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Bill Thayer

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The Sarcophagus of Stilicho


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About the best overall view possible of this curious monument.

To tell the truth, no one really knows what this is.

Toward the front of the nave of Sant' Ambrogio, on the left or gospel side, protected by the grillwork I did my best not to photograph, is a massive stone chest, large enough to hold the remains of several people, and made of at least two Roman sarcophagi which as far as I can tell antedate the Roman general by about two centuries (on checking, I'm pleased to find the guidebooks agree, calling one of them a 3c paleochristian work and giving it a star in its own right: a pity one can't really see it).

In about the right place for a pulpit, it was therefore put to practical use and surmounted by one in the Middle Ages, made of further sculpture from Antiquity with medieval additions; and the whole thing was supported by columns with some particularly good late-Antique capitals. Any feeling of omnium-gatherum about it is justified: the vault of S. Ambrogio collapsed in 1196 and this structure was created five years later from the best recoverable fragments.

Stilicho († August 22, A.D. 408) may or may not ever have been buried here, but this tangled palimpsest of sculpture, half pagan half Christian, of uncertain provenance, hard to access, patrician in character and ultimately somewhat sinister in appearance — reflects him well.

Here then are some appropriately chaotic views of the so‑called Sarcophagus of Stilicho:


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Because of 20c history, swastikas leap to the eye with an unfortunate effect: but the motif, often considered to symbolize the Sun, and even more often purely decorative, is common thruout Greco-Roman and oriental antiquity. (Another Roman example, by-product of a Greek key border in a Mauretanian mosaic, can be seen here; and here's a pair of them on an altar in Britain.)

The central scene on the lower sarcophagus face is almost certainly Jesus teaching his disciples: the scene borrows the common earlier pagan iconography of the wise philosopher; but that, it can't be: the man, young and beardless, is teaching his elders. His chair can be considered a depiction of a bishop's throne (cathedra).


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I want to identify this wonderful medieval version of an Atlantid as Daniel, and not only because of the lions: here's why, even though I'm very likely wrong.

The capital is an outstanding work of Late Antiquity.


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Above the two registers of lions and foliage, the Last Supper. Notice the stiff and serial treatment of the figures characteristic of Lombard sculpture, although this has started to soften already.


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Finally, this pair of images, the one on the right being a detail of the other, of course, could be titled:

"O! for a good telephoto lens. . ."

(I have one now.) The bronze eagle, identifying this as a pulpit, is another outstanding artwork from Late Antiquity.


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Page updated: 25 Mar 03