths/crowns may merely be related to a tendency to transform the magi into kings, magi having become undesirable to 4th century Christians. The presence of the unrecognizable object ("handle"), and the existence of a true ascension scene elsewhere in the door do not prevent the recognizable elements of this scene from placing it squarely among other contemporary ascended-Christ images.

Fig. 13 - Rabula Gospel miniature [17]

Fig. 14 - Santa Pudenziana apse with four
beasts representing the evangelists

Fig. 15 - Mary and magus with crown/wreath or
the epiphany-light of the Protoevangelium of James

Fig. 16 - Hand(s) of God with wreath

The third row of door panels starts with a scene of Christ, almost certainly after resurrection, appearing to disciples (fig 17). The disciples' faces are damaged, but none of them appear to have traits that identify Paul and Peter on sarcophagi. Christ has no halo, but the chi-rho symbol appears behind his head - another uncommon if not unique rendering among ancient Christian art. He appears more to be preaching or giving instruction than to be giving proof of bodily resurrection. Barely visible is a reclining alpha and an omega on the left and right sides of the chi-rho. Weigand argues that this symbol supported an Italo-Gallic origin for the carving, though Delbrueck disagrees. The source for this image may be Luke 24:34-40 or John 20:19, although the display of hands and feet is not emphasized. It specifically is not Mark 16:12, which features two disciples, or the meeting implied by Matthew 28:9, about which no details are given. Various apocryphal gospels also supply similar scenes.

Fig. 18 shows the scene that precedes (chronologically) Christ's meeting with the disciples in the gospels, his appearance on the road to the two Marys who don't recognize him. His long hair, long beard, and Syrian features are particularly visible.

The panel showing Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial (fig. 19) includes the rooster on a Roman column, a detail absent from biblical texts but present in several early Christian artworks. S. A. Callisen [18] has shown a sequence of pagan precedents for the cock on the column that probably explain the presence of the column here. Peter's denial is one of the most popular early Christian images, most likely reminding believers that if Peter's most egregious of betrayals were forgivable, then so must be their sins.

The abduction of Habakkuk (fig. 20) seems an unlikely candidate for a biblical scene valued by early Christians. This obscure Habakkuk scene stems from an apocryphal Old Testament book of Daniel, Bel and the Dragon. An angel grabs Habakkuk by the hair and takes him through the air to Babylon, where he is instructed to offer Daniel, thrown into the lions den for a second time, the dinner he has just prepared. Daniel was among the most popular early Christians subjects of art. Early writers indicated this was because Christians saw Daniel's prophecies and survival in the lions den as predicting a messiah. We can only imagine why the artisan (or his client) thought the abduction event warranted capturing, considering that the rest of Daniel and Bel and the Dragon are filled with stories that would make more exciting pictures. Its presence probably indicates that it was paired with a scene with Daniel in the lions' den.


Fig. 17 - Resurrected Christ

Fig. 18 - Christ and the women

Fig. 19 - Peter's denial

Fig. 20 - Abduction of Habakkuk

Fig. 21 shows a rather standard depiction of Moses being summoned and then receiving the Law from God, who, as usual in early art, appears as a hand emerging from the sky.

The next panel (fig. 22) has not been connected with any textual source by any convincing argument. Joachim Berthier[19] interprets it as a representation of Zacharias emerging from the temple after being told that Elizabeth would bear a son, John the Baptiser; but the clothing, the towers of the church/temple, and other figures in the scene do not support this view. The tall panel is divided roughly into four segments separated by horizontal lines, the topmost of which is the eaves of a building that may represent a church A Latin cross seen above it is attached to its roof, or possibly is behind it. In the doorway of this building stands a chlamys-clad man in orant posture, his hands extended slightly outside the doorway. An angel of the lord stands next to him as if introducing him. The bottom two segments each contain two men acclaiming the man in the chlamys. The upper row of three men appear to be clergy of some sort and the lower row 

Scholars at the turn of the last centuries perceived this image to be an iconographical hapax legomenon, but, in a long analysis, Kantorowicz concludes that it was merely a different take on a well-represented scene - the advent of the Kyrios Pantokrator (Christ, ruler of all). Yet Kantorowicz admits it odd that the Kyrios Pantokrator appears with beard but with short hair, clad in a chlamys, and without halo. We can further add that he holds no book or scroll, and is not issuing a blessing.

