V Century Chi Rho Relief from Middle East

Inventory Number: 57214

57214.detail. Chi Rho frangment LO RES

 

This precious decorated lead plate was given to Pope John Paul II by the President of the Republic of Lebanon on March 2, 2001. The gift has greatly enriched the Pio Cristiano Museum collection because it gives important archaeological evidence of primitive Christianity in the Middle East. The 5th Century slab originally made up the side of a lead sarcophagus from the region that is now Syria and Lebanon. Evidence of this type of sarcophagus has also been found in the Western world, especially between France and northern Italy. This sarcophagus demonstrates particularly oriental features, such as the rich “embossed” decoration on all of its sides. The sarcophagi of this period are often found with similar lids: either a curved lid or a flat lid, as is shown here.

This piece is ornately decorated by a niche formed from two Corinthian columns, fitted with bases and supporting an arch. This decorative technique frequently occurs in pieces from this period, particularly  on funerary monuments. The niche was generally used as a cornice for further adornment, increasing the

aesthetic value of the tomb. The majestic architecture and images depicted on the sarcophagi of the 5th century are often interpreted as references to the “Celestial Realm” that awaited the  faithful at the end of their mortal life. At the center of the niche pictured here,  a “Christological monogram” is formed by the combination of Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek. This sign is historically recognized as the one that appeared to Emperor Constantine (306-337) during his prophetic vision.  Since then, the symbol has been used in all artistic representations of ancient Christianity as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ and Christians. Around this central monogram, other Greek letters form the word ΙΧΘΥC (“fish”). These symbols represent the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior!” – further testimony of faith in Christ and the Resurrection. This piece is expected to return on display in the Pio Christian Museum.