Along with Delbrueck (who agrees with Kantorowicz that fig. 11 is an Ascension), I find Kantorowicz's analysis of this unconvincing. The scene truly is unique among known Christian art, and its details correlate with nothing in Christian literature including apocryphal texts. The key figure cannot be Jesus; his official clothing and riding boots eliminate that possibility (fig. 23). Delbrueck offers that only someone of emperor rank or close to it would be shown accompanied by an angel. He would have to be Theodosius I or later, since he is clearly a participant in a Christian event. Delbrueck notes that the man in the carving does look like a marble bust of Theodosius II. If it is Theodosius II, who never visited the western empire, the scene depicted - if it is historical - would have to be in the east. This would support an eastern origin for the door panels, or at least this panel. This scene, however, might still be meant to honor Theodosius II, and portray what a visit from Theodosius II might be like if one were to occur. It would then, while being neither historical nor scriptural, be valuable in celebrating the Christian church's newfound legitimacy.


Fig. 21 - Moses being summoned

Fig. 22 - Acclamation

Fig. 23 - Man in chlamis

Fig. 24 - Escape from Egypt


Another tall panel (fig. 24) shows three Old Testament scenes without the internal divisions present in other panels. At the top the exodus from Egypt is shown, followed by the drowning of Pharoah. The bottom segment probably depicts Aaron's mastery of the serpent, although the related text (Exodus 7:10) only includes one snake. Daniel's killing of the dragon/serpent is a common image on Christian sarcophagi, but always shows Daniel with the poison. In the scene on this panel, the man on the left - presumably Aaron - controls the snakes with a wand.

The last tall panel can easily be identified as the ascension of Elijah (fig. 25), as described in 2 Kings 2:11-14. We see the cloud, chariot and horses (neither are really "fiery" - maybe they were once painted to indicate such), Elijah in mid air, and Elisha retrieving Elijah's fallen mantle. Not present in the 2nd Kings account is the angel who lifts Elijah by the arm with a long hooked staff (fig. 26). The scene is decidedly Hellenistic, likely influenced by pagan Roman reliefs such as the apotheoses of Sabina (fig. 28) and Antoninus and Faustina (fig. 27).

Fig. 25 - Ascension of Elijah

Fig. 26 - Detail of ascension

Fig. 27 - Apotheosis of Antoninus

Fig. 28 - Apotheosis of Sabina

Fig. 29 - Pilate washes his hands


Fig. 30 - Jesus before judge

Two remaining short panels depict Pilate washing his hands (fig. 29) and a judgment of Jesus (fig. 30). In the former Pilate and his attendant wear fleece robes and provincial boots. As noted by Delbrueck, this is a very odd error in detail, considering the great attention given by artists to clothing in late antiquity. This clothing seems to support an Italo-Gallic origin for the carving, or at least a Mediterranean location of higher elevation. This panel has been heavily restored or altered; the faces of the three forward-facing figures are not original. The cross carried by the figure next to Jesus also appears to be an addition, both based on execution and on composition. It seems unlikely that the original artist would have conceived the scene with the clumsy intersection of the cross bar and the face of an adjacent figure. The reasoning behind such an addition may be the same as that for the possible addition of the nails in the hands of the orants - to reconcile the image with more recent renderings of the same subject.

The man who sits in judgment of Jesus (Fig. 30) is presumably Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57, Mark 14:53, Luke 22:54). His head is clearly not the original. Delbrueck incorrectly sees this scene to be in conflict with the synoptic gospels because Jesus here raises his hand, indicating speech, and appears to address Caiaphas sternly. In the Sanhedrin scenes of the gospels, Jesus does not answer to defend himself against the charge that he claimed that he would destroy the temple. However Jesus does reprimand Caiaphas, in all three synoptics, noting that "I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt 26:64). Given Jesus' speech here, one might see a connection with either of the interpretations (second coming or ascended Christ) of the enigmatic "ascension" panel.


[1] Richard Delbrueck. "Notes on the Wooden Doors of Santa Sabina", The Art Bulletin, Vol. 34, No. 2. (Jun., 1952), pp. 139-145.

[2] Ernst H. Kantorowicz, "The 'King's Advent': And The Enigmatic Panels in the Doors of Santa Sabina," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Dec., 1944), pp. 207-231.

[3] Alexander Coburn Soper. "The Italo-Gallic School of Early Christian Art," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 1938), pp. 145-192.

[4] J. Wiegand, Das altchristliche Hauptportal an der Kirche der hi. Sabina auf dem aventinischen Hiigel in Rom, (Trier, 1900).

[5] The torture of Marsyas (see photo) was a well-known mythical subject of Hellenistic art, that had obvious influence on medieval and renaissance depictions of Jesus on the cross. The image may have also had influence on late antique ideas about Jesus' death.

[6] While the form of the cross, stake, or tree on which Jesus was crucified or hanged may be of little theological consequence (although a heated debate exists between Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics), the way this event was envisioned by early Christians is very significant to early Christian iconography. The earliest non-disputed crucifix symbols in Christian art appear long after other symbols such as the anchor and the fish. A common theory on the absence of crosses in early Christian art involves the idea that crucifixion scenes were thought too gruesome to portray. This does not adequately explain the absence of iconic empty crosses, however.

[7] Portraying the recently-baptized as children or infants was common in ancient Christian art. The writings of Tertullian, Augustine and others also contains descriptions of initiates using the terms, infants, little ones, and children.

[8] Nicholas Staavrinides. Personal communications, Nov. 2006. Many ancient Roman wall paintings seem to depict stage portrayals of scenes from Greek mythology, such as Perseus with the head of Medusa, rather than the event itself.

[9] Jay Raskin. Personal communications, Nov. 2006. Two chapters of Ray's book, The Evolution of Christs And Christianities (2006, ISBN-13: 978-1413497915), deal with this topic.

[10] Ernest T. Dewald. "The Iconography of the Ascension". American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1915), pp. 277-319.

[11] Richard Delbrueck. "The Acclamation Scene on the Doors of Santa Sabina" (in Notes), The Art Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 1949), pp. 215-217.

[12] Charles Rufus Morey. Early Christian Art (Princeton, 1942), p.139.

[13] The celestial globe of creation in proximity to the wands held by Christ and God the Father in Salimbeni's painting create the impression of a heavenly sputnik satellite, which is frequently cited by the UFO crowd as evidence that space aliens visited the earth. That Salimbeni's globe represents the celestial globe and not the earth is obvious from the small spheres representing the sun and the earth.

[14] Walter Lowrie. Art in the Early Church, New York: Pantheon Books, 1947, pp.160-164.

[15] In early apocalyptic writings, it is usually the sign of the cross that precedes Christ, just as the sign of a Roman general, a standard,  precedes him. For example, the Apocalypse of Elijah (Christianized version), cited by Kantorowicz, does not mention a cross as a crucifix, but instead the sign: "when the anointed comes...the sign of the cross shall march before him" (italics mine). Likewise the Epistula Apostulorum states, "the sign of the cross shall go before me." While the Ethiopic fragment, the only fragment of  the Apocalypse of Peter to address the topic, has Christ saying "with my cross going before my face will I come", it is almost certainly derived from the Apocalypse of Elijah, and therefore the omission of the sign was a choice or accident of a secondary author.

[16] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.11.8, and Jerome, Preface to the Commentary on Matthew, both associate the four beasts of the apocalypse with the four writers of the canonical gospels, although they differ on which beast represents which evangelist. Kantorowicz suggests that the order of the four beasts in the four corners of the panel is evidence of the location of its manufacture.

[17] A collection of images from the Rabula (Rabbula) Gospels can be found on the Syriac Orthodox Resources site. The photo shown here (fig. 13) is in the public domain.

[18] S. A. Callisen. "The Iconography of the Cock on the Column. The Art Bulletin", Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun., 1939), pp. 160-178.

[19] Joachim J. Berthier. La porte de Sainte-Sabine a Rome. Etude archéologique, Fribourg, Librairie de l'Université, 1892.

Copyright 2006-2014 William Storage. All rights reserved
Created 10/15/2006
Revised 3/26/2014